The Wines of the Silver Screen -Wine’s Screen Love Affair

20 Feb

Renaissance Astronomer, Scientist and Poet, Galileo famously said that, ‘wine is sunlight held together by water’ and this strangely echoes the idea that film too is sunlight captured. So i suppose that it is not too strange that wine and film has had a fairly close and lengthy history together.

This struck me recently when a wave of French wine contacts began emailing about the death of famous French New Wave Film director Eric Rohmer, who died the week before last at the age of 89. He directed dozens of great French Films, but what probably made him stand apart for winemakers is that from a wine point of view his 1998 film, An Autumn Tale, the concluding film in his seasons quartet, is perhaps the best film made about wine, or rather, featuring the lives and labours of people involved in wine, ever committed to film.

The film is set in the Rhone Valley and evokes the vineyards, hillsides and daily life like nothing else on film. It is a languid film that invites you to dive into the real world of wine.

The slow daily interaction with the earth, the winds and the rain are mirrored in the relationships between all the characters. It is played very straight, rather quietly and with great warmth.

Rohmer was one of the golden quartet of the Nouvelle Vague group who founded modern film studies with their work on the influential cinema journal Cahiers Du Cinema, Eric Rohmer was the editor, joined by Francois Truffaut, Jean Luc Goddard and Claude Chabrol on the editorial panel. By the end of the 1950s each editor or writer was ready to make some of the most astounding films ever made.

Rohmer’s films were unlike the others, he was little older too, he opted for realism and poetry rather than the avant garde, as in Goddard’s Au Bout De Souffle, or the direct and shocking like 400 Blows by Truffaut. Rohmer’s films were slow, observant works, like Pauline at the Beach, Claire’s Knee, Full Moon in Paris and his series of moral tales concluding with a masterpiece called An Autumn Tale.

An Autumn Tale is one of his finest films, and happily wine is a central character in the film, not just a plot point or a metaphor.

I will not give away the plot, but these are the wines that it puts me in mind of.

It would be an ideal film for a cold January evening in Ireland, with a glass of wine of course.

Paired with a Crozes Hermitage or a mature Chateauneuf Du Pape it would be a fine salute to the great man.

Best of all would be to seek out one of the many brilliant female winemakers from the Rhone, implicitly celebrated in the film

Leading Female Rhone Winemakers

Domaine De Pegau, Reserve Cuvee AC Chateauneuf Du Pape 2000 (92) around €70

-A sumptuous and spicy wine with pungent wafts of tar and ainise on the nose, with a swell of dark fruit and muscular tannins on the wash. Winemaker Laurence Feraud is not a leading female winmaker in Chateauneuf, she is simply one of the best winemakers per se in the region and her 2003 Domaine Pegau was lauded by US critic Rober Parker so much that the wine is now almost unavailable and each new vintage sels out before bottling.

Domain Paul Jaboulet, Thalabert AC Crozes Hermitage 2001 (90) around €25

-Thalabert Crozes Hermitage is €7 dearer and a world away from conventional Crozes Hermitage. Its vineyard is a privileged site that features almost identical small loaf of bread sized rocks that shield the soils during the day and provide a heater for the vines during the chilly summer nights. The wine is much deeper, more rounded and juicier than the lighter, green olive tinged ordinary Crozes Hermitage wines. Jaboulet was a acquired by the Frey Family from the Jaboulets and Caroline Frey, winemaker at Classed Growth Chateau La Lagune in Bordeaux is now heading up the team at Jaboulet and transforming it back into a fine wine house once again.

What is quite surprising is just how few good films have been made about wine, as I thought about An Autumn Tale I made a quick list of my favourite wine orientated films and really its quite shocking how many of them are merely films that contain wine, rather than great films about wine.

Wine features heavily in films however, largely because it gives a handy shortcut to the characters of the stars of the film.

The most obvious example is of course James Bond, where 007 is always trumping the snooty or ignorant views on wine of his opponents. It is an interesting idea, what it seems to suggest is that an ideal wine knowledge should be very thorough but lightly worn. In Dr.No, the eponymous evil baddie offers Bond Dom Perignon 1955, Bond is shocked and says the 1953 is much better.

This is actually true, naturally, 1953 was a very warm summer followed by a long, warm dry harvest making for excellent full-bodied wines throughout northern Europe. 1955 was wet and warm, with only middling wines from Bordeaux, but some well regarded Burgundy wines. Champagnes from 1955 are well regarded, so Dr. No was not being uncouth, just not quite up to 007’s level of knowledge.

In later years things slipped a bit, in our own Pierce Brosnan’s last outing as James Bond, Die Another Day, Bond asks for a vintage Bollinger to be sent to his room and later looks approvingly at what has arrived, which is clearly a Non Vintage Special Cuvee, a fine wine, but Sean Connery would surely have sent it back.

Over time however, wine has featured as a central plot of some very good films, here is my very personla Top 5 apart from Rohmer’s masterpiece.

Top 5 Wine Films

1. French Kiss

2. Sideways

3. Withnail and I

4. Babette’ Feast

5. A Good Year

These are not films where wine is merely referenced as for example in the Bond movies I just mentioned or in say a film like one of my all time favourites, Casablanca, where wine and champagne play a constant chipper part. If you pause the famous Paris scene where Rick, Bogart and Ilsa, Bergman are drinking all their Champagne up so the Germans do not get it you can see they are drinking Mumm’s Cordon Rouge, though it is not name checked, the Champagne that has that hour is Veuve Cliquot referred to several times in the film.

The 5 films above feature wine as a plot point, a character not a prop. In the final scene in Withnail and I, a Chateau Margaux 1953, a very fine vintage selling even today for around €3000 a bottle is downed and inspires Withnail to a rousing closing soliloquy from Hamlet ‘I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth’ on the meaning of life and 1953 Margaux.

In the heartbreaking 1987 Babette’s Feast, wine plays a central part in the redemption of a dour, mean spirited pair of sisters and their dour clique of Friends when presented as part of a complex life affirming meal, the fest of the film’s title by a poor women who was their cook for 2 decades but who won the lottery. She spends every penny of her winnings, and therefore plunges herself back into poverty to deliver the feast to the remote village.

Great Burgundy wines feature and are explained including Clos de Vougeot, the winery of St. Bernard and the mother winery of all Burgundy.

The reason why I personally place French Kiss over Sideways is that in Sideways, wine is used really as a prop for analysing the films heroes and somehow we are left outside the world of wine. Yes, the explanation of Pinot Noir as a nervy wine, that seems austere at first but if you work with it and study it hard it will eventually reveal its subtle, complex side was a devastating analysis of the complex central character and opened up a huge market for Pinot Noir, but it felt false in the film to me where they did not seem to really like wine at all.

French Kiss is a comedy, starring of all people Kevin Kline as a French winemaker, from what appears to be the southern Rhone, if not somewhere just north of Aix En Provence, with easy access to the French Riviera.

Kline, is an obsessed winemaker, who talks, breathes and smuggles vines in order to establish his small vineyard. At one stage in the film he offers a 10 minute tutorial in how to smell and taste wine using a Nez Du Vin game, a collection of pots filled with dried flowers and stones from the local region. Romantic lead in the film Meg Ryan is also treated to a dazzling explanation of Terroir and organic farming.

It is also hilarious and completely un-po-faced about wine, which I am afraid Sideways was very guilty of being.

Top 5 Wine TV Shows

1. Falcon Crest

2. Brideshead Revisited

3. A Year In Provence

4. Frasier

5. Simpsons

Television has been very aware of wine and top of my list is a truly dreadful old soap, but rather shame-faced I have been watching re-runs on satellite television recently and I have to say it has a consistent, well drawn and interesting wine plot line, being of course set in a winery, the Falcon Crest of the title. Dallas with vines is a not unfair summary. If you can close your eyes to the ludicorus personal relations issues and rather too many murders and robberies it is quite an enjoyable wine romp.

Brideshead and A Year in Provence feature wine prominently but it is Frasier and the Simpsons episodes involving Frasier, actor Kellsey Grammer playing sideshow Bob that use wine so well in their plots.

Frasier wears its wine knowledge quite prominently and Niles in Frasier is the star of Wine TV a documentary channel entirely devoted to wine as well as in car CD’s which act as guided tours around Napa Valley.

Wines that have featured include most of the Fist Classed Growths and famously Chateau Petrus.

The best line of all comes from the Simpson’s take on the Frasier family. Sideshow Bob is being greeted by his brother Cecil, basically Niles from Frasier, on Bob’s escape from prison.

Cecil: I have the ’82 Chateau Latour and a rather indifferent Rausan-Segla.

Bob: I’ve been in prison, Cecil. I’ll be happy just as long it doesn’t taste like orange drink fermented under a radiator.

Cecil: That would be the Latour, then.

Of course a lot of wine gets ordered and that’s an end to it, the simple act of identifying a good wine should apparently be all we need to see the worth of the character. Bond features here, more recently than you might think.

Top 5 Best Wines On Film

1 Chateau Angelus 1982 (95) around €300 a bottle – James Bond (Daniel Craig) in Casino Royale

2. Veuve Cliquot 1926 (was apparently regarded as 100 point wine) around €3000 a bottle for Veuve from the 1930s at present, Captain Renauld in Casablanca

3. Cheval Blanc 1961 (96) AROUND €4200 a bottle a present in recent auctions, Miles in Sideways

4. Miason Bouchard Pere et Fils, Volnay 1er Cru Les Caillerets, 1926 (apparently regarded as a very fine vintage 95) around €1500 a bottle in Hitchcock’s Notorious, drunk by Ingrid Bergman

5. Dow’s Vintage Port 1913 (no notes or price are available,but a 1919 Dows will set you back barely €1000) brought from the cellar by Butler Anthony Hopkins in the Merchant Ivory film, The Remains Of The Day.

Once you start watching the wines consumed in films and television it becomes as addictive as scrabble or an I Spy game, before you know it you will find yourself pausing the DVD for a closer look at the label, but do not fret, you are not alone. and I see it as the modern take on line by line analysis of allusions in any great poetry.

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