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by Courtney Cochran

In most films, the cast is comprised of seasoned actors who possess a vibrant screen presence and innate ability to charm the audience.  But for a handful of movies in which wine itself plays a major role, we might as well add “mouthwatering” to the list of qualities a cast may claim.  Encompassing major motion pictures, documentaries and even a mockumentary, our list of top films for wine lovers covers lots of territory – affording viewers plenty to digest when it comes to wine and the silver screen.

No list of top flicks for wine would be complete without Alexander Payne’s 2004 cult classic, Sideways.  Set amidst the rolling hills of So Cal’s Santa Ynez Valley, the Academy Award-winning film (adapted screenplay) follows two friends on a raucous bachelor party through wine country.  Punctuated by lush vineyard shots and plenty of footage of local wineries and restaurants, the film is credited not only with turning the once-sleepy region into a tourist hotbed, but with putting Pinot Noir on the map.

This famously biased 2004 documentary – which decries the evils brought on the wine world by a wine consultant whose “international” (read: homogenous) style of winemaking threatens to eclipse the integrity of terroir-driven wines everywhere – gives viewers a rare look behind the scenes at the lives of importers, retailers, wine writers and producers.  Whether or not you choose to believe the hype, it’s a fun, thought provoking ride through some of the world’s most hallowed wine spots, including Napa, Bordeaux and Tuscany.         

From Ground to Glass
An official selection of the 2006 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, From Ground to Glass follows director and past pro snowboarder Robert DaFoe as he creates his own wine for the first time.  Made on a shoestring in and around the Santa Ynez Valley, the charmingly frank documentary intersperses footage of DaFoe’s winemaking journey with insightful commentary from both up-and-coming and veteran winemakers including Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clenenden and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ Warren Winiarski.

French Kiss
Kevin Kline’s famously spot-on portrayal of a Frenchman in this underappreciated 1995 romantic comedy is reason enough to rent it.  Add to the mix a fetching costar in Meg Ryan, an eventful journey through the stunning French countryside and a quirky subplot involving a smuggled grapevine, and you’ve got the recipe for a winning wine flick. Both actors were nominated for an American Comedy Award for their work, and Ryan’s diatribe against the “452 official kinds of cheese” in France (her character is lactose-intolerant) is downright hilarious.

A Good Year
The film itself may be a bit disjointed, but the story is compelling and the actors on point in this picturesque 1996 adaptation of the Peter Mayle novel by the same name.  Russell Crowe – supported by Academy Award-winner Marion Cotillard – plays Max Skinner, a workaholic investment banker who unexpectedly inherits a château and vineyard in Provence.  And though The New York Times dubbed the film “a three-P movie: pleasant, pretty and predictable,” there’s still plenty to appreciate in the sumptuous French countryside, mouthwatering food and wine shots and amusing vigneron-next-door subplot.
With its official debut at the 2008 Sonoma Valley Film Festival just behind it, this well-received send-up of the California wine industry has insiders chuckling and wannabe insiders half-seriously wondering why the wine business is so wack.  Shot during harvest in 2005, the mockumentary follows a manic winemaker, a billionaire, a clueless winery manager and an incompetent rich kid – among other colorful characters – as they compete to win the fictional Golden Cluster trophy.  So real at times it’s scary.

A Walk In the Clouds
Keeanu Reeves’ stiff performance as a chocolate salesman-turned-faux-fiancé in this cheesy 1940s-era love story doesn’t manage to overshadow the stunning scenery and ebullient grape stomping that takes place during harvest at a fictional California estate called Las Nubes (“the clouds”).   Shot on location at such well-known spots as Mount Veeder Winery, Duckhorn Vineyards and Charles Krug Winery, the film’s splendid vineyard scenes are reputed to have inspired more than one real-life dreamer to plant vines.   

Coming Soon To A Theater Near You

Bottle Shock
Slated to open August 15 nationwide, this highly anticipated film chronicles the events leading up to the watershed 1976 Judgment of Paris wine tasting.  Shot on-location last year in Sonoma and starring Bill Pullman and Alan Rickman, Bottle Shock shows how the passion and unflagging commitment to quality shared by a maverick father-and-son winemaking team (Chateau Montelena’s Jim & Bo Barrett) translated to a Chardonnay that trumped its French counterparts and put American wine on the map for good.  

The First Emperor
Loosely based on Elin McCoy’s 2005 biography, The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker Jr. and the Reign of American Taste, the film will follow the ascent of the infamously influential critic to – what else? – the fore of the world’s wine consciousness. Producers say the film will feature little-known aspects of Parker’s early career, and rumors peg Spanish Academy Award-winner Javier Bardem in the lead with Sideways star Paul Giamatti lending support as French wine consultant Michel Rolland.

The Jefferson Bottles
Word has it two Hollywood outfits have separately purchased rights to the story of oil magnate William Koch’s dogged court battle to prove the provenance of several bottles from his collection purported to have once belonged to Thomas Jefferson.  Though it’s uncertain if either party will eventually make a film from the rights they’ve purchased – in the form of the book The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace and a recent New Yorker article, respectively – the recent success of other wine-related films (ergo Sideways, Mondovino, and perhaps the upcoming Bottle Shock) certainly bodes well.