Going Long on Sideways and Bongo for Mondovino


This past year seemed to be the year of the wine movie. Not since the criminally bad “A Walk In The Clouds” — featuring Matrix bad boy, Keanu Reeves in the role of vintner, uh, dude — have we had wine as a topic in cinema. I, incidentally, was working at Mount Veeder Winery when the “A Walk in the Clouds” film crew showed up for their non-Hollywood vineyard shots. Since it was May there was nary a grape to be found for the harvest scenes. Not to worry, over-educated future directors hung fake, plastic grapes on the vines. They were at least a pretty good mimic of Flame Seedless to my eye, anyhow. When they were finished filming, however, they left all the plastic clusters out there on the vines. Our vineyard crew “picked” boxes and boxes of the stuff and brought them back to the winery and left them with me at the lab. What the pickers must have thought. I said to myself, “Great, what do I do with them now? Get some Chianti flasks and open a pizza parlour?” So if you wonder why it cost them $20 million to make that film consider the props budget (well, that, or the cost for Keanu’s acting coach).

Assessments of film merit aside, my main criticism with movies featuring a somewhat obscure subject such as wine is that the filmmaker, in an effort to make the subject more accessible — even cinematically thrilling — simplifies matters so that the film is riddled with errors or becomes just plain ridiculous. So with not just one but two movies featuring wine this year, and me being a wine “expert”, people have asked me my opinion on the two films, “Sideways” and “Mondovino”. Well, I’m no Ebert but here’s what I think.

In “Sideways” a struggling novelist and oenophile, Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, takes his best friend and groom-to-be, Jack, on a vinous bachelor party and send-off tour of the Santa Ynez wine country. Jack’s insatiable need to sow some wild oats before his wedding day leads them into double-dates with a saucy tasting room worker, or self described “pour girl”, and a recently divorced waitress and part time viticulture student, Maya, with whom Miles discovers a kindred spirit in his love for wine and, possibly, a little hope for love in his own failed romantic life.

At first I didn’t like “Sideways.” It was not particularly enjoyable watching pathetic men behaving badly for 2 hours. If the movie had been about two women on a road trip, would the characters have been filled with so much regret and self-loathing. Then, however, I remembered “Thelma and Louise.” Although they weren’t despicable wretches like Miles and Jack, it didn’t end so cheerily for them now did it? But I realized that it probably isn’t so important that the protagonists are likeable but that they are believable. Giamatti pulls off a convincing performance as the depressed and bitter wreck who finds his only enjoyment in life through wine. The real star of the film, however, is Pinot noir and, although it has a non-speaking role, it shines. Scenes of bottles with estimable names flash by quickly on the screen providing gleeful cameos for the wine cognoscenti, stunning vistas of vineyards, and close-up, slo-mo shots of Pinot noir vines that would make John Woo proud (or Fellini, take your pick). What really struck me is an exchange between Miles and Maya where they share what it is they love about wine. Though his words serve as a metaphor for the vulnerability in his own character, Miles, in a manner, gives Pinot noir its own voice as he expounds on his favorite grape variety:

It’s a hard grape to grow…thin skinned, temperamental…Pinot needs constant care and attention and, in fact, can only grow in specific tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing growers can do it really, can tap into Pinot’s most fragile, delicate qualities. Only when someone has taken the time to truly understand its potential can Pinot be coaxed into its fullest expression. And when that happens, its flavors are the most haunting and brilliant, and subtle and thrilling and ancient on the planet…

And Maya, in turn, says:

I do like to think about the life of a wine, how it’s a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing, how the sun was shining that summer, or if it rained…what the weather was like. I think about all those people who tended the grapes…I love how a wine continues to evolve, how every time I open a bottle it’s going to taste different than if I had opened it on any other day. Because a bottle of wine is actually alive‹it’s constantly evolving…And it tastes so @#$%! good.

To achieve such tonal authenticity, the director, Alexander Payne, must have interviewed a few winemakers and wine enthusiasts. I have never seen wine so accurately portrayed in a major motion picture. So, although it is difficult for me to sympathize with the Miles character since he is such a sad sack, I eventually recognized his humanity through his musings on wine. Spoken like a true winemaker!

The second wine film of the year was the highly controversial yet amusing documentary “Mondovino”. Filmmaker, Jon Nossiter, takes an Errol Morris/Michael Moore approach to reveal the true nature of people: simply point the camera at people and let the film roll, soon enough they will say something illuminating. The film is a globe-trotting, expansive journey to many of the world’s wine regions linked by interviews with wine importers, winemaking consultants, critics, retailers, writers, and small and mega-sized wine producers. He does not simply record and report, though. This is a movie and he is a director. With some careful and deliberate editing, Nossiter puts forth his case: the state of modern wine is increasingly dictated by a form of globalization where market forces drive both large multinational wineries as well as smaller, endorsement-seeking producers to produce a certain homogeneous style of wine regardless of the fruit’s provenance. The driving forces behind the movement towards this paradigm, the director posits, are the dominance of a certain powerful wine critic — and his preferred style(s) of wine — and the far reaching influence of a globally sought-after wine consultant who, the film argues, advocates a conforming aesthetic which supersedes individuality and distinctiveness of origin. They defend their roles as merely improving wine quality and consistency. The director wants the audience to recognize that not only are diversity of style based on expression of terroir disappearing but so is the notion of personal taste. As a result the filmmaker doesn’t hide his bias towards the smaller, artisan wine producers. Neither does he hesitate to shine some light on the contrarian, contradictory, hypocritical and even envious sides to personalities that either resist or cave into this internationally imposed style. Nossiter contrasts the views of the small, mostly European wineries against the large, mostly American conglomerates as a battle of politics, culture and tradition. It may be biased and, at times, unfair. But there may be essences of truth threaded throughout the film. And, it is amusing.

Hmm, but what about the small, artisan producer from the U.S whose goal is to grow grapes and make wines that express their terroir, that exhibit their sense of place? Take Peay Vineyards, for example. Our style of vineyard and winery was not exhibited in Mondovino (American, small, artisan). We believe that our wines display the minerality in the nose and in the palate which is the hallmark of the expression of our coastal vineyard. The wines are distinctive and possess a bright acidity with an essence and purity of fruit. But wait, if the camera was turned on me, who knows what kind of babble might spew forth from my lips? I might be classified as a “terroir-ist” for my ideals or called an “indiginista” for my proclivity to fermentations using indigenous yeasts as I gather up the rebel forces against bland wine! Oh my, we better make sure the film is not rolling! Although, I must point out that I had one brief nano-second of a “cameo” in the film. But it definitely had less air time than any dog or goldfish. So, film buffs can try to spot me but you are more likely to find me roving around the vineyard, poised on top of a barrel in the winery or settling down in front of a delectable meal and glass of wine with Nick and Andy.

So, Hooray to Hollywood and Salud to Mondovino for their attempts to bring the cares of the wine world to the world at large. What’s next, Michael Broadbent as Agent 007?

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