By The Glass

The last two months of our quarantine, I am sure most of us stuck at home have done our share of movie bingeing. For a change, why not watch movies with wine themes?

In the mid 1990s, at the beginning of my wine career, I started paying more attention to movies that had wine in their story line or backdrop. I remembered watching the 1995 romantic comedy French Kiss starring Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline, where Kline, who played a French guy, in one scene, is teaching Ryan how to associate wine aromas with herbs. I also recall a Bruce Willis action-crime movie in 1998 called Mercury Rising, where in one scene Willis breaks into the cellar of the villain played by Alec Baldwin and starts opening and drinking Alec’s luxury wine collection of Château Petrus and Château Cheval Blanc, even mentioning that one of the wines he tried is corky. Then, there was a Jacky Chan movie in 1999 with Taiwanese actress Shu Qi (of The Transporter) showing the action star rolling his hand-crafted giant Riedel crystal Bourgogne glass from side to side on a table to aerate a Bordeaux wine.

These are just some memorable wine scenes in regular movies, but there are a few good movies that really have wine as a theme or as a major part of its theme. Below are the three films I immensely enjoyed, and I highly recommend to wine lovers. Warning: I include spoilers.

Sideways (2004)

This critically acclaimed movie revolves around two old friends in their 40s portrayed by seasoned actors Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church (Sandman in Spider Man 3 of the Toby Maguire era), who are on a week-long road trip to the Santa Ynez Valley wine country.

Giamatti plays Miles Raymond, a hardcore wine enthusiast and English teacher from San Diego. Miles is also a frustrated book writer and a bitter divorcee who still longs to reconcile with his ex-wife. Haden Church plays Jack Cole, a small-time TV actor who is getting married soon. The wine country road trip is Miles’ idea as a send-off bachelor gift to his long-time buddy Jack. But Jack has other things in mind. While Miles wants to enjoy the wines, the local cuisine, the picturesque scenery, and the brotherly bonding, Jack is more interested in having guiltless sexual flings before tying the knot.

As the week progresses, Miles has been constantly at the side of the testosterone-charged Jack, including being his sidekick as Jack conducts an open affair with Stephanie, a wine-knowledgeable staffer they met during a winery tasting visit. Stephanie’s friend Maya is a waitress at a restaurant Miles frequents when he visits the wine country. As Jack gets to spend more time with Stephanie, Miles and Maya also begin to develop feelings for each other. In an accidental slip up, Miles reveals to Maya that Jack is engaged to be married, and Maya quickly tells Stephanie. Stephanie physically attacks Jack in anger and ends their ill-advised affair.

Instead of learning his lesson, the incorrigible Jack quickly finds another willing victim in waitress Cammi, also a fan of his. But this time, he gets caught by Cammi’s husband, and once more Miles helps Jack out of a potentially messy situation to ensure that Jack’s looming marriage will push through.

While Jack is creating his own problems, Miles also receives bad news from his book agent. Jack’s draft novel has been rejected by another publisher, and his dream of becoming a writer seems doomed.

Everything hits rock bottom for Miles as he meets his ex-wife at Jack’s wedding, and she introduces him to her new husband. Knowing that he can no longer win his ex-wife back, Miles quickly leaves the wedding reception to pick-up his most cherished wine, a 1961 Château Cheval Blanc, that he has been saving to drink on a special occasion. He drinks this wine rather brusquely in a nearby fast food restaurant with only a styro-cup, whiffing and quaffing in total pleasure. I do see why such a majestic wine like a Cheval Blanc can make one’s crappy life more tolerable and can offer some joy in such dire situations.

There are quite a lot of memorable scenes in this movie. Most wine people I know remember the Merlot-bashing, and Pinot Noir-reverence dialogue, but for me, the most memorable scene also happens to be one of the most disgusting I have ever seen in any movie. This is when a very irate Miles (after learning his novel has been rejected by a publisher) returns to a wine tasting room, and wants to drink more out of frustration. But the winery personnel refuse to pour him a full glass even when he offers to pay for it, saying Miles should just buy a bottle and drink outside their premises. In a feat of anger, Miles takes the spit bucket and unmindfully gulps down the contents… OUCH! I still twitch every time I remember this particular visual.

Bottle Shock (2008)

Bottle Shock is based on a true story that occurred in 1976 — the historic year that literally and figuratively put Californian wines in the wine map. The movie stars the late Alan Rickman as Steven Spurrier, Bill Pullman as Jim Barrett, and Chris Pine as Bo Barrett. Bottle Shock tells of the exploits of Spurrier, a British owner of a “not-so-busy” Paris wine shop, who hatches an ambitious wine tasting plan to pit his favorite French wines against relatively unknown Californian wines.

The original idea was more to see if other country’s wines could be at par with the proud French wines in terms of taste and quality. Steven then travels to California in search of worthy wines to bring to the Paris wine tasting. In a twist of fate, Steven meets Jim Barrett, the hard nosed owner of struggling Château Montelena. And soon after, he visits the winery to taste some barrel samples of the Chardonnay. Convinced that the Château Montelena Chardonnay can compete with the best White Burgundy from France, Steven offers to buy two bottles to bring back to Paris. Jim does not believe in the tasting and feels that Steven is only taking Château Montelena to the Paris tasting to embarrass Napa wines. But son Bo thinks it is a fantastic idea and is very confident about their wine, so he sneaks out two bottles of their 1973 Château Montelena Chardonnay to give to Steven before he departs for Paris. And the rest, as they say, is history. Château Montelena emerges as the surprise winning white wine in this momentous tasting event known as Judgment of Paris by beating the more illustrious French burgundies and shocking not only the eight French wine expert judges, but also the rest of the world — a real underdog story that is actually stranger than fiction (especially during the 1970s).

The movie is just very entertaining. Alan Rickman is hilarious. But while the movie was well done and was well received by film critics, it has not escaped controversy from those in the wine trade. For one, Steven Spurrier, the main character in the supposedly true-to- life movie, questioned the accuracy of the story. Also, the real winemaker of the 1973 Château Montelena Chardonnay was Croatian immigrant Mike Grgich (now owner of Grgich Hills Cellar) who worked for Jim Barrett back then. Gustavo Brambila, who is depicted in the movie as the gifted winemaker, was more like an understudy of Mike Grgich during this period at Château Montelena.

Uncorked (2020)

Uncorked is a Netflix original movie, and one of those new releases I watched while under the pandemic quarantine. The movie has no big stars and is actually about an African-American family in Tennessee — unusual when one considers what is normally associated with wine culture. But despite the lead character, Elijah (played by Mamoudou Athie), being African-American, there are no racial undertones when it comes to Elijah’s wine endeavor, though the soundtrack is “black” hip-hop music.

Uncorked talks of the relationship between Elijah and his father, Louis (played by Courtney B. Vance). Elijah works at Joe’s, a local liquor shop where he develops fondness for wines. He is tutored by his boss Raylan, who also encourages Elijah to turn his interest in wine into a master sommelier title. To pursue a master sommelier title, Elijah needs to first pass a state exam for sommeliers, which he does. Elijah then enrolls in a sommelier/wine school to prepare himself for the very difficult master sommelier exam. As Elijah mentions to his girlfriend Tanya, “There are only 240 master sommeliers in the world.”

But when Elijah tells his father Louis that he passed the qualifying exam for master sommelier, Louis is not thrilled. The plan Louis has is for Elijah to take over their thriving barbeque restaurant started by his father, Elijah’s grandfather, in Memphis. Their barbeque restaurant is also opening its second branch. Elijah’s mother Sylvia (Niecy Nas) is, however, supportive of her son and convinces Louis to let Elijah do what he wants. While in school, Elijah is asked to join a study group which goes to Paris on an exchange program. While in Paris, Elijah finds out his mom has died from cancer.

He comes back home and is faced with a huge quandary: his desire to help his dad run their family barbeque business and his own ambition of becoming a sommelier. He chooses the former. Elijah drops out of wine school and works with his dad full time. But with prodding from Tanya and eventually, his dad, Elijah agrees to go for the master sommelier exam. Louis decides to help his son review. Elijah fails the exam but is not giving up on his dream. He re-enrolls in wine school, this time, more determined than ever to become a master sommelier.

Wine trade professionals will have real empathy with the character of Elijah. But this is still a fictional story as to achieve the actual master sommelier status — and, yes, there really are just 269 master sommeliers in the world — you need to pass four stages, not two as simplified in the movie (though the movie does a great job of showing the grind and hustle of being a sommelier).

The sommelier accreditation is administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) through examinations that get much harder with each level. You start with the CMS first level, for the Introductory Sommelier title, and once you pass this, you go to the next level, for the Certified Sommelier title. You pass this, you go to the next level, for the Advanced Sommelier title. And finally, if you pass this, you hit the ultimate level, going for the Master Sommelier title. There is no bypassing of levels. The first three levels of exams are mostly in written form, while Master Sommelier level includes an oral exam on theories in front of a panel, aside from blind tasting of six wines (three red, three whites), and a service exam. Each part needs to be passed to become a Master Sommelier. Even after passing all three levels from introductory to advanced sommelier, the percentage of passing the final level is very low at around 4-5% only. With each level passed, you get a new lapel pin that comes with a certificate. While the Uncorked story line on father and son conflict is a bit old and tiring, the wine side of it makes this a real fun watch.

I intentionally did not include documentary movies like Netflix’s Sour Grapes (2016) about the life of wine con artist Rudy Kurniawan, or Mondovino (2004), a low-budget documentary, done entirely with a handheld digital camcorder, about commercialization and globalization of wine and its effect on the various wine regions.

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