The Trouble With “Wine Films”

by Tim Elliott on February 20, 2009

Bottle Shock

Image via Wikipedia

Since the movie “Sideways” in 2004, filmmakers have been trying to create movies that would evoke a similar response with audiences. “Sideways” became an independent film sensation that also intensified demand for Pinot Noir, and the opposite for Merlot, in the U.S. market. Most reviews, including my own, were positive for the film particularly in how wine was depicted. 

Time passed and other projects were put into production with the first “wine film” being Ridley Scott’s “A Good Year” in 2006. Since early reviews were terrible for the film, I passed watching it until it was on HBO. And I was somewhat surprised to find not the disaster expected but a flawed film with some decent performances. But it failed as a wine film since the filmmakers didn’t understand what “Sideways” got right.

They made wine a central character in the story.

Wine in “Sideways” was something that affected and transformed the central characters of the story. It took on a significance of being something more than just a prop, as wine had been in every film before “Sideways.” And wine continued in this subordinate role in “A Good Year” that couldn’t save a predicable retelling of “Under the Tuscan Sun” from a male perspective but set in Provence.

I thought the same thing while watching “Bottle Shock” last weekend. Like “A Good Year,” I waited until I could watch it as a part of my Netflix subscription and it was not as bad as I expected. But it wasn’t that good either despite the filmmakers attempts to make wine central to the story.

Very loosely inspired by George Taber’s “Judgement of Paris” the film tells the story of the Jim and Bo Barrett who’s Chardonnay beat the best white Burgundies in the 1976 blind tasting organized by Steven Spurrier. I can see why Taber and Spurrier have said bad things about “Bottle Shock” since they both come off as eccentrics if not buffoons (Taber especially). But it’s the film’s suspension of belief and compression of the story that really sink its chances of becoming another “Sideways.”

Adapting “Judgement of Paris” would prove to be a difficult challenge since the book is only interesting in the middle telling the stories of the people behind the winning wines. Both Warren Winiarski and Mike Grgich figure prominently in the book documenting the back story of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet and Chateau Montelena Chardonnay but are nowhere to be found in “Bottle Shock.” Since the movie is about Chateau Montelena and Steven Spurrier, Winiarski’s lack of screen time is understandable but Grgich made the winning wine and is only evoked by a guy with a barret in the background of a couple scenes. This probably had more to do with the bad blood between Jim Barrett and Mike Grgich than the choices of the screenwriters, but these sorts of deviations from the facts ultimately prove too much and the result is a mildly entertaining tale that will bother wine lovers to no end with its loose ends (we are supposed to believe a bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc is available at a dive bar in Calistoga? the temporary discoloring of the Montelena Chardonnay happened to the 1972 vintage and not the ’73 as depicted in the film).

But documentaries don’t have these sorts of issues since the viewer doesn’t have to read between the lines. And I’m happy to report that the new wine documentary “Merlove” is worth a look for anyone into wine. A full review and interview with filmmaker Rudy McClain on my next podcast posted this weekend.

 

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  • http://www.ourwinestory.com Dylan

    I'm glad to hear that Merlove didn't turn to Merhate. It had so much promise in the trailer I saw. Looking forward to the review and interview of Merlove, Tim.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/1winedude5036 1WineDude

    Tim – I think you nailed this description of what makes or breaks a wine film. The wine in Bottle Shock was so elusive that it never showed up. The wine in Sideways felt like such a familiar friend that you almost felt pain watching the main character abuse it whenever he got his heart broken…

  • http://www.dirtysouthwine.com Dirty

    Maybe I'm the only one that had such a violent reaction to Bottle Shock…

    Wine was hardly a character- It was more of a film about a girl who sleeps with two guys, and Alan Rickman bumbling around than actually anything to do with wine.

    I've seen it 2x, as I had to sit through it on a flight last month…

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/winecast winecast

    @1WineDude: As someone who went to school in San Diego and has eaten at several local dive hamburger joints, I get a tear in my eye each time I see Miles guzzle his Cheval Blanc ;-)

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/winecast winecast

    @Dirty: Your Southern constitution is stronger than mine as I could barely stand Bottle Shock the first time. But it was getting the facts wrong and plot holes that were more offensive to me.

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