There’s been a lot of back and forth about Rex Pickett’s Vertical in the online world. The dispute between two versions, “which is ‘real?’” seems to have garnered a lot of controversy in both the literary and wine industries. The truth is there are two copies: an unedited “director’s cut,” if you will, written in total by the author Rex Pickett; and the publisher’s edited, re-written and re-published version, which is, reportedly, unapproved by the author. As a writer and an editor, I can fully understand both sides of the story. As a student of literature, I can only ask the question, “Which is the most complete story?” As an avid reader, I can only ask “Which is more enjoyable?” I’ve read both versions — Vertical and the sub-titled Passion and Pinot. At the end of the day, there was only one that struck me, one that I would go back to.
I’m not here to do a compare and contrast essay. Nor am I here to discuss what went on between author and publisher — I have no intention of starting or adding to any of the behind-the-scenes industry politics. What follows below is my honest review of one book, a book I really love, a book that, like a good wine, I want to share with friends. Vertical by Rex Picket, is a book that both teaches and entertains, challenges the reader mentally and emotionally, and provides insight into a world we may not otherwise understand.
Rex Pickett has kindly participated in this review, taking time to answer a few questions about his novel. Cheers, mates, and I hope you enjoy.
About the Book: It’s the characters you learned to love from Rex Pickett’s original work, Sideways. Seven years later, Miles is a successful author, having published his version of Sideways, “Shameless,” which, too, was made into a major motion picture. This set up often blurs the perception of what’s real and what’s fictional, as we, the readers, are invited into a made-up world with made-up characters that parallel a real-life situation we all know so well. And this is, in part, because Miles is loosely based on a real person. “Miles is me,” Pickett says, “Or rather a fictionalized version of me. Every one of the three books draws from real-life experiences, but I fictionalize to heighten comedy and drama […] Miles is always loosely based on me and where I’m at in my life. But it’s never completely autobiographical.”
The blurry line between fiction and reality extends to Miles’ journey — a “hero’s journey,” really, of both the physical and metaphorical. He finds himself asking whether or not fame has truly affected him, if he’s changed because of it, if he’s the person he truly wants to be, and where he wants to go in life. Not to mention the wine — he is now completely overwhelmed with free samples of wine (predominantly Pinot, of course) which blurs his perception of reality even further. Through the course of the narration and Miles’ internal dialogue, we see that he’s struggling to find balance: with work, pleasure, family, romance and, the ultimate muse (or is it a distraction?) — wine.
“Miles’s relationship to wine is complicated,” Pickett explains, “On one hand, let’s be honest, it’s an alcoholic beverage. It uninhibits him. Miles needs to be uninhibited because he has a tendency to get too wrapped up in himself. On the other hand, if he gets too uninhibited he gets into trouble, or can. […] Just as the vintner tries to find a balance between acidity and fruit, Miles is looking for that balance between wine appreciation and intoxication […] It’s a fine line.”
The background of the plot is this: Opting to live a Hollywood lifestyle, Miles and Maya are no longer together — her winemaking, country living no longer suits him. But he longs for her — through the whole book he’s thinking of her. At one point there’s a glimmer of hope for our beloved couple, but a sour encounter is a (literal) splash of wine in the face regarding the idea of a reunion. He’s also wealthy enough to put his ailing mother in a retirement home with around-the-clock care. But she’s not happy, constantly crying out her desire to “go home,” home to her sister in Wisconsin. And this is where the adventure truly begins.
The chance to be a key note speaker at a Pinot Noir Festival in Oregon isn’t something Miles is actually interested in. He’s pushed by a PR company to participate and is on the brink of backing out when he decides it’s the opportune time to help his mother, Virginia, escape the retirement home, give her one last hoorah of a road trip, and take her “Home.” Knowing it’s an insane idea, he leases a handicapped-equipped rampvan, hires a pot-smoking caretaker, and solicits best friend Jack as his co-pilot. And they’re off to Wisconsin via Oregon’s famous Willamette Valley.
What takes place on the road, and the Pinot-fest, is a series of both comedic and emotional events. Yes, Miles re-lives the “bucket” incident from Sideways, yes he hooks up with a few women, and yes he and Jack find themselves in precarious — and at times unbelievable — situations. But we also see a side of Miles that wants to rise above all those crazy wine-induced antics. We re-live childhood memories, learn about his relationship with both his father and mother — the relationship between his father and mother.
One-by-one each character — Jack, the caretaker, and even Virginia’s little dog Snapper — leave the road-trip. Miles and Virginia, side-by-side in the rampvan, complete the journey alone.
And it’s these stripped away moments that really make the book. We recognize that Miles, like his mother, is searching for some fantasy idea of “Home.” Once in Wisconsin, Virginia realizes the only home she’s ever known, and the only one she longs for, is the one where Miles’ father (deceased) exists. Miles wrestles with how to help his mother fulfill this wish, simultaneously contemplating the decision to return to Maya (return home?) or start a completely new life abroad (a new home?).
“When I said home it sounded like some phantasmal place, an Edenic realm that I was moving ineluctably away from, not toward, as if I had taken the wrong road and was now circumnavigating the globe just to get across the street!” (332)
Like sipping a good wine slowly, appreciating each nuance, each moment, until it all concludes into that beautifully lingering finish, so is Vertical.
The finish of Vertical is a lingering one, an ellipsis if you will — and not a Hollywood ending by any means. The decisions Miles makes are not what you’d expect.
What You’ll Learn: You will learn to love and appreciate wine — even more than you probably do right now — for the intellectual, emotional, and creative challenges it poses. Though Miles admits he doesn’t know much about wine, he’s constantly studying it, meditating on it…
“Wine is so complex, I mused. Thousands of experts and hundreds of thousands of amateur experts would rhapsodize or vilify the vilification of these seemingly simple bunches of grapes. But in the end, it was just these innocuous clusters, photosynthesis, rain or no rain, cool clean breezes, alluvial soils, that produced these epiphanies in the bottle hundreds and thousands of miles away.” (124)
And, of course, appreciating it for what it is — an excellent drink: “‘This guy just makes really fucking awesome Pinots,’ I said. ‘Blackberry, raspberry, cedar, cigar, it’s just got it all,’ I rhapsodized.” (214)
Miles is an every-man asking the question we all ask, “What makes wine so great?” And he discovers the answers as an every-man: tasting, talking, reading, traveling, and, of course, writing.
“I want Miles to be the guy who takes the pretense out of wine,” says Pickett, “There’s a huge difference between wine snobbery and wine knowledge or wine appreciation […] Miles is not a wine snob, he is not an elitist. Wine appreciation and wine knowledge are something that anyone — as with literature and movies — can find a toehold in.”
Wine Pairing: I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. A good wine book — fiction or non-fiction — will make you crave good wine. And Rex Pickett’s Vertical does just that.
If you want to take your wine pairing literally, then Oregon Pinot Noir is the obvious choice. My personal suggestion: Illahe Vineyards 1899 Project Pinot.
But for those of you who don’t want to take the literal approach, I urge you to take the Miles approach. The real Miles approach — the one who longs to understand the mysteries of life and love and, well, wine. So choose a wine that intrigues you, that’s guaranteed to make you think. Drink a f*(kin’ Merlot if that’s what takes you to that existential mind-space. Sip it slowly, appreciate each nuance, each moment, until it all concludes into that beautiful, lingering finish.
More Information: Lastly I will say this. According to the publisher, all copies of this original version were “destroyed.” They were unable to comment what that really means. Personally, I hope there isn’t any literature out there being destroyed. (I find that idea quite irksome, nay, abhorrent.) In any event, this copy is still available through certain avenues. I received this copy as a gift. (Cheers Dave!)
Rex is currently working on Sideways the musical, and be sure to pick up a copy of Sideways 3: Chile. For more information about Vertical, Rex Pickett, and his latest works, please visit Rex Pickett’s personal website.
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