The Snob, the Rube and the Connoisseur

The Snob, the Rube and the Connoisseur: Sideways and the Legitimation of “Culinary Capital”

Margot Finn
University of Michigan


In this essay, I analyze the critically-acclaimed 2004 film Sideways and its effect on the U.S. wine industry. I argue that part of the film’s popular appeal was its successful negotiation of two desires that often seem contradictory: the desire to appear sophisticated in the realm of food and drink and the desire to avoid seeming pretentious or be branded a “food snob.” Ultimately, Sideways argues that “good taste,” which functions a form of “cultural capital,” is meritocratic. Like all meritocracies, the “meritocracy of taste” obscures the structural differences that make the tastes and practices constructed as valuable and desirable more accessible to some people. It also enhances the pleasures and rewards of having good taste, by constructing “culinary capital” as the result of talent and effort rather than wealth and privilege. I argue that the “Sideways Effect”—an increase in the demand for and price of Pinot Noir and decrease in the demand for and price of Merlot following the film’s successful showing in theaters—is evidence that the film reinforced exclusive taste hierarchies rather than promoting an inclusive ideology of “good taste.”

I. The “Sideways Effect” and the Meritocracy of Taste


Saying the right things and performing the correct gestures while selecting and consuming food and drink are far more than matters of personal taste or individual predilection. Certain kinds of culinary[i] knowledge and practice are constructed as valuable and desirable, or the markers of “good taste,” which often forms the basis for social judgments about intelligence and moral character. One of the opening scenes of the 2004 film Sideways, written and directed by Alexander Payne, illustrates how knowledge about wine functions as an indication of “good taste” and sophistication. Shortly after the opening credits, Miles and Jack, both middle-aged white men, are driving through a posh Los Angeles neighborhood in Miles’s Saab convertible. It has already been established that Jack is getting married soon and that, as part of his duties as best man, Miles is taking him to Santa Barbara to “send [him] off in style” with a week devoted to drinking wine, eating fine food, golfing, and enjoying the picturesque Santa Ynez Valley, where some of the most expensive and sought-after wines in California are produced. However, Miles has no intention of waiting until they get to wine country to get the party started.

When Jack complains that Miles was late picking him up at his in-laws’ house and accuses him of being hungover, Miles says, “Okay, there was a tasting last night, yes, but I wanted to get us something nice for the ride up. Check out the box,” gesturing to the back seat. Jack selects a bottle of bubbly and begins to open it despite Miles’ protests that it’s not chilled. As it erupts from the bottle, only mostly into the stemware that Jack seems to produce out of nowhere, Miles laments, “Half of it…gone!” Jack hands him the first glass—a champagne flute—and then pours one of his own—a regular wine glass. “Hey, shut up, okay?” Jack says, “Here’s to a great week. Come on.” Miles sighs and then nods, clinking Jack’s raised glass and saying,“Yes, absolutely. Despite your crass behavior, I’m actually glad we’re getting this time together.” Jack takes a sip and then does a double-take: “Man, that’s tasty.” Miles nods and says, “That’s 100% Pinot Noir, single vineyard. They don’t even make it anymore.” Jack looks at his glass again, quizzically, and says, “Pinot Noir…then how come it’s white?” (fig. 1). “Oh Jesus,” Miles scoffs, “Don’t ask questions like that up in wine country. They’ll think you’re some kind of dumb shit, okay?” (Payne 2004).

As this brief exchange suggests, expectations about the kinds of culinary knowledge people “ought” to have vary according to social context; Miles implies that the expectations in “wine country” are likely to be more exacting. Acknowledging the contingent and contextual nature of “sophistication” might seem to undermine the power of those expectations; for example, the audience might identify with Jack’s confusion about the fact that Pinot Noir grapes can produce a golden, effervescent wine and question or reject the idea that admitting that would make someone a “dumb shit.” However, the scene ultimately reinforces the idea that there are superior wines and that it is a good thing to know how to select and appreciate them.

Figure 1 “Pinot Noir…then how come it’s white?” (Screen shot by the author. Sideways. DVD. Directed by Alexander Payne. 2004. Century City, CA: 20th Century Fox, 2005.)

The scene is the first of many that align Jack’s ignorance about and indifference to the proper rituals of wine consumption with his “crass behavior.” The disclosure that the bottle he opens over Miles’ protests is no longer in production encourages the audience to sympathize with Miles, whose concern about the bottle’s quality being compromised is more understandable if it’s unreproducible. Jack’s reaction to the wine suggests that Miles truly does have good taste, which even a novice like Jack can appreciate. Both men exploit the prevailing social sanction given to wine as a form of legitimate culture—Miles to deflects Jack’s criticism about his hangover by saying, “there was a tasting” and that he wanted to “get us something nice” (implying that he had loftier goals than simply getting drunk that involved some consideration of Jack) and Jack in his  apparent lack of concern about the legal or moral implications of drinking alcohol while driving (which also shows that he wasn’t really concerned about Miles, just irritated that he had to spend time with his future in-laws). The fact that they ultimately arrive safely at their destination further downplays the morally-vexed issues of drinking and alcoholism and works to portray their interest in wine as the more socially-acceptable pursuit of unique and desirable culinary experiences.

Wine has not always been held in high enough esteem in the U.S. to excuse morally questionable behaviors like drinking to excess or drinking while driving or to serve as a marker of sophistication. From the repeal of Prohibition through the 1950s, fortified wines favored by “winos” looking for the cheapest way to get drunk made up a large segment of the market and table wine was primarily consumed by immigrant families.[ii] The portrayal of wine in Sideways and the film’s popularity reflect—and may have helped solidify—the dramatic shift in the status and meaning of wine in American popular culture in the second half of the Twentieth Century. In recent decades, the increasing consumption of table wine is often cited as a key piece of evidence that America’s national cuisine and taste has been improved and become more sophisticated in recent decades. Especially after a 1991 60 Minutes episode on the “French paradox” that claimed the reason French people have lower rates of heart disease despite consuming more saturated fat than Americans, wine acquired a widespread association with culinary sophistication and good health.[iii]

Within months of its release, Sideways was widely hailed as a “surprise hit,”[iv] and much of the credit for the film’s success has been attributed to Alexander Payne’s writing and direction and the performances of four lead actors. However the comments about the film in online forums like Metacritic and the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) suggest that the focus on wine, which some critics suggested should have hampered its mainstream success, was actually a large part of its appeal. One IMDb user who rates the film 10/10 says, “where else will you learn how to taste wine properly, have a good laugh and relate to two of the most charming losers ever seen on film – all at once?”[v] For some viewers who didn’t find the losers so charming, the wine theme seems to have been the only appeal. Another IMDb user registered as “Jaywillingham” slammed the film with a 1/10 rating, but says he “did enjoy the shots of wine country and wine tasting 101.”[vi] User-submitted reviews were far more likely than film critics to describe the movie as slow or boring, but not generally because of the wine. For example, a comment on Metacritic from “Patrick C.” calls Sideways “boring as hell,” but then says, “the movie’s wine theme is actually pretty interesting and not only do you learn about all sorts of wine, each character takes on their own type.”[vii] Perhaps the best evidence that Sideways affected what many viewers knew—or thought they knew—about wine is how the film seems to have affected the demand and price of the two varietals that featured most prominently in the film: Pinot Noir, Miles’s favorite, and Merlot, which he despises.

Between October 24, 2004—two days after the film’s limited opening weekend—and July 2, 2005, grocery store sales of Pinot Noir jumped 18% (MacKay et al 2009, 13). In February 2005, just a month after the film’s wide release, ACNeilsen reported that the percentage of households buying Merlot was down 2 percent compared to a similar 12-week period a year before.[viii] Anecdotal reports link the trend to the film—an Ohio wine store owner was quoted in the Sunday Times of London saying, “People have been coming in and asking for the Sideways grape, even if they don’t quite remember its name.”[ix] A Seattle sommelier interviewed in February 2005 said he heard at least two or three customers a night mention the movie, and others were suddenly sheepish about ordering Merlot, prefacing their order, “’I’m know I’m not supposed to…’.”[x] The idea that Pinot Noir is desirable and Merlot is “uncool” seemingly caught on, even with people who hadn’t seen the film. Without mentioning Sideways, Katie Couric said on “The Today Show” that she heard she’s not supposed to drink Merlot.[xi] Drinking or admitting to liking a Merlot even became something of a faux pas. In an interview published in The New York Times, Virginia Madsen, the actress who plays Maya in Sideways, described a recent visit to the Los Angeles restaurant Pastis: “’They fooled me,’ she said. ‘They brought out this wine and we were like, this is really good, thinking it was the pinot as usual.’ It turned out to be a merlot: horrors. ‘If you saw it on a menu, you’d throw it across a room. It was a merlot from Malibu.’”[xii]

Figure 2 Volume of red wine sales indexed to their 1999 sales volume. “Promoted” includes any wine advertised in mailers, featured in in-store displays, or offered at temporary price reductions of 5% or more. Regression analysis showed that the differences in the growth rate of Merlot and Pinot Noir were statistically significant for both promoted and non-promoted wine. (Cueller et al. 2008. “The Sideways Effect: A Test for Changes in the Demand for Merlot and Pinot Noir Wines.” American Association of Wine Economists Working Papers No. 25   < AAWE_WP25.pdf> (accessed July 6, 2009).

Seeking to evaluate the “so-called ‘Sideways Effect’,” a team of economists at Sonoma State University led by Steven Cuellar examined the sales volume and price of 750 ML bottles of Merlot, Pinot Noir and several varietals that didn’t feature prominently in Sideways—Cabernet and Syrah—before and after the film’s release. Based on annual scan data from U.S. retail chains from 1999 through 2008, they found that until 2004, the sales growth rate of all the varietals increased at a similar rate, with Pinot Noir at a consistently higher growth rate than Merlot or the “Control” varietals.  After 2004, Merlot sales slowed or even declined slightly while Pinot Noir sales increased precipitously (see fig. 2). Based on a regression analysis, they found that the change in the demand for both varietals was statistically significant and that they varied significantly from the growth rate of the control group, with Merlot growing less and Pinot Noir growing more than Cabernet and Syrah. They also found a decrease in the price of Merlot and increase in the price of Pinot Noir consistent with a decrease in the demand for the former and an increase in the demand for the latter. They conclude, “all the results are consistent with the theory that Sideways [italics added] had a negative impact on the consumption of Merlot, while increasing the consumption of Pinot Noir.”[xiii]

One explanation for the “Sideways Effect,” which follows from the idea that the film was educational as well as entertaining, is that Sideways enlightened its audience. That theory resonates with the widespread belief that America has undergone a “food revolution.” Both popular and scholarly accounts of 20th C. U.S. foodways generally portray the rise of “gourmet” eating, “natural” foods, diverse ethnic cuisines, and health-consciousness as a progressive rebellion against the bland, homogeneous, unhealthy industrial food developed during and after the World Wars.[xiv] According to the enlightenment theory, the “Sideways Effect” would be evidence that the film taught Americans to be better wine drinkers by educating them about how bad Merlot is—or at least a lot of the Merlot they were previously buying—and how much better Pinot Noir, a varietal many had never have tried before, could be.

Another theory, which is implicit in the way several wine critics have responded to the “Sideways Effect,” is that the phenomenon is essentially an example of mass media brainwashing. The premise behind this second theory is that Pinot Noir—or at least most of the Pinot Noir Americans have been buying since Sideways came out—isn’t inherently better than Merlot. Thus, any effect on the sales of both varietals indicates that Sideways duped a lot of people into thinking that the varietal was a reliable heuristic when actually they were just buying into the hype, and possibly spending more money on inferior wine. For example, Eric Asimov, who writes about wine for The New York Times, argued in 2007 that the “Sideways Effect” had been exaggerated and the demand for and appreciation of “good” Merlot had never been substantially harmed. According to Asimov, the only thing the film had done was flood the market with a “growing sea of bad Pinot Noir.”[xv]

The second theory directly contradicts the first—it posits that the “Sideways Effect” is evidence of Americans’ ignorance about wine, not an enlightenment. However, both theories rely on the ideology of “good taste.” The idea that increasing Pinot Noir consumption is evidence of enlightenment relies on the belief that Pinot Noir is, at least in general, better than Merlot. The idea that varietals make a poor heuristic and educated consumers would not have been duped reinforces a more complicated and exclusive set of criteria for evaluating and appreciating  wine. I argue that the “Sideways Effect” is neither the result of the audience being enlightened nor duped, but instead reflects the film’s successful negotiation between the desire to display “good taste” and partake in the pleasures of food and drink that have been culturally constructed as positive or desirable in America and the equally undesirable threat of seeming pretentious. Sideways ultimately reinforces what I call the “meritocracy of taste,” or the idea that there are objectively better-tasting foods and wines, that anyone can learn to be a true connoisseur with the right combination of skill and effort, and that it is a valuable and admirable thing to do so.

As a film centered on wine, one of the primary icons of “gourmet” food, Sideways and the “meritocracy of taste” offers a case study for how mass media texts have worked to promote and legitimate the American “food revolution.” First, I will situate my reading of Sideways and the concept of the “meritocracy of taste” in the literature about how food and food practices function as cultural capital. Then, I will examine the representation of the three types of wine consumer in the film Sideways: the Snob, the Rube, and the Connoisseur. Although the film parodies and ultimately rejects as undesirable both the ignorance about wine represented by Jack and wine snobbery based on arcane rituals and class pretension, exemplified by Miles, it offers a third, idealized option in the character of Maya, Miles’s love interest. Through Maya, the film suggests that “good taste” represents sophistication and passion, not privilege. Like all meritocracies, the “meritocracy of taste” obscures the structural differences that make the tastes and practices constructed as valuable and desirable—in this case, knowledge about wine—more accessible to some people. It also enhances the pleasures and rewards of performing “good taste,” by constructing the foods and practice that serve as “culinary capital” as the result of talent and effort rather than wealth and privilege.

II. “Culinary Capital” and Becoming Different by Consuming Differently

Miles’s concern about how Jack’s ignorance about wine might, if revealed, inspire the wine sophisticates in Santa Barbara to think of him as a “dumb shit” (likely tainting Miles by association) is a good example of how food can form the basis of social hierarchies not only through material inequality—i.e. poor people frequently cannot afford nutritious food or enough of it—but also through the hidden or “soft” forms of domination that operate at the level of aesthetic taste, habitual behaviors, and social dispositions. As Pierre Bourdieu famously argued in Distinction, “Taste classifies and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar ” (1986, 6). According to Bourdieu’s survey of the habitus—or lasting, inherited schemes of perception, thought and action—of different socioeconomic classes in 1960s and 1970s France, class-specific preferences for certain kinds of food reflect their investment in being versus seeming: the working classes are primarily concerned with being and substance or the material reality of food, the middle classes are less concerned with being and more concerned with seeming, and the bourgeoisie are concerned almost exclusively with seeming. Thus, according to Bourdieu, “the working-class meal is characterized by plenty… Food is claimed as a material reality, a nourishing substance which sustains the body and gives strength.” At the other end of the spectrum, “the bourgeoisie is concerned to eat with all due form…. with quality more important than quantity” (1984, 194-9). Miles’s concern about form and quality might appear, at least at first, like a quintessential illustration of the bourgeois preoccupation with seeming and the rituals of fine dining over the materiality of food. However, in terms of both his income and upbringing, Miles is more middle-class than bourgeois.

On their way to Santa Barbara, Miles insists on stopping at his mother’s house, ostensibly because it’s her birthday. She lives in what appears to be a small condo with mismatched furnishings and tacky, outdated bric-a-brac on the walls, indicative of a suburban middle or lower-middle class lifestyle (see fig 4). He promises Jack they won’t stay long, but when she offers them food, he immediately says, “Yeah, I’m hungry,” and then feigns helplessness as she insists on them staying the night. Jack’s backhanded compliment on the dinner she serves them on mismatched plates, “This is delicious Mrs. Raymond, absolutely delicious…is this chicken?” suggests that Miles didn’t get his epicurean tendencies from her. His real purpose there is revealed when he sneaks upstairs to her bedroom, shooting glances behind him and through the window to make sure Jack is keeping her distracted, and then roots around in her dresser until he finds a can of Ajax. He expertly twists off the bottom and a roll of hundred dollar bills wrapped in rubber bands slides out. He peels off at least a thousand dollars before re-wrapping the bills and returning them to the can. The habitual nature of his reliance on his mother to support his expensive tastes is further reinforced when he returns to the table and she asks in an indiscreet whisper, “Do you need some money?”(Payne 2004).

Figure 3 Mrs. Raymond’s living room (Screen shot by the author. Sideways. DVD. Directed by Alexander Payne. 2004. Century City, CA: 20th Century Fox, 2005.)

Bourdieu’s taxonomy of different classes’ concerns with “seeming” versus “being” doesn’t account especially well for people who, like Miles, have acquired tastes that conflict with their practical economic circumstances or the way they were brought up. According to Bourdieu, food habits and preferences, like less literal forms of taste, “are organized according to… the social space determined by volume and composition of capital,” and “there is no neutral viewpoint” between the belief that “substance” takes precedence, which structures working class meals, and the upper class belief that appearances and form are paramount (1984, 199-208).[xvi] Bourdieu also argues the influence of social origin (measured by father’s occupation) is strongest in the “personal” realms “such as clothing, furniture and cookery,” while education has leveling effects on preferences in “legitimate areas such as painting or music” (13). Food preferences, then, and the relative importance of being versus seeming should be very well predicted by the class one is born into, especially for people who remain in the same class. Miles, on the other hand, has neither the background nor the income to support or justify his gourmet tastes.

Miles’s adoption of an aesthetic disposition towards food and wine associated with a higher class status is explained better by the process that historical anthropologist Sidney Mintz calls “intensification.” In Sweetness and Power, Mintz’s seminal account how sugar became a staple food and drug of the industrial working class in Britain by the nineteenth century, he argues that sugar was initially seen as a precious and rare “spice” and used only by the very wealthy. Like the 20th C. French bourgeoisie described in Distinction, the 17th C. British upper classes Mintz describes were very concerned about “seeming.” According to Mintz, the rich “derived an intense pleasure from their access to sugar—the purchase, display, consumption and waste of sucrose in various forms” (1985: 154). As sugar became more widely available, practices like having a wedding cake “complete with dragees, congratulatory script, hardened sugar figures…percolated down through society” (152). Mintz further argues that the availability of sugar and its association with the wealthy would not have been sufficient to inspire people to make its use a part of their daily lives, hospitality rituals, and celebrations. The working classes took to sugar because it fulfilled needs created by broader historical shifts:

Sugar, tea, and like products represented the growing freedom of ordinary folks, their opportunity to participate in the elevation of their own standards of living…. Tobacco, sugar, and tea were the first objects within capitalism that conveyed with their use the complex idea that one could become different by consuming differently. This idea has less to do with nutrition or primates or sweet tooths…. it is closely connected to England’s fundamental transformation from a hierarchical, status-based, medieval society to a social-democratic, capitalist, and industrial society (183-5).[xvii]

Sugar offered the working classes a material and symbolic way of improving their lives; its adoption relied on the belief that people could becoming different by consuming differently, a novel concept ushered into being by the rise of capitalism.

Although Bourdieu himself does not offer an account of how the lower classes emulate upper class tastes and practices or of how tastes change over time, he did provide the theoretical grounding and a vocabulary for other scholars seeking to describe those phenomena, which Mintz’s account dates to the emergence of capitalism. In particular, Bourdieu’s assertion that symbolic practices work to reinforce and reproduce social hierarchies and thus function like material wealth as a form of power helps to explain why the lower classes might want to emulate the rich in the first place. This idea is articulated in his term “cultural capital,” which insists on the real value of social dispositions and symbolic behaviors. In an essay on the class ideology promoted by representations of Julia Child and Martha Stewart, Kathleen LeBesco and Peter Naccarato build on the idea of “cultural capital” by introducing the term “culinary capital.” According to LeBesco and Nacarrato, “while Julia Child began from the position of class privilege to which Martha Stewart aspired, they share the recognition that regardless of actual economic conditions, one may use food and food practices as vehicles for performing a desired class identity” (2007, 235). That use of food and food practices represents “culinary capital.”

LeBesco and Nacarrato depart from Bourdieu in their argument that “culinary capital” is largely illusory. Bourdieu argued that “cultural capital” was a real form of capital that was “convertible, on certain conditions, into economic capital” and just as critical to the structure and functioning of hierarchies as economic and social capital (1986b, 47). LeBesco and Nacarrato, on the other hand, suggest that the acquisition and performance of a desired class identity through food and food practices merely creates an illusion of mobility and that “culinary capital” is fundamentally separate from the “reality of their [consumers’] economic and social position.”  For example, they argue that Martha Stewart’s exclusive line of products for K-Mart is ironic:

While one buys her products at K-Mart, one uses them to create and sustain the identity of a person who would never shop there. Thus the consumer’s class status (and the broader class hierarchy) is maintained while said consumer is able to fantasize about an imagined class mobility as she uses her Martha Stewart products to perform an identity that she has not achieved. (2007, 227)

LeBesco and Nacarrato suggest that although the consumer might think she was creating and sustaining a particular class identity, she would be wrong. Her actual class identity, which must therefore be based on something other than her performance of “culinary capital,” cannot be changed and on the contrary is maintained by the fantasy of mobility enabled by the Martha Stewart product line. In other words, she can never become different by consuming differently.[xviii]

Although their analysis of the popular appeal and ideological functions of Julia Child and Martha Stewart is astute and compelling, it’s unclear why they’ve chosen to identify the use of  food and food practices to promote the “illusion of class mobility” as a form of “capital.” It’s true that watching lifestyle programming cannot boost someone into a higher income bracket, even if the skills and knowledge they acquire enable them to produce things that seem like luxuries or items they could not afford to purchase ready-made. Nonetheless, given that “culinary capital,” like all forms of cultural capital, is socially-constructed, it’s unclear what would distinguish food and food practices with “real” value from the “illusions” offered by the likes of Child and Stewart.[xix] Furthermore—as they note—the pleasure that audiences derive from lifestyle programming is “an important site for the discursive production of power and resistance” and Martha Stewart’s fans in particular are attracted to the “fantasy of an upper-class lifestyle attainable through hard work and attention to detail rather than wealth” (Mason and Myers 2001, qtd. in LeBesco and Nacarrato 2007, 236). Notably, rather than suggesting the fans think they cannot attain the lifestyle modeled by Stewart, the fans believe they can actually attain that lifestyle, even without becoming wealthy. To insist that they cannot, as LeBesco and Nacarrato do, reduces or conflates the “upper class lifestyle” with material capital. I argue that “culinary capital” is a source of real value, pleasure, and power, whether or not it is usually sufficient on its own to achieve the desired class status.[xx]

What LeBesco and Naccarato seem to be identifying when they claim that food and food practices are “vehicles for performing an illusory identity” is not actually that the identity[xxi] is illusory but that the ideology that everyone has access to that identity is a myth—or rather a set of myths that I call the “meritocracy of taste.” The problem is not that “culinary capital” is false or that the construction of some foods and practices as valuable inherently functions as a form of “false consciousness.” The problem is that the meritocratic ideology promoted by lifestyle programming—and films like Sideways—creates and sustains the myths that some foods are objectively “better,” that it is an inherently good and admirable thing to be able to identify and appreciate them, and that the knowledge and skill required to do so is available to anyone willing to cultivate it. The fact that the meritocracy of taste is a myth doesn’t make “culinary capital” any more illusory than the meritocracy of wealth makes material capital illusory. To the extent that the meritocracy of taste enables people to aspire to and embody a desirable identity—to become different by consuming differently—it is a real source of power and value and might even work as a democratizing or leveling force. However, to the extent that it obscures the differences in access and disposition to high-status foods and food practices, it reinforces class hierarchy.

This duality is the focus of a recent book on food and social class called Foodies Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape (2010). Sociologists Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann argue that the term “foodie” embodies the tension between the two key terms in their title: democracy and distinction, which they conceptualize as “two competing poles in the gourmet foodscape.” They describe them as follows: “A democratic pole that eschews elite cultural standards and valorizes the cultural products of “everyday” non-elite people, and a pole of distinction that continues to valorize standards that are rare, economically inaccessible, and representing significant amounts of cultural capital” (2010, 61). According to Johnston and Baumann, the tension between these poles explains why foodies do contradictory things and makes them different from the “gourmets” or “epicures” of the past who were concerned only with distinction. Like their predecessors, foodies seek out the most expensive meals and ingredients, but they also seek out the food of the common people and idealize “authenticity” and “exoticism,”[xxii] which Johnston and Baumann argue are “reasonable and potentially egalitarian criteria—not snobbish” (2010, 37). Although they acknowledge that even the search for authenticity and exoticism may be used as strategies for deriving status, they suggest that it may also serve genuinely democratic aims and insist that the defining characteristic of foodies is their omnivorousness, which is “a strategy that is opposed to snobbery” (Ibid.).

Based on my reading of the film Sideways and its effect on the U.S. wine market, I  propose that the relationship between democracy and distinction may be less antagonistic or contradictory than Johnston and Baumann suggest. Rather than conceptualizing democracy and distinction as conflicting ideals in tension with one another, I argue that the conceptually egalitarian meritocracy of taste only appears to be open to all kinds of foods and all kinds of people in order to legitimate a taste hierarchy that is actually narrow and exclusive and works primarily to distinguish social classes, not enable class mobility. In other words, democracy is the illusion that enables people to use food as a form of cultural capital in an era of normative egalitarianism.[xxiii] Ultimately, this aligns more with LeBesco and Nacarrato’s argument about the ideological work of lifestyle programming, although I am using their term “culinary capital” in a slightly different way by insisting that it is real capital and not merely illusory. In addition to the increasingly widespread pursuit of the “authentic,” the “meritocracy of taste” manifests in the idea having of a good and trainable palate and the construction an ideal of genuine “connoisseurship” based on the appreciation of food for food’s sake as opposed to bad or inauthentic “food snobbery” based on conspicuous consumption and class pretension. Sideways reinforces this meritocracy primarily through the contrast between how Miles, Jack, and Maya drink and talk about wine.

III. Neither a Rube Nor a Food Snob Be

Despite Miles’s best efforts to educate Jack, he does turn out to be a rube. At times, Jack might seem to be a proxy for the audience, modeling both their confusion (“How come it’s white?”) and occasional annoyance at Miles’s fussiness. In their first visit to a tasting room, Miles explains the full ritual: holding the glass up to the light, tipping the glass to evaluate the color and opacity, sniffing, swirling, and sniffing again. Jack follows along, finally asking—as the audience at that point may also be wondering—“When do we drink?” (Payne 2004). However, in more critical ways, identification with Jack is discouraged. His ignorance is the butt of many of the jokes in the film, and in most cases, the viewer gets to be “in” on the joke by virtue of knowing more than him. For example, even viewers who might not know how or why to aerate  wine will probably know, as Jack apparently doesn’t, that it’s unseemly to down the tasting pour like a shot of cheap tequila (see fig. 4). At the end of the scene, Miles notices that Jack is chewing gum, which he must have had in his mouth throughout the entire tasting. So Jack is not only guilty of failing to adhere to rituals that might be seen as stuffy or pretentious, he also fails to do even the small, obvious things that might enable him to appreciate the wine for anything more than its alcohol content, like removing the gum from his mouth.

Figure 4 “When do we drink?” “Now.” (Screen shot by the author. Sideways. DVD. Directed by Alexander Payne. 2004. Century City, CA: 20th Century Fox, 2005.)

Sympathy with Jack is further discouraged by his general boorishness, womanizing, and callous treatment of Miles. Although Jack exudes confidence, and introduces himself as an “actor,” it turns out that aside from a bit part on a daytime soap opera a long time ago, the only work he can get is reading the disclaimers at the end of commercials. At breakfast the first morning after their arrival, Jack leers at their young waitress, and declares that his best man’s gift to Miles is going to be to get him laid despite Miles’s protests that he’d “rather have a knife” (Ibid.). The next morning, when Miles lays out a plan for the day that involves another series of wine tastings, Jack explodes: “I am going to get my nut on this trip, Miles. And you are not going to fuck it up for me with all your depression and anxiety and neg-head downer shit…. I am going to get laid before I settle down on Saturday. Do you read me?” (Ibid.). Although Miles’s plan might have been selfishly oriented towards his own interests, Jack’s rejection of those plans on the grounds that he wants to get laid are even less admirable. Jack quickly achieves his goal,  getting involved with a sultry wine pourer named Stephanie without telling her about his upcoming marriage. Miles is shown golfing alone and being exiled from the hotel room while Jack and Stephanie have loud, frequent sex or pal around with her daughter. Crucially, even after Jack is found out, and Stephanie breaks his nose in a fit of rage, he flirts his way into bed with another woman the very same night. Finally, in order to buttress the excuse he plans to give his fiancée for returning with a bandaged nose, he deliberately drives Miles’s car into a tree. As the film’s caricature of the Rube, Jack is utterly unredeemable—a blundering jerk who thinks only about himself.

However, the film doesn’t simply portray Miles and his superior culinary knowledge as unequivocally preferable to Jack’s idiocy. During the opening credits, Miles goes into a coffee shop and orders a triple espresso, The New York Times and a spinach croissant, which he pronounces “kwa-san” (‘krwas-ᾶ) rather than the Americanized “kreh-sont” (krə-‘sänt)

Asking for The New York Times (in California, no less) rather than just grabbing one off the rack and affecting a French accent make his order not only stereotypically elitist but also highly performative—he’s not just seeking out the refined pleasures he happens to enjoy, he’s looking to impress the people around him with his taste. Later, his histrionic refusal to drink Merlot and his insistence that he smells in a glass of wine “the faintest soupçon of like asparagus and just a flutter of a, like a, nutty Edam cheese” are played for laughs, just like Jack’s gum chewing (Ibid.). As he squints with concentration to discern those subtle flavors, the camera focuses on Jack’s incredulous expression (see fig. 5).

Figure 5 “The faintest soupçon of like asparagus and just a flutter of a, like a, nutty Edam cheese” (Screen shot by the author. Sideways. DVD. Directed by Alexander Payne. 2004. Century City, CA: 20th Century Fox, 2005.)

Additionally, the fact that Miles has to steal from his mother to afford the vacation not only establishes that his “sophisticated” tastes are a form of pompous posturing, it makes him an archetypal loser. He’s a snob in the classically pejorative sense: “one who meanly or vulgarly admires and seeks to imitate, or associate with, those of superior rank or wealth; one who wishes to be regarded as a person of social importance” (OED).[xxiv]

Like Jack’s ignorance about food, Miles’ food snobbery corresponds with his other character flaws. The lies he tells to Jack and his mother about the reason for their detour to her house are just extensions of his constant attempts to delude everyone, including himself, about how pathetic his life is by pretending to be a sophisticate. His love of wine is repeatedly revealed to be largely a flimsy disguise for his use of alcohol to escape from his failures, a dependence bordering on alcoholism rather than a refined hobby. He insists they walk to distant vineyards so as not to have to “hold back” and plans their tasting room visits so “the more [they] drink the closer [they] get to the motel” (Ibid.). After Jack accidentally lets it slip that Miles’s ex-wife has remarried, Miles guzzles an entire bottle while Jack chases him through the vineyards trying to stop him. Later, at dinner with Stephanie and Maya, Miles drinks so much he slips into a dark mood and excuses himself to “drunk dial” his ex-wife from the restaurant pay phone and passive-aggressively slur at her that she doesn’t have to worry about running into him at Jack’s wedding because he’s decided not to go. Her initial confusion and concern over being awoken by his call fades into a weary, “Oh Miles. You’re drunk,” suggesting perhaps that his drinking habits played a role in their break-up, one of his many failures (Ibid.).

In one especially telling scene, Miles gets so desperate for a drink, he actually drops the pretense of wine snobbery. Mid-way through a visit to a tasting room at a big commercial vineyard whose wine he describes as “rancid tar and turpentine bullshit,” he receives a voicemail alert. He walks into the parking lot to listen to the message, which turns out to be from his literary agent. She says that the publisher who had been interested in his novel has decided to pass and that she doesn’t think she’ll be able to find another one. Devastated, Miles marches back into the tasting room, steps up to the bar and demands a pour. He downs it, just like Jack at the first tasting room, and says, “Hit me again.” He downs the second just as quickly and exasperatedly asks the pourer for a full glass, offering to pay. When the man refuses, telling him first that “this is not a bar, it’s a tasting room” and then suggesting that he buy a bottle and go drink it in the parking lot, Miles grabs the bottle out of the man’s hand and fills his glass nearly to the brim. The pourer grabs the glass and they struggle over it, spilling the wine in the process. Miles is momentarily dejected but then glances at the spit bucket sitting on the bar—full of the expectorated tastings of dozens of strangers. He grabs it, and pours it into his mouth (and all over his face and shirt) as the other people in the tasting room groan in disgust (see fig. 6).

Figure 6 “Hit me again” (Screen shot by the author. Sideways. DVD. Directed by Alexander Payne. 2004. Century City, CA: 20th Century Fox, 2005.)

Rather than being portrayed as enviable sophistication, Miles’s “upper class” tastes and habits are portrayed as ridiculous pedantry at best and alcoholism in denial at worst. His drunken escapades drive as many of the film’s moments of outlandish farce as Jack’s libido. Thus, rather than serving as the character foil he initially seems to be, Jack turns out to be a double for Miles. They are both selfish, pathetic losers who lie and hurt the women in their lives and delude themselves about who they really are. Note the similarity between the framing of the shots in figures 4 and 5: in the tasting room scene that serves to introduce us to both of their wine personalities, Jack and Miles are mirror images and Miles’s posturing is portrayed as equally ludicrous and undesirable as Jack’s boorishness. The difference between them is that whereas Jack remains the same to the end, Miles is allowed to evolve. In fact, the resolution of the film depends on his redemption, which is also represented by a portrayal of him drinking wine.

IV. The Good Connoisseur

Before Miles’s redemption, the film illustrates what an ideal model of wine connoisseurship that’s neither ignorant nor pretentious might look like in Maya. In a pair of monologues almost exactly mid-way through the film that draw attention to themselves both by their length and also because they ooze significance through their extended use of wine-as-metaphor, Miles explains why he loves Pinot Noir and then Maya explains why she loves wine in general. Although the scene appears to be a moment of touching connection between the characters—they’re alone on a porch at night, lit warmly from the glow of the house and gaze into each others eyes as they speak, the juxtaposition of their attitudes towards wine primarily emphasizes how different they are.

First, Maya asks Miles to explain his fondness for Pinot Noir, which as she notes is “like a thing with [him].” He says he likes it because because it’s “thin-skinned, temperamental… not a survivor like Cabernet,” but if carefully nurtured by someone who “really takes the time to understand its potential… its flavors, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and… ancient on the planet” (Ibid.). The description is a thinly-veiled portrait of Miles as he sees himself: unique, fragile and misunderstood but full of unrealized potential. After he trails off, he says, “What about you”? Whereas Maya’s question was specific and reflected that she had paid attention to him, his is an afterthought. “What about me?” She asks to clarify, looking a little surprised that he’s even asked. “I don’t know, why are you into wine?” he offers, shrugging. She initially credits her ex-husband, who she says had a “big sort of show-off cellar.” She continues, sotto voice:

Maya: Then, I discovered that I had a really sharp palate. And the more I drank, the more I liked what it made me think about.

Miles: Like what?

Maya: Like what a fraud he was. [Miles laughs and says “Wow” or “ow” uncomfortably] No, [she laughs too] I like to think about the life of wine, how its a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing, how the sun was shining that summer or if it rained…all the people who tended and picked the grapes, and if it’s an old wine how many of them must be dead by now…how every time I open a bottle it’s going to taste different than if I had opened it on any other day because a bottle of wine is constantly evolving and gaining complexity, that is, ’til it peaks…and it tastes so fucking good.” (Ibid.)

Maya’s love of wine is rooted in the wine itself—the grapes and people who picked them, the weather and the weight of history represented by the time it takes to ferment, and especially it tastes. Unlike Miles, she doesn’t invoke any superlatives or express any concern about what anyone else thinks about the wine she likes; instead, she embraces the diversity represented by the fact that the same bottle will taste different on different days. She acknowledges that every bottle has a peak, but also suggests that the unique characteristics of a bottle on the day it’s opened, whatever day that is, are what she’s interested in and implies that every bottle is a living thing worth celebrating. Miles, on the other hand, dismisses Cabernet, which can “grow anywhere and thrive even when it’s neglected” as “prosaic.” Most importantly, unlike Miles and her ex-husband, Maya has no apparent interest in showing off so she cannot be a “fraud.” Her love of wine is based on what wine makes her think about and how much she enjoys the taste, not what she hopes it will make other people think about her. Miles’s uncomfortable laughter exposes his guilty conscience; her genuine love of wine for wine’s sake shows him for the self-obsessed snob he is.

The film also implies that Maya has a better palate than Miles, or at least that her perceptions are less muddled by the desire to impress people or just get drunk. Immediately before the scene with the monologues, she and Miles are talking in Stephanie’s kitchen where they’ve just opened a bottle of wine to share. Miles takes a sip and immediately intones, “Wow, that’s nice, that’s really good.” He swirls the glass and continues, “Need to give it a minute, but that’s really tasty. How ’bout you?” Maya looks thoughtful and shakes her head: “I think they overdid it a little. Too much alcohol, it overwhelms the fruit.” “Huh,” Miles says and takes another sip. Then, he praises her assessment: “Yeah, yeah, I’d say you were right on the money. Very good.” She also immediately recognizes, based on the vintage, that the bottle he names as the prize in his wine collection, a 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc, is “peaking,” and urges him to drink it before it begins to decline in quality. However, she quickly notes that she “read that somewhere,” exhibiting an appealing humility by crediting her sources. When Miles says he’s been waiting for a special occasion, and that it was originally intended for his ten-year wedding anniversary, Maya replies that the day you open a bottle like that, the wine itself is the occasion. Once again, Miles is hung up on an ideal about who he is that he can’t live up to while Maya advocates for the wine on its own merits.

Miles is ultimately redeemed by doing exactly what she says, and drinking his Chateau Cheval Blanc with what may be the single most powerful icon of lowbrow, homogenous, American fast food: a burger. After speaking to his ex-wife at Jack’s wedding and finding out that she’s pregnant, he drives off in the opposite direction of the cars heading from the church to the reception site. He runs up the stairs to his tiny, cluttered bachelor pad and roots around at the bottom of a closet. The film cuts to a shot of the register at an unidentified fast food restaurant. The camera slowly pans around the room full of overweight people in sweatpants shuffling around in the unflattering light and slowly zooms in on Miles, sitting alone in one of the vinyl booths. He’s drinking from a large Styrofoam cup without a lid and there’s a half-eaten burger and order of onion rings on the plate in front of him. He looks around surreptitiously to ensure that no one is watching, and then refills the cup from a bottle of wine hidden in the corner of the booth (see fig. 7-8).

Figure 7 Sneaking more wine (Screen shot by the author. Sideways. DVD. Directed by Alexander Payne. 2004. Century City, CA: 20th Century Fox, 2005.)

The “proper” rituals he modeled for Jack, like swirling the wine carefully in a glass and tipping it to evaluate the color and opacity are utterly abandoned. He actually has to hide the bottle from view in the corner of his booth and fill it up surreptitiously under the table rather than showing it off. The slug lines in the script specifically recall Maya’s monologue, referring to the emotions that wine inspires and the complexity of wine, especially an old wine reaching its peak.: “As the camera MOVES CLOSER, all the complex emotions inspired by the wine ripple across Miles’s face” (Payne and Taylor 2003).

Figure 8 Under the table (Screen shot by the author. Sideways. DVD. Directed by Alexander Payne. 2004. Century City, CA: 20th Century Fox, 2005.)

The ultimate irony—as Merlot’s defenders were quick to point out—is that the wine he’s savoring with such relish is a blend composed substantially of the Merlot grapes he claims to despise (along with some “prosaic” Cabernet).[xxv]While only other oenophiles familiar with the name Cheval Blanc would be likely to pick up on that detail, it offers further evidence that the scene was intended to represent a departure for Miles—a break with his old, bad, snobbish self. The new Miles doesn’t care if a wine happens to be made of Merlot, using the “right” glasses, making a big production or impressing anyone with what he’s already acknowledged is the most impressive bottle in his collection. He just enjoys how “fucking good” it tastes.

The scene not only cleanses Miles’ love of wine of its unappealing elitism, it also represents the turning point in the film for him. His budding relationship with Maya had seemingly been destroyed when he accidentally let slip that he and Jack had to get back for “the wedding” and reveals Jack’s secret. Maya is outraged, and Miles seems incapable of atoning for his supporting role in the deception of both her and, more egregiously, her friend Stephanie. However, after the scene in the burger joint, the words “five weeks later” appear and Miles is shown at the front of his middle school English classroom. One of his students reads a passage from the end of the novel A Separate Peace and Miles dismisses them for the weekend.[xxvi] He returns to his apartment to find a message on the answering machine from Maya.

In the message, she praises his unpublished novel, and says he should let her know if he’ll be back in Santa Barbara anytime. Her message, tentative but warm, constitute the final words of the film, which play as a voiceover while Miles is shown driving onto the same highway he and Jack set out on in the beginning of the film and then climbing the wooden steps to Maya’s apartment. Her message ends and he takes a deep breath and knocks. The implication is that he will get another chance; however, that wouldn’t have meant very much if the film hadn’t given any reason to believe he had matured. Its is the the scene in the fast food restaurant and the shift from a Snob to a Connoisseur that enables the possibility that buoys the film’s conclusion: perhaps this time he will succeed.

V. Conclusion

Given that Pinot Noir is associated with the bad, snobbish Miles of the first 90% of film,  it may seem initially counter-intuitive that Sideways would have driven its sales up faster than other varietals. According to a textual reading, we might conclude that the film endorses the inclusive, unpretentious aesthetic represented by Maya in which a fast food burger or a Merlot might be just as delicious and valuable as something more rarefied or  “high-brow.” If that were true, then Pinot Noir sales shouldn’t have fared any better in the wake of the film’s release than Merlot or Cabernet. Although one might argue that the film’s effect was simply the result of it introducing people to a varietal they’d never heard of, that isn’t sufficient to account for the fact that Pinot Noir became “trendy” and “cool” or the anecdotal reports of people rejecting Merlot as suddenly “uncool.” Furthermore, it’s not actually the case that all publicity is good publicity. Addressing a situation similar to the post-Sidways Merlot slump, British wine critic Oz Clark argues that Chardonnay sales in England were hurt by the wine’s role the film Bridget Jones Diary:

Bridget Jones goes out on the pull [the singles bar scene], fails, goes back to her miserable bedsit, sits down, pours herself an enormous class of Chardonnay, sits there with mascara running down her cheeks saying ‘Dear diary, I’ve failed again, I’ve poured an enormous glass of Chardonnay and I’m going to put my head in the oven….’  Until Bridget Jones, Chardonnay was really sexy. After, people said ‘God, not in my bar.’[xxvii]

Based on the often equally-pathetic portrayal of Miles, it might have made more sense if Pinot Noir sales had tanked and Merlot had become more popular as the choice of the anti-snob. That’s exactly how Mary Baker, the owner of a small winery in Santa Barbara County explains the fact that her Merlot sales weren’t hurt: “No one wants to be the ‘geeky Miles.’ Miles apparently hated Merlot, and that made people curious about Merlot because no one wants to come across as such a navel-lint-gazing wine snob.”[xxviii]

However, Baker’s explanation seemingly only applied to a small group of experts and the niche market of people who were already into wine—like the ones who might purchase a bottle of Merlot in the $20-$40 price range from a self-described “microwinery” in Paso Robles, CA or who might have “gotten” the joke about Miles’s Cheval Blanc being mostly Merlot. It doesn’t correspond with the broader market trends captured by Cuellar’s research or the trends reflected in Katie Couric’s reporting she “heard she wasn’t supposed to drink Merlot.” The impassioned defense of Merlot by wine critics also seems symptomatic of the desire to appear less pretentious by embracing a maligned grape and thus distinguish themselves from the masses. Because the  “masses”—in this case, the vast majority of American wine consumers—did the opposite. They embraced Pinot Noir and either rejected or adopted an ambivalent attitude towards the Merlot they thought they weren’t “supposed” to be drinking. Thus, the apparent market effect of Sideways contradicts what would be expected based on the “preferred” or “dominant” ideological reading of the film.[xxix]

However, assuming the majority of wine consumers didn’t know that the Cheval Blanc was a Merlot-Cabernet blend, Miles’s invective against Merlot might have had more sticking power for the film’s wider audience than the role of (clandestine) Merlot in his redemption. Instead of creating an association between Pinot Noir and snobbery, for the majority of the American audience, Sideways turned the words “Pinot Noir” into a useful heuristic for the average person seeking to make better wine purchases. Furthermore, by offering redemption to Miles-the-snob and enabling him to become Miles-the-connoisseur, the film constructed a form of plausible deniability for aspirants to “high class” eating. Sideways suggests that consuming foods constructed as “superior” and associated with class privilege need not be pretentious as long as you’re doing itit’s being done for the love of food and not in order to seem more sophisticated than you aremay be true. The power and appeal of the meritocracy of taste is that it creates the illusion that “good taste” is based on something objective and disinterested, rather than a social construction that legitimates the tastes and practices of the elite. That ideology reinforces the social value of acquiring and performing the knowledge and practices constructed as sophisticated.

Thise interpretation of the film as primarily reinforcing “culinary capital” contradicts Johnston and Baumann’s argument that the recent “foodie” movement is characterized by a real egalitarian impulse and Lebesco and Nacarrato’s argument that “culinary capital” offers only illusory mobility. My analysis of the film Sideways and the “Sideways Effect” may suggests that the apparent inclusiveness of popular American discourse about food and wine in the last few decades is essentially a sham that obscures the exclusive and hierarchical nature of social judgments about taste. Foodways constitute a real form of cultural capital that is used to distinguish individuals on the basis of their position in a class hierarchy. Indeed, one of the reasons people worry about things like whether or not Merlot is “cool” is because the act of selecting wine is a symbolic act that may be interpreted as low-class, high-class, or pretentious. The only thing that is illusory is the apparent inclusiveness of the discourse and ideology of meritocratic taste.

The “Sideways Effect” illustrates the interplay between mass media representations, hegemonic ideologies, and cultural practices or rituals, by which I mean behaviors that are performed at least in part for their symbolic value. This, in turn, points to ways in which the study of mass media and the study of symbolic practice and expressive culture can complement and inform each other. A critical reading of mass media texts can expose the ideologies that shape them as well as those they help reinforce or construct;thereby, illuminating the cultural logic of popular discourse and practice. Attending to popular and vernacular practices, including rumors, rituals, and changes in taste and style can provide evidence for how audiences are making meaning from mass media texts and expose ideological media effects. A critical reading of the film Sideways exposes the culturally and historically-specific construction of wine as “sophisticated,” but there are multiple possible interpretations of the relationship between wine and snobbery. The  rumor that Merlot had become “uncool” and the related “Sideways Effect” suggests that the film predominantly worked to legitimate the use of foodways as symbolic practices through which people aspire to and ascribe social class identities.


[i] Although the term “culinary” typically refers to things that bear a relationship to cooking, I’m using it here and throughout the essay to refer to the broader conceptual and discursive fields encompassing food and drink and the practices of eating and drinking. A case could probably be made for the superiority of the term “alimentary,” which Michel Foucault favors in The History of Sexuality Volume II: The Use of Pleasure (1990) to refer to the realm of food and eating; however, that carries an equally undesirable connotation of nutrition or digestion, especially as its most common use is to refer to the digestive tract or “alimentary canal.” “Alimentary” is probably more appropriate to Foucault’s discussion of the bodily pleasures of food and drink than to the concern with purchasing, preparing, and consuming food and drink. I am also building on the work of Kathleen LeBesco and Dean Nacarrato, who use the term “culinary capital” rather than “alimentary capital” to refer to the value attached to particular kinds of foods and food practices, including but certainly not limited to cooking (2007).

[ii] In the U.S., the terms “fortified wine” (or “dessert wine”) and “table wine” are used both in the administration of federal and state regulations for the sale and purchase of alcohol and in the industry. Table wine must be less than 14% alcohol and is typically composed of 100% fermented grape juice. Fortified or dessert wine may contain between 14% and 24% alcohol and are typically made by adding sugar or brandy to fermented grape juice. Brands like Thunderbird, Wild Irish Rose, and Night Train became popular especially among impoverished people and alcoholics during the Great Depression  for their high alcohol content and low price.

[iii] I’m indebted to Solomon Katz, anthropologist and leading expert in food, science, and religion, for this insight.

[iv] According to a February 2005 Business Wire article, Sideways became Fox Searchlight Pictures’ top domestic grossing film with four weeks left in theaters, surpassing the record held by The Full Monty (which grossed $45.9 million) and other successful and acclaimed “independent films” like Lost in Translation, Napoleon Dynamite, and Bend It Like Beckham. It has since been surpassed by Juno (2007) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008).

[v] “IMDb user reviews for Sideways.” The Internet Movie Database. <; (accessed July 06, 2010).

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] “User comments: Sideways,” <$3MgWGUvPar8cw**&gt; (accessed July 06, 2010).

[viii] Blake Gray. 2005. “Knocked Sideways / Merlot is suddenly uncool – but the great ones still shine.” February 24. <; (accessed July 06, 2010).

[ix] “Oscar winner knocks sales of merlot wine sideways.” 2005. The Sunday Times. March 6. <; (accessed September 07, 2008).

[x] Richard Kinssies. 2005. “On Wine: ‘Sideways’ has intoxicating effect on pinot noir sales, some say.” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer <; (accessed July 06, 2010).

[xi] Gray 2005

[xii] Strawberry Saroyan. 2005. “A Night Out With: Virginia Madsen: Days of Wine and Chocolate.” The New York Times January 16. <; (accessed July 06, 2010).

[xiii] Cueller et al. 2008. “The Sideways Effect: A Test for Changes in the Demand for Merlot and Pinot Noir Wines.” American Association of Wine Economists Working Papers No. 25   < AAWE_WP25.pdf> (accessed July 6, 2009)

[xiv] See, for example, David Kamp’s The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation (New York: Random House, 2006), Samuel Fromartz’s Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006) or the March 2009 New York Times article by Andrew Martin: “Is a Food Revolution Now in Season?”  <; (accessed May 26, 2009).

[xv] Cueller et al also sought to determine whether the effect was different for different price segments by re-examining the data for wines under $10, between $10-20, and $20-40. They hypothesized that the film’s effect would have a stronger effect on lower-priced wines. The results for Merlot were mixed, with decreases in every price range. For Pinot Noir, the results were contrary to the hypothesis. The increase in sales growth was smallest in the lowest price segment, and “drastic” for promoted wines in the $20-40 range (2008, 14-5). This suggests that wine consumers at all “levels” were affected.

[xvi] He defines capital as “the set of actually usable resources and powers—economic capital, cultural capital, and also social capital” and argues that the structure of a person’s assets determine the kinds of immediate pressures and rewards that shape their habitual behaviors and dispositions (1986: 114).

[xvii] Anthropologist Alan Macfarlane argues that the increase in tea drinking, facilitated in part by the use of sugar to make the tannin-rich drink more palatable, facilitated the Industrial Revolution in Britain by limiting waterborne diseases like dysentery that flourished in urban environments. Fermented beverages like beer and ale helped prevent disease through the 17th Century, but a tax introduced on malt in the late 17th C. caused the poor to turn to water and gin. According to Macfarlane, mortality rates began to rise until the 1720s. He credits the subsequent drop to the increasing availability of tea, which has antiseptic properties and more importantly, is boiled which kills many waterborne pathogens (1997).

[xviii] The question of whether or not people can change their class identity points to some of the contrary meanings and tensions in the term “identity” itself. As Roger D. Abrahams notes, in the context of identity politics and group identifications, “the word seems to emancipate” (in Eight Words for Expressive Culture, ed. Burt Feintuch, Champaign-Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2003). Similarly the notion of of “self-identification” implies at least some individual agency in the selection, performance, and embodiment of their identity (or identities). On the other hand, especially in the context of discussions about marginalization, disempowerment, colonialism and postcolonialism, and hegemony, it is clear that identity formation is not always—or even usually— optional. People are often born or interpellated into identities created by the state or dominant groups, and identification or naming is a key technology of subjugation. In their insistence that Martha Stewart’s fans cannot “achieve” their desired class identity, LeBbesco and Nacarrato seem to be emphasizing the ascribed nature of much group identity formation. My argument relies on the assumption that identities are socially-constructed and performed, and thus at least theoretically flexible even if there are very real constraints on peoples’ ability to perform an identity other than the one externally ascribed. Many thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pointing me to the Feintuch text.

[xix] Food historians like Laura Shapiro and Harvey Levenstein argue that Child’s recipes were seen as sophisticated-but-accessible alternatives to the growing range of processed and prepared foods available in the 1950s. Shapiro argues that Child empowered women, even comparing her to Betty Friedan, whose book, The Feminine Mystique, was published the same year Child’s cooking show premiered on television. Shapiro says of Child: “In essence, she said to women, ‘You don’t need to get it from a package. You can take charge. You can stand at the center of your own world and create something very good, from scratch” (2004).

[xx] LeBesco and Naccarato acknowledge that “their [lifestyle programming audiences’] pleasure marks an important site for the discursive production of power and resistance” and claim that they are not dismissing culinary capital as mere “false consciousness,” and that Martha Stewarts fans are “not just cultural dupes” (2007, 236). However, the “just” is telling—whatever else the fans of lifestyle programming might be, LeBesco and Naccarato imply that they are dupes. According to LeBesco and Naccarato, the pleasure audiences experience is derived from a temporary escape from their “actual” class identities and indulgence in a fantasy of upward mobility. They conclude that “food culture provides a means of…performing a class identity to which one aspires but that many never actually attain” (2007, 235-6).
[xxi] LeBesco and Naccarato do not specify how they are using the term “identity.” See note 18 for a discussion of the term as it relates to class and how I understand it.

[xxii] I am using scare quotes to call attention to the culturally-constructed nature of the “authentic” and the “exotic.” In culinary discourses as in other contexts, “authenticity” is something of a floating signifier that people use in multiple, contradictory ways, usually to refer to a perceived closeness or fidelity to  traditions associated with a particular place, ethnic group, and/or historical moment. However, not all traditions are seen as equally “authentic.” Marginalized groups and places characterized as rural, pre-modern, agricultural rather than industrial, or “backwards”  are often more readily identified as the source of culinary authenticity. For example, cooking traditions associated with the American South are more readily described as “authentic” than most other regional foodways of the U.S.

[xxiii] See, for example, Carol Gould’s argument that the normative liberal principles of equality and meritocracy have been reinvigorated since the 1980s along with a growing globalized discourse of normative egalitarianism (2004).

[xxiv] “snob n.1”3.c. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. online.

[xxv] The filmmakers actually tried to get permission to use Chateau Petrus Pomerol instead of Chateau Cheval Blanc—the former being the most expensive and sought-after Merlot in the world. However, as Christian Moueix, who runs Chateau Petrus, told The San Francisco Chronicle, “Quite a few film scripts cross my desk and I vaguely recall ‘Sideways’ asking for permission to use Petrus. I am afraid that at that time, I found the script unexciting and declined” (Gray 2005).

[xxvi] The quote the student reads is:

The marrow of his bone,” I repeated aimlessly. This at least penetrated my mind. Phineas had died from the marrow of his bone flowing down his blood stream to his heart. I did not cry then or ever about Finny. I did not cry even when I stood watching him being lowered into his family’s straight-laced burial ground outside of Boston. I could not escape a feeling that this was my own funeral, and you do not cry in that case.

There are many parallels between the characters Gene and Phineas in A Separate Peace and Miles and Jack. Gene is stumbling and awkward where Phineas seems confident, and Gene initially emulates him. However, the final quote  and the title of the novel suggest that Gene must achieve a peace—if indeed, he can find peace—on his own. Miles’s redemption and maturation similarly requires him to “grow up” in a way Jack apparently cannot (Knowles 1953).

[xxvii] Martin Hickman. 2008. “Bridget Jones ‘has put Britain off chardonnay’.” The Independent, May 27. <; (accessed July 06, 2010).

[xxviii] Simon Owen, 2007. “The Sideways offensive: Will Merlot sales ever recover?” Bloggasm July 3. <; (accessed July 06, 2010). Notably, according to the website of her winery, Dover Canyon, they no longer offer any wines made with Merlot grapes. “Our Wine,” Dover Canyon Winery. <; (accessed July 06, 2010).

[xxix] See Stuart Hall, “Encoding/decoding,” Culture, Media, Language, Stuart Hall et al, ed. Hutchinson: 128-138.


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< AAWE_WP25.pdf> (accessed July 6, 2009).

Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure, trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books.

Fromartz, Samuel. 2006. Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew. New York: Harcourt.

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S. Margot Finn is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Program in American Culture at the University of Michigan. She is currently working on a dissertation titled, “Aspirational Eating: Class Anxiety and the Rise of Food in Popular Culture” which traces the rise of discourses about gourmet, healthy, ethical, and ethnic food since the late 1970s in U.S. mass media representations. She also blogs about cooking, food history, and popular culture at


4 thoughts on “The Snob, the Rube and the Connoisseur

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