My favourite wine movies

Karl Wells
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Documentary and drama the perfect pair for sipping and watching

Believe it or not, there are quite a few entertaining wine-themed movies out there. Recently I was organizing my DVD collection and noticed two in particular. I viewed them again and they stand up pretty well. Here are my thoughts on both.

Mondovino

If nothing else, “Mondovino” is a great example of how one man with a lightweight camera and travel budget can put together an engaging, informative documentary. Mind you, filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter chose a fascinating story and told it by snagging interviews with exactly the right people.

“Mondovino” (Wine World) is about the globalization of the wine industry. It explains why industry players think globalization is either a good thing, or the death of wine, as suggested in the film by Languedoc wine maker Aimé Guibert.

He states his case against globalization in passionate but extremely pessimistic terms, despite, with a group called Citizens for the Protection of the Forest, having stopped the global Mondavi Corp. from setting up in their area.

The Mondavis and wine consultant Michel Rolland are on the opposite side of the argument posed by crusty Guibert and another French wine maker, Hubert de Montille of Burgundy.

Rolland represents everything that Guibert and Montille dislike about the way many wines in France and around the world are being made nowadays.

Anti-globalization wine importer, New York’s Neil Rosenthal, in another heartfelt speech in “Mondovino,” describes it as “evil” and “the vanilla-zation of wine.” He says the style of wines being made by consultants like Rolland is of “high extract, new oak and merlot influenced.”

“The terroir is there,” he says, “but they are suppressing the terroir.” (Terroir refers to the soil in which the grapes are grown and the influence it and the weather have on the resulting taste of the wine.)

So why the push to change the way wine is made? Essentially it’s because more of the Rolland style of wine is being sold in major world markets.

And wineries, especially large ones, want to cash in on the trend. “Mondovino” gets really interesting and at times compelling when it becomes evident that the spark that ignited the worldwide conversion to the new,

softer-style wines originated from the home office of a single man in the quiet hamlet of Moncton, Md. That man’s presence, invisible or actual, is in virtually every scene of “Mondovino.” His name is Robert Parker.

Parker is the world’s leading wine critic, a man with the power to bestow phenomenal success on any winery in the world by giving its wines the Parker seal of approval. “Mondovino” clearly reveals that Parker and wine consultant Rolland have a mutual admiration for one another.

Parker loves Rolland’s wines and because of that, Rolland is in demand to make wines for wineries around the globe, usually the large players that can afford to hire him. In the film, it’s said that Michel Rolland consults on wines in 12 countries for 100 wineries.

The issue, of course, is that Robert Parker’s nose and palate (both insured for $1 million) determine the kind of wine that gets made in massive quantities around the world, a kind of mondovino by Parker.

The movie “Mondovino” by Jonathan Nossiter does an excellent job of laying out both sides of the argument for us.

Although I love this film, I believe it’s about 30 to 40 minutes longer than it needs to be. Nossiter did his own directing, shooting and editing so he probably found it difficult to cut scenes to which he may have been attached for the wrong reasons. Scenes in South America at the beginning and end of “Mondovino,” while interesting, could easily have been cut without interrupting the narrative.  

Bottle Shock

The term bottle shock refers to the sometimes negative effect that travel, particularly air travel, can have on a bottle of fine wine. “Bottle Shock” is a perfect name for a film about Californian wine being flown to Paris to compete in a 1976 blind tasting against French vintages, since, to the surprise of many, the American wines won top honours.

Director Randall Miller’s “Bottle Shock” is based on a true story, a historic one.

The results of the 1976 tasting, an event organized by wine aficionado Stephen Spurrier and his Academy of Wine in Paris, shocked the world. Next came articles about the upset in Time magazine and many international publications. The win triggered the subsequent worldwide success of the California wine industry. Up to that point, French wine was king. Afterward, Spurrier, played by Alan Rickman in “Bottle Shock,” said, “We have shattered the myth of the invincible French vine.”

The movie is mostly set in the glorious Napa Valley. You’ll appreciate the sweeping aerial shots of Napa — hectare after hectare of sun-kissed grape vines — that contrast sharply with the dark, grey interior of Spurrier’s Paris shop. It is in those dimly lit quarters that Spurrier (Rickman) in the company of his friend, Maurice from Milwaukee, played by the late Dennis Farina, comes up with the idea for the 1976 tasting. He sees a newspaper article about America’s bicentennial and uses it as a hook to invite American vintners to participate in a tasting to celebrate the longstanding links between France and the United States.

The main characters, apart from Spurrier, are Château Montelina owner Jim Barrett and his ne’er-do-well son Bo Barrett, played by Bill Pullman and Chris Pine (“Star Trek”), respectively. The elder Barrett is obsessed with making perfect chardonnay. He and Bo’s mother are divorced. When things become so bad financially that Barrett can’t afford to buy needed oak barrels, his son buys them with money borrowed from his mom. It leads to the movie’s most tension-filled scene, as Barrett senior punches a hole in a cupboard with his bare fist, in lieu perhaps of punching Bo. Eventually, everything turns as rosy as the colour of pinot noir when Château Montelina’s 1973 chardonnay wins at Paris.

“Bottle Shock” overflows with wonderful performances. Rickman plays Spurrier, the wine snob who at the start scoffs at the idea of America producing drinkable wines, with just the right amount of sneering contempt. And the look on his face when he realizes the Napa wine has won the tasting is priceless.

Dennis Farina plays Maurice, an American with a Paris chauffeur business and a palate for great wine (usually drunk for free at Rickman’s shop tastings) with just the right amount of cheese.

The contrast between Rickman’s condescending, upper class accented character and Farina’s loudly dressed, brash American, provides more than a few humorous moments.  

Watching this movie will definitely make you want to pour yourself a glass of wine. You can credit the actors for that. Every time an actor in “Bottle Shock” tastes a superior wine, his or her onscreen reaction is so evocative and charged with positive emotion they make you absolutely believe they are drinking heavenly nectar. Maybe they were.

• • •

For regular updates on “One Chef One Critic,” my Telegram Dining Out column and the latest developments on the local culinary scene, please follow me on Twitter: @karl_wells

Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef and recipient of awards from the national body of the Canadian Culinary Federation and the Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. He is also a restaurant panellist with enRoute Magazine. Contact him through his website, www.karlwells.com.

Organizations: Mondavi Corp., Academy of Wine, Time magazine Canadian Culinary Federation Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: California, France, Paris New York Napa Valley Moncton America South America Milwaukee United States.The

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