Which are the Best Wine Films?
Wine lovers adore seeing wine in movies: vintage bottles, vineyards, wine country, harvests, winemakers. So, they may not be the best people to vote on the best wine movies of all time; they are inherently and by definition biased.
When critic Roger Ebert, however, names a wine film “the best human comedy of the year,” take notice. That happened in 2004 regarding “Sideways,” which indelibly affected common perceptions of merlot and pinot noir to this day.
Merlot’s reputation may never fully recover.
During the movie about a weeklong, vinously infused misadventure through Santa Barbara’s wine country—including scenes the somewhat kitschy town of Solvang—tinged with the pathos of two friends’ mid-life crisis, wine culture takes a central role, but in a way that’s critical, empathetic, and generally spot-on.
“Sideways” is truly a wine movie injected with all the necessary elements of successful Greek theater.
Other categories of wine movies exist, including films set against a wine backdrop, documentaries, and films depicting a general sensorial gastronomy that happens to include wine.
Let’s examine a few of the best wine movies from each category, and to take your wine knowledge up another notch, consider a virtual wine class.
Movies with a Vinous Backdrop
Wine Ever in the Background
These are films where wine, winemaking, or vineyards set the scene, although wine may not play a central role in the drama.
• “This Earth is Mine” features Rock Hudson amidst California vineyards during Prohibition, exploring the intertwined themes of love, ambition, and family struggles against the backdrop of winemaking.
• In “Blood and Wine,” Jack Nicholson delivers a compelling portrayal of a charming yet morally dubious character entangled in deceit and crime within the affluent world of wine, showcasing a darker side of wealth and manipulation. Jack Nicholson plays the rascal, which he does exceptionally well.
• “Autumn Tale:” Eric Rohmer makes a film very much in his style, set against the splendid autumnal wine country landscape of France’s Provence. Wine serves as a subtle yet significant element woven into the backdrop of the story.
• “A Walk in the Clouds” prominently features vineyards, grape harvesting, and winemaking as part of its setting and storyline. The protagonist, played by Keanu Reeves, encounters a Mexican-American family of grape growers. The family owns a vineyard and pursues winemaking with a rare passion. Throughout the film, the beauty of the vineyard, the cultivation of grapes, the wine country, and the winemaking process are showcased as a backdrop to the main plot.
Classic Wine Movies
Two Fine Hued Classic Wine Movies
• Set during World War II, “The Secret of Santa Vittoria” stars a young Anthony Quinn and recounts the determination of an entire small Italian town struggling against the Nazis. This central narrative reflects the pride they instilled in their wine. This comedy-drama follows the inhabitants town as they attempt to hide a million bottles of wine from German occupation forces.
• A controversial French-Italian film directed by Marco Ferreri from 1973, “La Grande Bouffe’s” title translates to “The Big Feast.” It’s renowned for its audacious and provocative storyline. Drinking wine is portrayed as part of the overall excessive lifestyle, contributing to the characters’s decadence and self-destructive behavior. Wine symbolizes indulgence and luxury in the film, used by Ferreri to emphasize the characters’ pursuit of pleasure and their abandonment of societal norms. Wine, then, has merely a supporting role, but an important one.
Modern Wine Movies
Wine Movies becoming Classics
• In “A Good Year,” the audience encounters a young Russell Crowe falling in love in the French countryside amid enchanting scenery. Directed by Ridley Scott, Crowe plays a pure city boy, a London banker who inherits a vineyard in Provence, which leads to a life-changing journey as he learns to appreciate a new lifestyle and a secret terroir.
• “Sideways,” of course. Two friends at a crisis point in life visiting Napa. A fun journey through the vineyards of that part of California and its unique wineries. You’ll discover why Merlot consumption dramatically dropped (and unfairly) the year it was released. As Bordeaux expert Jane Anson recently pointed out, however, although Paul Giametti’s character Miles said, “If anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking merlot,” his favorite wine in the film is the 1961 Cheval Blanc, made from about about 50% merlot.
• “You Will Be My Son” provides a quintessential French drama. This film focuses on the relationship dynamics between a vineyard owner, his son, and a vineyard worker. Set in a prestigious vineyard in Saint-Émilion, the film revolves around the familial conflict between Paul de Marseul, the vineyard owner, and his own son, Martin. Paul is dissatisfied with his son’s capabilities and character, and when a talented vineyard worker, François, comes into the picture, Paul starts to consider him as a potential heir instead of Martin. Throughout the movie, the vineyard and winemaking culture are integral to the story, emphasizing the complexities of family ties, inheritance, and the passion and tradition associated with winemaking in the French countryside.
• Featuring a talented cast, “Bottle Shock” highlights the sore point of French wine and leads us to the eternal question of why the French wine has to be better, or at least, more expensive. Based on true events, it tells the story of when, in a blind tasting in the 1970s, Californian wine triumphed over the French. This film vividly depict the human events of the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” organized by Steven Spurrier. California wines outperformed French wines in a blind taste test by French critics, putting American wines on the global map.
Wine World Documentaries
Some powerful documentaries about wine were produced in this century.
• The best known, yet controversial, is “Mondovino,” an official selection at the Cannes film festival, which fiercely criticized the wine globalization process and the loss of diversity in the wine world. The movie stirs the consciences and makes you think. It was filmed in 2004, but what it explains is still very relevant today, and in fact, some of its prophecies have sadly come true.
After Mondovino, there have been several outstanding documentaries. One, for instance, treats the incredible story of convicted fraudster Rudi Kurniawan.
• “Sour Grapes” is available on Amazon Prime. It’s a fast-paced documentary that bluntly teaches us about the dirtiest part of the business. It opens with a crowded and festive wine tasting event in an elegant hotel, then intermixed with images of investigators examining bottles and labels. “Do we have any reason to believe this bottle is counterfit?” plays on the audio track, and the scene is set for introducing the world of wine auctions, extremely wealthy wine enthusiasts, and Rudi’s particular capacity for manufacturing deception. Interviews include wine detective Maureen Downey, who, along with the FBI, ultimately proved to be Kurniawan’s downfall. He’s now back on the wine scene, but that’s another story (or maybe a new documentary).
Other Great Wine Documentaries
• “Red Obsession” explores the obsession for Bordeaux, the holy grail of fine wines, by a booming and voracious Chinese market, and from there, its impact on the global market. It delves into the intricacies of the wine business. Roger Ebert described: “The narration is simply done, providing us with the necessary context to understand the interconnectedness of this world, its history, its reliance on weather, politics and trade agreements. Informative though it may be, ‘Red Obsession’ is a moody and emotional piece of work.”
• “Somm” tells the adventures and misadventures of four aspiring master sommeliers. This documentary delves into the intense preparation for the prestigious MS exam, offering a behind-the-scenes look at their rigorous training and dedication.The ending will literally leave you frozen… And it pushes you to watch the sequal: “Somm into the Wine.” This film is perhaps more thoughtful, with questions like: what is wine, where does it come from, and where is it going?
• “Blood into Wine” and “Barolo Boys” both recount the stories of wine pioneers and rebels, the one set in Arizona and the other in Barolo. “Blood” portrays follows multiplatinum recording artist Maynard James Keenan as he sets out to bring status to Arizona’s burgeoning wine regions. “Barolo Boys: The Story of a Revolution” explores the story of a group of winemakers who revolutionized winemaking in the Barolo region of Italy, challenging traditional practices. In some way, they fight to do what they believe in honestly, sometimes brutally so. Wine is the driving force, and it’s exciting to see how vinous passion moves people in both films.
Which are your favorite wine movies?