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.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Wine and the Movies: Part 2

The 1960s saw the creation of the new MPAA code, more freedom in movies and a larger international audience for film. The 1970s saw the rise of independent film. In the 1980s I was unable to find any movies that did little more than show people drinking wine except for TV’s Falcon Crest, which may have dried up all the wine-themed ideas coming from Hollywood. This changed in the 1990s as wine once again became a subject of interest for movie makers. 1995 became a banner year as three movies made wine the center of their focus.
Note: Underlined movies are available from Netflix. Others may be more difficult to find.

Tales of Terror (1962) Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone.

A horror movie about wine, you ask? Not exactly, although I’ve had wines that made me shudder. The second Poe tale, The Black Cat has a nodding acquaintance with the original, but the opening scene is priceless. Uh, that was not a pun just because Vincent Price was in it. In fact, Lorre as a wino with a highly evolved wine palate is also priceless.
After unsuccessfully obtaining funds to feed his wine drinking, Montresor (Lorre) stumbles upon (literally) a wine convention. While gazing fondly at the many bottles arrayed on a long table he hears that Fortunato Luchresi (Price) has the best wine palate in the entire world. Disbelieving that, Lorre challenges him to a contest.
I played this clip for the MRG Vine and Wine Society members at a gathering at my home were I discussed these very same movies.  They savored every moment, particularly when Lorre chugs the first wine and says, “Burgundy, Volnay, 1832” and then leans forward and adds, “and from the better slopes of the vineyard.” Really, do you need another excuse to watch this movie?

The Secret of Santa Vittorio (1969) Anthony Quinn, Anna Magnani, Virna Lisi, Hardy Kruger. 

The film is set in a small Italian village that is known worldwide for their wines. After Mussolini is killed the villagers learn the German army will retreat through their town with the idea of stealing all their wine. The town must hide a million bottles from the advancing Germans. Quinn as the town drunk and newly-elected mayor, Italo Bombolini, excels in the role and the town comes together to hide the wine and foil the Nazis.
I’d recommend having a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino with the movie since Santa Vittorio’s wine must be just as good to make the German army detour through their village. While a bit dated, the scenery, the music and the actors entice one to share their love of living in wine country.

The Godfather (1972) Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duval. 

This was a landmark film and the first of many Mafia-based movies. There were many scenes with wine flowing and the godfather dies in his own vineyard. However, blood flowed a lot more readily than wine, which colored most of the red-tinged scenes. This movie gave new meaning to a family-based film.

Killer Bees (1974) Edward Albert, Kate Jackson and Gloria Swanson. 

Filmed in what is now Francis Ford Coppola’s Rutherford home, the film includes dialogue on biodynamic farming. The killer bees are Swanson’s viticultural workers and even swarm to keep people out of the vineyard. They don’t have to punch a clock, either. Yeah, I missed this one, too. If only the title was Killer Bees Love Wine, Too, I might have given it a shot. It might be a blessing if this one doesn’t come out on DVD.

The Judgment of Paris 1976: This was not a movie, but an event that led to a global market in wine after the Chardonnay of Chateau Montalena and the Cabernet Sauvignon of Stag’s Leap Vineyard (now Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars) won as the best white and red wine in Paris.  This was a significant moment that gradually percolated through the wine world, and it meant great wines could come from around the world, not just in France.

TV took over the wine-themed market with the soap opera, Falcon Crest in December of 1980. The series ended in May 1990. The fictional series was filmed in part in Napa at Stags’ Leap Winery, not to be confused with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, which of course, it is. Note the placement of the apostrophe in both names. That was part of the judgment that permitted both wineries to use Stag’s Leap or Stags’ Leap on their label.

Silence of the Lambs (1991) Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins and Scott Glenn.  

Let me ask you; are you as freaked out as I that this movie is 21 years old? Not a movie about wine, surely, but for wine pairing tips, few can match Chianti with liver and fava beans. Actually, Amarone was the wine of choice, but they went with Chianti because most viewers wouldn’t get Amarone. But if you want a great Italian wine you should get it.
Amarone Della Valpolicella or Amarone comes from the Valpolicella region around Verona, Italy. The grapes; Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara are dried for several months after harvesting, until they are raisin-like.  The resulting wine is intense and powerful with ripe fruit and low acidity. Personally, I wouldn’t focus on wines to serve with someone’s liver.

Year of the Comet (1995) Penelope Ann Miller, Louis Jourdan, Tim Daly. 

An extremely rare large bottle of French wine bottled during the appearance of the Great Comet of 1811 is discovered in a Scottish castle. Key vintage years for Chateau Lafite around this time were 1801, 1802, 1814, 1815 and especially 1818, so harvesting the grapes during the year of the comet had to be part of the attraction. What affect would the tail of the comet have on the wine?
Margaret Harwood (Miller) is sent to retrieve the large format bottle so it can be sold at auction. The bottle could have been a Balthazar or a Nebuchadnezzar.  A Nebuchadnezzar is equivalent to 20 - 750ml bottles! That’s a lot of wine to be carrying around.
Oliver Plexico (a mustachioed Daly) is assigned as her travel guide/bodyguard for the trip, and to haul around that big box of wine. Naturally, other people desperately want the bottle and a simple task becomes an international chase. Philippe (Jourdan) in particular scatters bodies around him in his quest for the bottle. He should have stuck to Champagne.

French Kiss (1995) Meg Ryan, Kevin Kline and Timothy Hutton.

Kline as a Gallic winemaker is wonderful. The scene where he introduces Meg to a way to appreciate wine is a classic. He shows her his homemade wine aroma kit and then asks her to try some wine and describe it.
Ryan: "A bold wine with a hint of sophistication and lacking in pretension. (Pause.) Actually I was just talking about myself.
Kline: "You are not wrong. Wine is like people. The wine takes all the influences in life all around it, it absorbs them and it gets its personality."
He then has her sniff essences of rosemary; cassis and lavender and try the wine again. She does and realizes the essences are reflected in the wine as well. It was many years later when I purchased my own wine aroma kit that I realized its benefits in sharpening one’s nose and palate.

A Walk in the Clouds (1995) Keanu Reaves, Anthony Quinn and Giancarlo Giannini.

The scenery in this movie is breathtaking and Quinn as the old wine maker is wonderful, but the story requires a huge suspension of belief. The fire in the vineyard and how they handled it left me shaking my head. I received unanimous agreement from my wine group on this scene as well. And there was no O’Leary’s cow to blame it on either. There is a wonderful grape stomping scene, however.
Commercial wineries use mechanical presses to do the work now, but in the 1940s using human feet would have been an acceptable process. 

Autumn Tale (1998) Eric Rohmer’s final tale in his Four Seasons series.
A middle-aged widow, Magali, looks for love and someone to share her vineyards in the south of France. Wine is an integral part of her life and so it is present in many scenes. This is a comedy of manners with two of her friends trying to play matchmaker – at the same time. The backdrop of wine and vineyards added another romantic element to the film.
The director is a member of the legendary French New Wave of directors that includes Tuffault, Malle and Goddard. The movie is available on DVD.