The dark days of winter tend to inspire doubleheaders at my house — well, more like a matinee followed by a movie night — since it’s neither sunny nor warm enough yet in the Pacific Northwest for me to spend time outside.
And while Oscar season is a time to explore new cinematic stories, it also leads me to revisit some of my favorite movies, regardless of their award pedigrees. A good yarn about wine can do a lot for the industry. Get the popcorn (consider pairing it with an American sparkling wine), fire up the Roku and see what you think.
In 2004, a little movie took the country by storm and propelled the wine industry along with it. It was called Sideways, and it simultaneously boosted Pinot Noir and torpedoed interest in Merlot. Both varieties are important to the Pacific Northwest.
Starring Paul Giamatti, the focus of the Academy Award-winning movie was the misadventures of wine-lover Miles, who takes his jerk-of-a-friend Jack on a pre-wedding bachelor vacation in the California wine region of Santa Barbara. This area isn’t nearly as acclaimed as Napa, Sonoma or the Russian River Valley, while Oregon might now be the country’s most well-known for Pinot Noir production.
The film helped prompt wine aficionados to take another look at the Burgundian variety, and it helped boost sales to the point of nearly emptying winery cellars.
At the same time, one dastardly line in the movie about Merlot sank sales in Washington and forced the industry in new directions, in particular encouraging winemakers to concentrate efforts on other varieties. It didn’t take many more vintages for Cabernet Sauvignon to gain the status as Washington’s signature grape, leading to increased vineyards and innovative winemaking techniques with a focus on making better wine.
Because a bottle of Cab can command more in the marketplace, it did help provide some financial stability for winery owners statewide.
Another curious effect of Sideways was the increased popularity of Washington’s red blends based on the Bordeaux model, which led to de-emphasizing Merlot as a blending grape.
Simultaneously, Syrah benefited from a raised reputation, increased plantings and more appearances in complex wine blends. Sideways did add to the narrative of California’s wine culture surrounding tasting rooms, cuisine, wide-open spaces, vineyards and perpetual blue skies.
In 2012, I had a chance to judge the Paso Robles wine competition and spent a couple of days in Santa Barbara, following the Sideways wine trail, an experience I shared with the readers of my column in The Seattle Times.
I enjoyed the movie so much, I was compelled to read the book by Rex Pickett, as well his equally-good sequels: Vertical (set in Oregon at the International Pinot Noir Celebration), where Miles is in a dunk tank of Merlot) and Sideways: Chile. Rumor is that Sideways: New Zealand is in the works.
Once you finish watching the movie Sideways and have recovered from the dismay of the Styrofoam cup, I am confident you’ll enjoy these two other classics and one new find.
Starring Chris Pine and the late Alan Rickman, Bottle Shock, released in 2008, showcases the complex allure of winemaking and the value of taking a chance. While not a documentary, Bottle Shock is the true story about The Judgment of Paris blind tasting in 1976 that pitted the best of California against the top wines of France.
When the Napa Valley wines finished on top, the results shook the global industry by proving that New World wines could do as well as the French. This led to immediate visibility for U.S. vineyards, helping to raise Washington state’s reputation as a viable place to grow wine grapes and pushing wineries into improving overall wine quality. The movie is based on the book written by George M. Taber, the only journalist present at the event.
Although no Northwest wines were entered in the landmark tasting, a blind judging a few years later showed that Oregon Pinot Noir keeps up with top wines from Burgundy. It is impossible to emphasize the historical importance of this blind judging because it broke the spell that French wines had over the world.
Year of the Comet, which stars Penelope Miller, is a more obscure rom-com from 1992 (confession: I still own the VHS edition) about a young woman striving to prove her superior wine skills in a blatantly sexist family-owned wine auction business.
Sent to inventory a deceased wine collector’s cellar, she discovers an extremely large bottle of wine from the legendary 1811 vintage during which Halley’s Comet appeared in the skies. The plot centers on efforts to transport the $1 million bottle from Scotland to London while outsmarting various murder and theft attempts.
Uncorked is a Netflix production that came out in 2020 and, I will confess, I missed its release as I was still pandemic-binging Star Wars and Avengers movies. Trust me when I say you’ll be craving some quality barbecue after watching this. It’s the tale of a young Black man, played by Courtney B. Vance, who struggles with expectations to take over a family-owned business and his dream of becoming a Master Sommelier.
The MS exam is reputed to be the most difficult test in the world, and you’ll learn a thing or two through his story. Uncorked flips the standard wine movie on its head, in part because the wine world is still very white. The original soundtrack adds to the fresh vibe. This is an inspiring film that encourages hard work, family connections, being true to yourself — and being true to the wine.
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