decanted. a winemaker’s journey


The beauty of the Napa Valley is unquestioned.

The beauty of the Napa Valley is unquestioned.

(2016) Documentary (Digital Cave) Steve Reynolds, Mike Martin, Julien Fayard, Anthony Bell, Heidi Barrett, Phillippe Melka, Arturo Irucuto, Aaron Pott, Michael Scholz, Andy Wilcox, Alex Mossman, Fred Schwartz. Directed by Nick Kovacic

First off, for the sake of complete honesty, I lived a good portion of my adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area and spent many lovely days in the Napa Valley. A good friend of mine had a bed and breakfast there (the beautiful Country Garden Inn which she is sadly no longer connected with) and like many of those who live in the Valley, knew everyone (Napa is notorious for having a community in which everyone is at least on an acquaintance basis). I got to know several of the vineyards and even a few of the vintners (ah, V. Sattui, home of the amazing Gamay Rouge).

Wine has always been part of the civilized world. Something about a good glass of wine relaxes the soul and allows for contemplation. No other beverage on Earth is so analyzed, so beloved. Wine is the subject of rapturous prose and prosaic discussion. We can endlessly contemplate the difference between wines from one region with another, one varietal with another and never say all that there is to be said. Wine is a bit of madness mixed in with the civility.

When you think of American wine, you largely are thinking of California’s Napa Valley. Although it only produces about 3% of American wine, the Mediterranean-like climate and volcanic soil produce some of the best wines on Earth. A whopping 95% of the wineries are family owned – only recently have beer brewers joined that party with the advent of craft beers. Napa/Sonoma has always been on the forefront of that.

But what makes a wine great? Now there’s a subject for discussion – everyone has different ideas about that. How a wine gets from grape to glass is another. This is ostensibly a look at that process as we watch the seasons change in Napa from harvest to harvest. While this film mainly centers on a start-up, Italics Winery started by Texan Mike Martin and managed by Steve Reynolds of the Reynolds Family Winery, we also get commentary from Napa legend Helen Barrett who is an expert on blending wines that lead to bottles that retail for $1500 apiece to French immigrants Julien Fayard and Phillippe Melka as well as vintner Anthony Bell.

However the emphasis is on the charismatic Reynolds as he works to get Italics underway from the ground up. It’s not an easy venture and there are many parts and pieces that have to be in place; storage of the barrels has to be climate controlled and cool and there has to be enough of it to fit plenty of barrels but as they are digging a cave for barrel storage, the work is slow and not done by the time the grapes are harvested and pressed into what will eventually become wine.

We get a sense that the people portrayed here love what they do – there’s no doubting that. We also get a sense that the work is hard and unending. Sometimes we get a picture in our heads that Napa winemakers spend their days sipping chardonnays, eating amazing friends and having parties but the fact is that more time is spent in the fields, checking on the grapes to make sure that they are growing properly and not being affected by insects or disease, checking on the barrels to make sure the wine is fermenting properly and working in the labs to make sure that the blends are just right.

In fact, winemakers judging from the documentary spend a surprising amount of time in the laboratory and utilize a surprising amount of technology, examining their soil with infrared sensors, and utilizing various programs that help them determine which soil is best for which grape. When you think about it, that makes a lot of sense; Napa Valley is close to another kind of valley – Silicon Valley. You would figure that some of the tech geniuses in that valley would turn their attention to Napa.

But much of the work is done by hand by humans and utilizing methods that go back hundreds of years, even thousands. There’s a continuity to winemaking that you don’t get in almost any other profession; even the blending is largely done by hand with a human being tasting various combinations until the right one is found. It is arduous work but at the end of the day, soul satisfying and you get that these winemakers get that satisfaction.

The big problem with the movie is that we only get a sense of things – the filmmakers tend to skip over a lot of detail (which I imagine they thought would be somewhat boring to the viewer) and we get mainly highlights. There are some truly beautiful images here – Matthew Riggieri and Nate Pesce are to be commended – but there is also a tendency to overuse fast-motion photography to denote the passage of time. Once or twice is fine but especially towards the end of the movie it becomes a bit tedious. In any case, I would rather the filmmakers given us a little more “nuts and bolts.” They certainly had plenty of time – the run time is only 82 minutes so there was certainly room to pad things a bit with more information. They had an opportunity to demystify and educate and chose not to take it. That’s a shame.

But the cinematography brought back many pleasant memories of lazy days hopping from winery to winery and I’ll admit that colors my perception here just a tad. There is a beauty in winemaking that for wine lovers – and I’ll admit I’m not so much a connoisseur so much as an admirer – is part of the overall enjoyment. I will say that wine is a highly social beverage; some of my best memories are friends and family, sipping glasses of wine around a table or a tasting room.

This likely won’t heighten your understanding of wine any, but it will give you more a sense of the pride and the joy of the people who make it. As such it fills a niche in wine documentaries that perhaps could use further exploration, but I was quite happy to enjoy what was delivered here. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a glass of Merlot with my name on it.

REASONS TO GO: The beautiful surroundings and the hard work involved are both well-captured. You get a sense that these people truly love what they do.
REASONS TO STAY: The film lacks detail.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable viewing for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gaghan’s first film in eleven years, his last being Syriana.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: SOMM
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Don’t Kill It

A Good Year


A Good Year

Not even Russell Crowe can look cool in that jacket and Marion Cotillard knows it.

(20th Century Fox) Russell Crowe, Albert Finney, Marion Cotillard, Abbie Cornish, Freddie Highmore, Archie Panjabi, Didier Bourdon, Isabelle Candalier, Jacques Herlin, Tom Hollander, Rafe Spall, Kenneth Cranham, Richard Coyle.  Directed by Ridley Scott

Life is what happens, according to John Lennon, when we’re making other plans. As with many other things, the Beatle had it right. Too often we’re so involved with the day to day distractions of mortgages, raising children, work, school, and the little recreations of TV and internet that we lose sight of what it is to truly live. As a species, I don’t believe we were meant to live this way, and yet we do, day after day.

For some, life is all about the pursuit of money, and for none more so than Max Skinner (Crowe), an underhanded, cold-hearted bond trader in London. He has no scruples when it comes to making profit, whether it involves bending the laws to the breaking point or screwing over friends, colleagues and God knows how many strangers. He is a human shark without pity or feeling. His is a life full of sex but lacking love. In fact, he has only truly loved one person in his entire life; his Uncle Henry (Finney).

Uncle Henry has a chateau in Provence, France where he makes a liquid that somewhat resembles wine. As a boy (Highmore), Max used to visit regularly, especially after his parents died. Henry was a bit on the eccentric side, an avowed ladies man who never married and never intended to. As time went on and Max grew into the adult he would become, he and Henry grew apart. They hadn’t spoken much in ten years when Max received word that Henry had passed on.

Since Henry had not updated his will, Max as his closest known blood relative inherited everything; the chateau, the vineyards and the possessions. Max is not interested in these things and wants to sell them as quickly as possible, preferably with as little involvement in time or trouble as possible. Unfortunately, he is forced to go to Provence to sign paperwork and so he returns to the chateau. There, he is re-introduced to Duflot (Bourdon), who takes care of the vines and makes the wine and his wife Ludivine (Candalier) who is also the chateau’s housekeeper. They are happy to see him, but are also wary; they don’t know what his intentions are and they can smell the trouble on the horizon.

Nor does he disappoint them. When Duflot discovers what Max’s intentions are, he is furious but essentially helpless. After all, the property does belong to Max, who is getting ready to leave when a chance encounter with a headstrong local waitress named Fanny Chenal (Cotillard) causes Max to miss his flight back to London. Things are now further complicated by the appearance of Christie Roberts (Cornish), a Californian who claims to be Henry’s daughter. Max decides to stay in order to protect his property.

And yet the charms of Provence and the leisurely lifestyle of the wine country of France are beginning to weave their charms on him. Moreover, he has begun to fall in love with Fanny Chenal. Reconciling his life as a high-powered bond trader and the life that is part and parcel with the chateau is nigh on impossible. Which life is Max to choose?

This is a stab at comedy, something neither Crowe nor director Scott (who previously worked together on Gladiator) is known for. In point of fact, this isn’t an all-out comedy along the lines of a Borat or Talladega Nights. There are a few moments that are genuinely funny, at Crowe gamely tries his hand at slapstick in a couple of places with some effect. What I liked was watching Crowe poke fun at his own image as a tough guy, particularly in the scene where he is reduced to a gibbering wreck by an intruding scorpion and must be saved by Ludivine. However, it must be said that some of the comic moments do fall a little flat.

Fortunately, that doesn’t cause too much damage. The movie relies on sedate charm, languid pacing and gorgeous photography to cast its spell, and it doesn’t hurt to have some nice work from the cast. Candalier is particularly effervescent in a small role, but when she’s onscreen, she lights things up. Cotillard is a luminous beauty whose strong willed nature doesn’t overwhelm the movie’s gentle spirit. Highmore does a commendable job as the young Max; he has a genuine rapport with Finney, and you get the distinct impression that the two forged a nice bond during filming. Finney is always marvelous, and he doesn’t disappoint here.

The message of living life as if you love it is one that can’t be repeated often enough, because we lose sight of the lesson far too easily. I can see tourism in the Provence region picking up after people see this movie; it looks like a marvelous place to recharge and reflect. This is a romantic movie that is relatively painless for those who are prone to distrusting romantic movies. Sometimes, the proper prescription is a movie that rather than shouting its message at you prefers to deliver it in a soft, soothing voice.

WHY RENT THIS: The charm of Provence is bound to work its magic on you. The acting here is superb, particularly the French actors.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not all of the comedy works here.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little rough language and some sexual content but nothing too out there. This is fine for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to director Ridley Scott, all of the scenes set in Provence were filmed less than an eight minute drive from his home there.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Get Him to the Greek

Bottle Shock


 

Apparently, these auditions for "That '70s Show" didn't go too well.

Apparently, these auditions for "That '70s Show" didn't go too well.

(Freestyle Releasing) Bill Pullman, Chris Pine, Alan Rickman, Dennis Farina, Rachael Taylor, Freddy Rodriguez, Eliza Dushku, Bradley Whitford, Miguel Sandoval. Directed by Randall Miller

Once upon a time, the only real wine was French wine. Everything else was just grape juice that had been left out too long. At least, that was the French point of view and pretty much everyone went along with it.

British wine seller Steven Spurrier (Rickman) sells French wines in Paris, which is a tough road for a Brit. He realizes, somewhat glumly after a bit of prodding from his pal Maurice (Farina) that the only way his business is going to survive is to sell wines not generally available in Paris, which would have to be non-domestic wines. But how to get the French public to accept wines from elsewhere? He came up with the idea of hosting a blind taste test between French wines and wines from California, adjudicated by French experts with the test itself to take place in France. He somewhat irreverently named this competition “The Judgment of Paris.”

It was a difficult sell at first. The French wine cognoscenti were of the impression that California winemakers are dilettantes, rednecks and stoners – which wasn’t far from the truth – unpracticed in the skills of making great wine. For their part, the Californians are a bit intimidated by the concept and most regard the snooty Spurrier as a bit of an odd duck.

Jim Barrett (Pullman) has some troubles of his own. A lawyer by trade, he had fallen in love with winemaking and left his firm to buy a winery, and operate it. Chateau Montelena has some very good winemakers working for them – not the least is the mercurial Gustavo (Rodriguez) who has one of the finest palettes around and Jim’s son Bo (Pine) who is fiery and passionate but a little bit lacking in direction.

Add a beautiful young intern named Sam (Taylor) to the mix and there are fireworks galore. Chateau Montelena is on the verge of going under and is relying on their first batch of wine to save the entire business. Sure, their wine is okay but is it good enough to stand up to the best wines in the world?

In fact, it did. This is a movie based on real events – the Judgment of Paris did take place and the results established California wines in the marketplace as comparable in quality to the best French wines. The test took place May 24, 1976 and sent shock waves throughout the entire wine industry, essentially establishing the California wine industry into the multi-billion dollar enterprise it is today.

It’s a fascinating story that few Americans are aware of and when the movie is working, it is charming and full of heart. Unfortunately, it’s a bit busy with subplots – did we really need a love triangle and a father-son issue while all this was going on?

Rickman is, as usual, outstanding as the overbearing Spurrier. “Why do I hate you,” seethes Barrett at one point in the movie. “Because you think I’m an asshole” responds Spurrier primly, “Actually, I’m not an asshole. It’s just that I’m British, and you’re not.” Rodriguez is exceptional in a role that is based on a real person who worked at Chateau Montelena (although not at the time of the Judgment) and went on to found a winery of his own. Pine and Taylor have chemistry (although Pine’s wig is absolutely laughable) but Pine suffers because his part is basically designed to have conflict with all the central characters in the movie, but he carries it off as a lovable screw-up.

Fans of Sideways will probably get a kick out of this. Something tells me Miles and Jack from that movie would have dug Bottle Shock big time, although Miles probably could have pointed out all the factual inconsistencies in the movie, of which there are many. Still, it’s a grand story, one that is important and should be told, and it’s told pretty well here. Come to think of it, I think I can use a glass of wine right about now.

WHY RENT THIS: When the movie is working, it has a great deal of heart and charm. Rickman and Rodriguez are exceptional in their roles. I thought the movie had a good deal of offbeat, funky charm. Oenophiles will delight in this.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessary subplots bog the movie down. Some of the factual inconsistencies seem a bit arbitrary and unneeded.

FAMILY VALUES: Some drug use, some mild violence and a little sex, but very little. Probably not for the wee ones but suitable for teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The street scenes in Paris were actually filmed in Sonoma, California. I had no idea that Sonoma looked so Parisian.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a feature on the real Chateau Montelena winery that was prepared by the winery and not the filmmakers; it might have benefited from the participation of professionals.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Where the Wild Things Are and possibly a surprise

Stay tuned for Six Days of Darkness….starting Monday!!!