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Calgary Herald (14/Aug/2008) - Uncorking oenophiles on the screen

(c) Calgary Herald (14/Aug/2008)

Uncorking oenophiles on the screen

Making wine world watchable a tough task

We've seen a Merlot scorned and encountered Pinot envy. We've cried a Riesling and tried to be Sancerre, but for all the drama that winemaking represents, it's the rare filmmaker who attempts to uncork it on screen.

Alexander Payne's Sideways stands out as the most aromatic example of what the blend of vine and screen can bring, but as easy as Payne made it all look, uniting the elitist world of wine with the lowest common denominator of mainstream cinema is a surprisingly daunting task.

For the most part, references to wine in film are used as character-building shortcuts. For instance, the famed "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti" line from Silence of the Lambs tells us the cannibalizing villain Hannibal Lecter isn't a simple-minded killer, he's a refined and highly intelligent connoisseur who shouldn't be underestimated by facile federal agents.

We know this because a regular bad apple would just say "I ate his liver." Throw the Chianti reference in there with believably delicious food pairing and whammo, you've got the modern equivalent of Sherlock Holmes genius nemesis, Moriarty.

Typically, Hollywood has treated any genuine knowledge of wine as something suspect -- like a woman with a gun, or anyone who speaks French. After all, it was the Nazis who used the wine bottles to disguise uranium in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious -- another sign that only those with unsavoury motives and luxurious taste would be seduced by such Bacchanalian debauchery.

The distrust of wine and those who loved it was as much as part of the American film tradition as heroes who drank beer and whiskey, but things began to shift on the fine wine side around the mid-70s.

Filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola infused The Godfather films with scenes of wine drinking while Woody Allen began depicting smart, upwardly mobile intellectuals sipping fancy grapes on Manhattan's Upper Eastside.

This new crop of screen character wasn't inherently villainous, didn't speak with an affected lisp and managed to appear all-American.

With this week's release of the new movie Bottle Shock, we gain insight into what prompted the increasingly benevolent characterization of the grape on the big screen as the movie tells the story of the 1976 taste-off between French and California vintners -- in which the U.S. came out on top, and caused a crisis among French wineries that continues to this very day.

Once California wines were seen as some of the best in the world, wine wasn't a four-letter word for snob in the screenwriter's lexicon anymore, and drinking the fruit of the vine wasn't synonymous with villainy -- unless, of course, you also happened to have a taste for fava beans.

Beer and whiskey still reign supreme as heroic drinks among the Hollywood hacks who have a romantic attachment to Old West cliches, but for those eager to sample some of the better movies that feature wine in a central role, we've assembled a taster's choice of select reels

- I Love Lucy (1956) (Lucy's Italian Movie): It's considered one of TV's golden moments: Lucy stands in a vat of grapes and attempts to crush them the old-fashioned way without arousing suspicion she has no idea what she's doing. Pretty much every Lucy episode demanded a moment of panic, but this one found extra mileage by skewering the notion of Continental style -- as well as the acting trade itself -- because Lucy was at the winery in the hopes of doing research for a potential film role in a new Italian movie called Bitter Grapes.

- Sideways (2004): Though it has a bitter finish and features a sour character as its central fruit, this Oscar-winning drama from Alexander Payne takes the viewer through California wine country while mocking wine snobbery -- resulting in a fresh and rather timeless taste of the human comedy. Certain California vintners now offer Sideways tours, taking the taster through each winery sampled by Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church).

- Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993): While urbane intellectuals are hardly a novelty in the work of Woody Allen, this surprisingly bright and sparkling comedy featured plenty of chatter about the grape -- notably from Diane Keaton and Alan Alda, who take in a wine tasting during the film. Though the actors fly through the bit, it's clear Allen is taking the mickey out of wine snobs:

TED: That Mouton 45. That was...
CAROL: Didn't you love it?
TED: Oh, that was -- was like, sublime, you know?
CAROL: Yeah.
TED: And the inexpensive Spanish one. Wasn't that... wasn't that a nice surprise?
CAROL: It was very, very...
TED: Wasn't that great?
CAROL: Yeah.

If only all wine-tastings were as non-verbal and unpretentious, wine aficionados wouldn't be considered pompous gits on first blush.

- A Walk in the Clouds (1995): Alfonso Arau's feature about an unwed woman who fears returning home to her strict father after the war stars Keanu Reeves and co-star Aitana Sanchez-Gijon as a couple who fall in love among the vineyards during wine harvest time. Hopelessly romantic, the movie might be too sweet for some tastes but it's a nice wet kiss when you're looking for some brain-numbing escapism. Just watch out for the headache the day after.

- Richard III (1955): In this version of the Bard's bloody classic about family power struggles, George (The Duke of Clarence -- brother to the power-hungry Duke of Gloucester) is believed killed and his body thrown into vat of Malmsey wine -- one of the more original death scenarios out there. There are other references to wine, and not surprisingly, they arise whenever there's a mention of the soon-to-be-dead Duke of Clarence.

- A Good Year (2006): There was so much room for bold taste and dramatic flavour in this Provence-shot Ridley Scott ode to the vine, but the potential never reaches the rim. Featuring Russell Crowe as the soulless businessman Max Skinner and Albert Finney as the old rogue who loved life, the movie is transparent from the moment Scott pulls the cork, but thanks to some gorgeous scenery and a little bit of wine mystery, the movie finds enough texture to make it palatable.

- Mondovino (2004): This documentary about the global wine biz is a movie about wine for people who love wine and aren't afraid to show it. Though director Jonathan Nossiter takes a slightly adversarial approach to the issues surrounding the world wine industry, an issue that some of the interviewees complained about after the fact, the director manages to find a very big economic picture that ties into everything from popular culture to trade and tariff regulations.

- French Kiss (1995): Even Meg Ryan was in a wine movie, which proves just how much the American psyche had grown by 1995. Ryan plays a jilted woman looking to recover her ego and hopefully her ex-fiance in France. What she finds is a love affair with a roguish Frenchman (Monsieur Kevin Kline) who gambled away the family winery, and is now drunk on ideas of getting it back. The movie has a weak nose, but features plenty of wine-lover dialogue.

- Blood and Wine (1996): It's a wine movie with Jack Nicholson, and if that's not enough to recommend this Bob Rafelson thriller, then think about this: Blood and Wine was intended to be part of a trilogy that started with Five Easy Pieces, according to Rafelson. In this outing, Nicholson plays a rich wine dealer whose life begins to fall apart.

- The Vineyard (1989): Speaking of plonk, here's a glass of cheap grapes you may want to view after downing a box of glycol-laden Gewurztraminer. James Hong plays a Dr. Moreau-style villain who makes some of the fanciest wines in the world... from human blood! The mad doctor also makes movies in his spare time. Who says wine and cheap thrills can't co-exist?