Friday, July 03, 2009

Movies of the Vine – Nine Films About Wine

Recently I just rented, and then bought, the movie Bottle Shock on DVD. I first watched the movie with absolute skepticism, because, while it was the story of the Paris wine tasting, it was not based on George Tabor’s wonderful book. At first, it seemed to me like someone rushed this film into production just to beat the film version of Tabor’s book to the theaters.

But happily, as is usually the case (my wife might tell you), I was wrong. Bottle Shock is the story of the Barretts pere’ & fils and their struggles to establish a quality, modern winery in a region that was then most famous for the jug style wines epitomized by Ernest & Julio Gallo and many others in the valley who made dark red sweet wines for wide consumption in that period.
The movie was fun, exciting, humorous, and above all, made me want to 1. go to Napa (even though I own my own vineyard) and 2. drink several bottles of wine
Then I got to thinking, what are some other good wine movies?

Well, of course, there’s Sideways. I love Sideways. Let’s be honest, it’s a buddy movie that uses the Santa Barbara region as a backdrop, but the region, like in Bottle Shock, is a character in the film. I love the funny dialogue and hilarious comedy of it. I suspend the disbelief that it is misogynistic, and prefer blithely, to think of it as two infantile men grasping for youth and the confidence that one owns before the veil is lifted. And of course, I love the talk about wine. It too makes me want to go to Santa Barbara and then drink wine.

OK, now, here’s a slightly different split. I draw dead-even on the next two movies: Mondo Vino and Autumn Tale, two small independent films. Mondo Vino gets the edge because I love wine consultant Michele Roland spouting “Aerate, aerate, aerate!” throughout the movie. I love the story of the small village fighting the big American monolith theme, though I thought the citizens’ victory a pirique one at best.

Filmed by award-winning director Jonathan Nossiter, Mondovino sparked much controversy in its theatrical run among wine producers, distributors and consumers as it shed light on the esoteric world of wine. Juxtaposing artesian wine growers with multi-national conglomerates, and peasants with billionaires, the film gives voice to those who create, critique and are involved in the commerce of wine, offering up a surprisingly prismatic, varied and sometimes controversial glimpse into something everyone enjoys but few people know much about.
However, others saw it differently, such as W. Blake Gray of the San Francisco Chronicle, “This plodding, anti-American wine documentary excited French audiences and angered some interview subjects who felt misled. If you're not a total wine geek, it's long and boring.” Geek. Guilty as charged.

Autumn Tale is different, as it is a fictional movie with a storyline. I love it because I love the main character, who insists that the magic of her small production wine comes form the fact that she lets the vines grow wild each year. The story line is only OK, but I do love the location and the themes. Both movies make me want to travel to France to see the vineyards, and of course they make me want to drink wine.
Film writer Robert Horton wrote of Autumn Tale, “Like everything else, the secret of a good wine is in the timing: the timing of the grape-picking, the fermentation, the breathing. And the timing is just right in Autumn Tale, a luminous story set in the winemaking country of France; director Eric Rohmer, in his late 70s when the film was made, clearly waited until this particular bottle had reached the proper maturity. At the center of the film is the friendship between two gracefully middle-aged women: Vineyard owner Magali (Beatrice Romand, star of the previous Rohmer gems Claire's Knee and Le Beau Mariage), blunt and compact, is currently unattached. Isabelle (Marie Rivière, from Summer), willowy and slightly ditzy, is married--and would like to see Magali happily wed. A matchmaking scheme via the personal ads leads to a gentle, amusing, yet increasingly profound romantic confusion.”
“At first glance, the film may seem like sun-dappled simplicity itself, but stick around for the final moments at the very tail of the end credits, and you'll appreciate the wise mingling of longing, satisfaction, and regret that have been percolating through the movie all along. ..Autumn Tale is …a warm, quiet masterpiece,” concluded Horton.

There is a very forgettable movie, that I know others love, which is A Walk in the Clouds starring Keaneau Reeves. I found the story line too far fetched for me to suspend my disbelief, but my wife and mother both liked it, and both rented it for me so I would see the “beautiful scenery.” Napa never looked so gorgeous, so sumptuous. Indeed, mid-way through the film, I did want to flee - to California to see some beautiful vineyards, and I definitely wanted to drink a bottle of wine.

Another wine movie is A Good Year. It’s a best a glossy movie about vineyard life. It’s not a great movie, despite the cast. But it is a small, trifling when you’re jones-ing for a vineyard flick. A Good Year is a 2006 romantic comedy film, set in London and Provence. It was directed by Ridley Scott, with an international cast including Russell Crowe, Marion Cotillard, Abbie Cornish and Albert Finney. It is based on the 2004 novel of the same name by British author Peter Mayle.

The film received generally negative reviews. On the review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes the film has a 25% approval rating, and the consensus describes it as "a sappy romantic comedy lacking in charm and humor".
In his review in the New York Times, Stephen Holden called it "an innocuous, feel-good movie," "a sun-dappled romantic diversion," and "a three-P movie: pleasant, pretty and predictable. One might add piddling . . . A Good Year is the movie equivalent of poring over a glossy brochure for a luxury vacation you could never afford while a roughneck salesman who imagines he has class harangues you to hurry up and make a decision about taking the tour. My advice is to resist the pitch."
Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times observed, "Though A Good Year is set in French wine country, it's best described as small beer. The scenery may be attractive and the cast likewise, but something vital is missing in this all-too-leisurely film . . . [it] is one of those ever-popular movies in which impossibly rich people, clueless about what really matters, turn out to be incapable of enjoying the simple things in life . . . The fact that we know exactly what will happen to Max from the moment he appears on screen is not what's wrong with A Good Year. After all, we go to films like this precisely because the satisfaction of emotional certainty is what we're looking for. What we're not looking for is a romantic comedy made by individuals with no special feeling for the genre who stretch a half hour's worth of story to nearly two hours."
I found a few more.

"This Earth Is Mine" (1959). This classic starred Rock Hudson, Jean Simmons, and Dorothy McGuire. The movie was filmed on what is now Rubicon Estate. The winery workers appeared in the film as extras. According to W. Blake Gray of the San Francisco Chronicle, “This film is even more winecentric than "Sideways," and just as accurate. Its portrayal of the issues that divided Napa Valley in the 1930s still seems prescient today. Also, some of the gender-preference innuendo in Hudson's dialogue is pretty interesting now…A Douglas Sirk-style twisted melodrama set at the end of Prohibition, "This Earth Is Mine" has never been released on video or DVD, although it can be seen on bootleg copies or TV movie channels. This CinemaScope film is crying out for a big-screen revival at a San Francisco movie house like the Castro or the Balboa.
“Claude Rains, around 70 at the time of the movie's release, plays the patriarch of a Napa Valley family who still insists on making fine wine every year, even though sales to the public are illegal. Hudson is his ambitious, callous grandson who is convinced the family and its neighbors can make a lot more money selling their grapes to bootleggers in Chicago.
“In this steamy version of Napa life, loveless marriages are arranged to bring desirable vineyard parcels, such as Stags Leap, into the family. Affairs of all types, even incestuous, are never out of the question, though the price will be high. And the Valley is exclusionary, classist and racist.
Hudson's mother, played by Anna Lee, says at one point: "Andre is thinking of selling Stags Leap. Cutting it up into little parcels. Selling it off to all the riffraff that come flooding in here because the price of grapes is high."
Gray continues, “Rains plays a noble character, believing that wine grapes are a gift from God. "The grape is the only fruit that God gave the sense to know what it was made for," he says. The film gives simple-to-understand descriptions of both the winemaking process and how to taste and appreciate wine.” It’s bad melodrama, but it’s first class Napa Valley history.

"They Knew What They Wanted" (1940). According to W. Blake Gray, “A must-see for Napa Valley historians. Unattractive Italian vineyard owner Charles Laughton uses Anglo farmhand William Gargan to entice waitress Carole Lombard to Napa to marry him. It's an invaluable film record of Italian-American wine culture, and also has great exteriors…the seriously dated ‘happy ending’ is just too bizarre today.”

Another oldie-moldy for those of you who can’t seem to get enough is "The Unholy Wife" (1957). Diana Dors, Britain's answer to Marilyn Monroe, starred as a gold digger who marries a wealthy vintner, Rod Steiger, and plots his murder. This interesting, accurate portrayal of a winemaking battle between Napa Valley quality and Central Valley quantity is undone by a preachy, slow-moving plot. Still, it is a period piece that brings back a lot of the “growing pains” memories that scarred the California growing region for years as it struggled for legitimacy.
I chose these movies because they feature winemaking and/or vineyard life. Wine was a featured player – a character. Regardless, each film made me want to travel to some wine country and then drink wine.
No wonder I like these films.

The Wine Nine
Bottle Shock
Mondo Vino
Autumn Tale
A Walk in the Clouds
A Good Year
This Earth Is Mine
They Knew What They Wanted
The Unholy Wife