Frogs, Secrets & Satire: Extreme Wine Goes to the Movies

I’m working on the two chapters of Extreme Wine about wine and popular culture — celebrity wine and wine in film, television and on the web and I thought I’d share some of my discoveries with you and, as always, ask for your feedback in the Comments section below. Sideways and Bottleshock are the two best-known wine-centered films, but here are three others for your consideration.

Art Imitates Life: Grenouille d’hiver

Grenouille d’hiver means “Winter Frog” and it is the title of a short film by the director Slony Sow that was first broadcast on French television in 2011. It is making the rounds of film festivals, including Cannes;  I haven’t seen it yet except for the short trailer on YouTube. It stars Gérard Depardieu in an emotional role. “Benjamin, grower, sees his wife die in his arms following a long illness. Only one way out for him: death. But a young Japanese girl, came especially for its wine tasting, will bring it gently to mourn a series of symbols and exchange between two cultures,” according to the film’s official synopsis as quaintly translated from the French by Google.

Gérard Depardieu has played many roles in his long career – over 170 of them since he began in the 1960s according to his French Wikipedia page. He’s played everything from Cyrano the big-nosed patriot of the Edmond Rostand play to Oblex the big-nosed patriot of French cartoon fame. He’s worked with iconic directors like Francois Truffaut and won most of the top awards including the César and the Legion of Honor. He is scheduled to portray libertine French socialist politician Dominique Strauss Kahn in an upcoming film. That should be interesting!

Depardieu has played so many characters for so long that there might seem that Benjamin would be just another role. Except that the vines he stands among as he contemplates harsh fate and his own mortality are actually his own on his vineyard estate in Anjou. And I’m pretty sure the wine he sips with the young Japanese visitor, which opens the door to grief, is his too. Depardieu has owned Chateau de Tingé in the Coteau du Layon appellation since 1989. He owns the estate, which includes a 14th century castle, and oversees things generally in the way that a busy global media star can, leaving the actual winemaking to an old friend.

The film seems to be an interesting commentary on wine’s ability to store and release feelings and its power to transcend language. I’m looking forward to seeing all 18 minutes of this film when it finally becomes available.

Wine? We Have No Wine

The second film is completely different and yet manages to strike some of the same notes. I’m talking about Stanley Kramer’s 1969 The Secret of Santa Vittoria, which is based upon Robert Crichton’s best-selling novel. It stars Anthony Quinn, Anna Magnani, Virna Lisi, Hardy Kruger and Sergio Franchi. The entire two-hour plus film is available on YouTube — just click on the image above to watch as much or as little as you like.

The setting is a sleepy Italian town in the closing months of World War II. The film is played as a romantic farce with town drunkard Quinn  unexpectedly elevated to mayor just as German troops approach, intending to occupy the village and seize its only important asset — more than a million bottles of the local cooperative’s wine stored in the cellar under the town hall.

With Quinn as their leader, the townspeople risk death to save themselves by saving their wine, hiding it in the old Roman caves beneath the city. This act brings the divided town together in a way that probably nothing else could do, making the deception’s ultimate victory all the more miraculous.  Great fun!

This is Spinal Corked

The third film is called Corked! and it is a 2010 satire made, like “This is Spinal Tap” and “Best in Show,” in the form of a “mockumentary.” In this case an innocent film crew shows up in the Sonoma Valley and interviews a collection of increasingly outrageous caricatures of the “usual suspects” of the wine world including a world-famous wine critic with initials RP. (The naïve wine tourists are my favorite characters.)

Documentaries tend to be uneven and so is this film — the characters who get the most screen time aren’t always the funniest or most interesting but it all comes together in the end. The romantic image that we cultivate about wine and wine making (see films above) is a bit of a fraud. It isn’t a complete fake as Corked! suggests (by definition satire needs to go over the top), but it’s not a completely noble calling, either.

Wine is about people and relationships (the point of all three films, I suppose). No wonder it is so complex. No wonder it translates so well to film.

7 responses

  1. Hi Mike,

    we just had a “Wine Week” here in Brussels and one of the features was wine-related movies. Yu can see the programme here

    Another movie I remember is the Comet Year – and also that about wine in California after the war with Keanu Reeves… here it is. I love to see how mixed the community is (Italians, German, Mexicans…), and how they re-plant the vineyard with pre-phylloxera cuttings.



  2. I liked “A Good Year” much better than “Sideways.” It was overflowing with nostalgia from the personal perspective of Russel Crowe’s character to the orchard itself. The story line was much more interesting and have seen the movie several times. I saw “Sideways” once, and that was too much.

  3. Bottle Shock , a feature film that dramatizes the 1976 wine tasting, debuted at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival . A second film (Judgment of Paris, based on George Taber ‘s book of the same name) is in production, and there has been controversy between the makers of the two films with allegations of defamation and misrepresentation.

  4. Thus, in 2009, Guillaume Bodin’s self-financed project to create a documentary devoted to biodynamic viticulture was born. Filming started in January 2010, and was set in several locations, from the region of Mâcon and Burgundy, to the Loire Valley and Languedoc, in close contact with vintners who, day after day, express their opinion as to how to best tend vines, using a sustainable approach respectful of the terroir. The Bret Brothers (Domaine de la Soufrandière), Olivier Jullien (Mas Jullien), Thierry Germain (Domaine des Roches Neuves), Aubert de Villaine (Domaine de la Romanée-Conti) , and Nicolas Rossignol (Domaine Rossignol-Trapet) are just a few of the contributing actors in this passionate and political film, which looks at the world of wine from a new perspective.

  5. According to the film’s director Roderick Coover, a visiting professor in the UCSD Department of Communication, “Burgundy and the Language of Wine” is the result of a two-year study on winemakers and winemaking villages in Burgundy. The film interweaves montage studies and interviews locating culture at the intersection of language, image, and sound. In particular the film concentrates on the life of winemakers in two villages, Vosne Romanee, in the famous Cote de Nuits, and Bouzeron, in the less prestigious Cote Chalonaise.

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