Thursday, April 5, 2012

Wine and the Movies: Part 3

The 21st century saw a jump in movies about wine that addressed the more sophisticated wine drinker. Numerous documentaries on wine also appeared, and these will be in a separate article. Sideways made its mark in wine awareness and its impact on wine prices.
Note: All of these movies are available from Netflix.

Sideways (2004) Paul Giamatti, Frank Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, and Sandra Oh.

What this one did to Pinot Noir and Merlot emphasizes the power of movies. Giamatti, a self-confessed beer drinker managed to turn off hoards of wine drinkers to Merlot which saw sales tank, and enshrined Pinot Noir whose prices went through the roof. If only that tow-truck operator had caught up to him before he opened his big mouth. One of the cardinal rules of movie making is to make your lead characters likeable. On that point they failed, but the comedy is well done.

The soliloquy to wine that Virginia Madsen gives almost repairs the wreckage, but these are two wine guys I wouldn’t want to drink with. Wine lovers may note that Giamatti’s beloved bottle he saved until the end of the movie was Chateau Cheval Blanc. A wonderful right bank wine, which is comprised of 50% Merlot and 50% Cabernet Franc, another grape he belittles in this movie. The right bank wines of Bordeaux use Merlot as their principal grape, not Cabernet Sauvignon as they do on the left bank of the Gironde River. Should we assume Miles (Giamatti) couldn’t tell his right from his left?

A Good Year (2006) Russell Crowe, Marion Cotillard, Freddie Highmore, and Albert Finney. 

I loved the opening scene with Albert Finney as Uncle Henry instructs young Max (Highmore) about winemaking as a way of life, until Max cheats at chess, prompting Uncle Henry to say, “You little sh--!”
That memory and the ones that follow, done in flashback, cause the grown-up Max to be conflicted about whether or not to sell the vineyard and winery. The flashbacks are paired to the location in which the past event occurred when present day Max explores them. It makes for a seamless way to integrate past and present. The cinematography of Provence is breathtaking. The sense of living in a chateau and making wine are also nicely captured.

While talking to his friend about the chateau he mentions the Chateau La Siroque wine has the "bouquet of a wet dog, hits the palate like a razor blade, with a finish that hints of awful." The mysterious wine he finds in a separate set of racks in the wine cellar is fantastic however. One has to pay attention to this subplot to get all the hints about this cult wine, Coin Perdu, and its genesis.

Bottle Shock (2008) Alan Rickman, Bill Pullman, Chris Pine, Rachael Taylor. 

When I first saw this movie, I wondered; who was this Gustavo Brambila character? In many respects, this was a reasonable reenactment of the events surrounding the Paris tasting in 1976, which I learned from reading George Taber’s book, The Judgment of Paris. However, Mike Grgich, the winemaker at Chateau Montelena was nowhere in evidence. When the story moved to Napa and images of dusty vineyards rolled by, it triggered memories of my own explorations there; proof they did a good job of evoking Napa in the 70’s. Bill Pullman as the irascible owner of Chateau Montelena, Jim Barrett, hit all the right notes and played off Rickman well.
The following dialog between Pullman and Rickman pretty much sums up what I mean.

Jim Barrett:         Why don’t I like you?
Steve Spurrier:   Because you think I’m an ass. And I’m not really. It’s just that I’m British, and you aren’t.

Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez) is a real character, although he wasn’t at Chateau Montelena when the Chardonnay was made. He was also the technical consultant to the film. When Sam (Taylor) later tries his wine and then takes him to bed in gratitude, I had to wonder if he had any input into that scene. But why take out two of the four principal players in the Judgment of Paris? This was what I wondered until I did some extensive research into the making of the film.

The plot thickens . . .
Mike Grgich was initially the technical consultant, the famous beret-crowned winemaker of diminutive stature who worked for Barrett, but he backed out of this film. I learned that Danny Devito was going to play Grgich. What an opportunity lost! Just imagine the dialogue between Danny and Alan Rickman discussing wine that we’ll never see?

The screenwriter and director really only wanted to focus on the Chardonnay, not the Cabernet Sauvignon of Stag’s Leap Vineyards (now Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars). Bringing in Winiarski and another cast of characters from that winery would have made the film confusing for viewers who were not also wine aficionadas.  

Steven Spurrier was also put off by the movie. He claimed Rickman was too old and portrayed him as an effete wine snob. When asked if he would see the movie, he said, “No doubt I shall have to watch it on my flight to Singapore next week, but at least it will be from the comfort of First Class, with a glass of Dom Perignon to ease the pain.” Now tell me that doesn’t sound like Alan Rickman.

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