Wine and the Movies: a journey through decades - I Blame The Wine
Wine and the Movies: review on how wine was featured in the movies

Wine and the Movies: a journey through decades

Ask an average group of people, who aren’t movie buffs or professional critics, to name 2 movies that feature alcohol in some form or another and the chances are most people choose Sideways (2004) and A Good Year (2006).

Wine and the Movies

Our myopia needs a reality check. Alcohol, in its many guises, has been cosying up to the movies since the silent era.

Wine in movies of 1910-1920

It is 1914 and Europe is self-destructing in a futile orgy of mud, death and destruction. Meanwhile, a world away, Hollywood’s first million dollar star, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, is making Fatty’s Wine Party, proving that you don’t need dialogue to be funny.

The fun stops for Arbuckle, as does his career, when he lands up in court, accused of murdering the struggling actress Virginia Rappe at a ‘bootleg party.’

Arbuckle’s protegé, Charlie Chaplin is more discerning in The Adventurer (1917),
helping himself to quality alcohol at High Society parties. The tragic irony is that Chaplin’s co-star, Eric Campbell, was killed in a drink-drive accident the year of release.

The Roaring ’20’s

This is the decade of excess: outrageous fortunes won and lost in the blink of an eye, lavish parties, frenetic dancing washed down with limitless booze, much of it illicit.

Bootlegging and bankruptcy, two prevalent themes throughout this era, provide the perfect backdrop to the 1924 silent movie, Wine, in which Clara Bow, one of the stars of the 1920s and 1930s, makes her debut. Sadly this movie, that the film critic Walter Sandberg reviewed as “cracking good entertainment,” appears to have been lost.

Alfred Hitchcock, if available for interview today, would fervently wish such a fate for his 1928 movie, Champagne. Unfortunately for ‘Hitch’ this light, frothy tale of an heiress to a fortune built on sales of champagne, whose father coerces her into seeking her own fortune, is available to you and I on DVD.

Hitchcock, the master of intrigue and suspense, like that great statesman Winston Churchill, had a weakness for champagne that must have swayed his judgement, enough to direct a film that he dismissed as, “This dreadful film,” and whose leading lady, Betty Balfour, he described as “a piece of suburban obscenity.”

Have fun exploring ‘Hitch’s’ weakness for fizz in The Ring (1927), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946), in which the great man makes a cameo appearance, and The Rope (1948).

Was there any wine featured in the 1930s?

This is the decade of America’s Great Depression: people don’t need movies to remind them of how hard life is; they are living the nightmare every day; they need light relief, to be transported out of their misery.

Topper (1931) provides the perfect antidote. Cary Grant and Constance Bennett play a married couple, George and Marion, who are killed in a car accident. Their journey to the afterlife is on hold until they carry out one good deed. The lucky recipient is Cosmo Topper (Roland Young), a hen-pecked, fun-deprived president of a bank.

Grant and Bennett decide that Cosmo’s life needs a serious injection of fun. The duo lead him on a chaotic, invariably alcohol-fuelled caper that cements Grant’s reputation as master of the screwball comedy and superb mimic.

Here alcohol is an instrument of fun. At one point in the film Topper pleads, “Oh no, we cannot eat on an empty stomach!” and Marion quickly retorts, “then we better have a few drinks first.”

Other movies of the time offering light relief in a dark world include Trouble in Paradise (1932), The Awful Truth (1937), Ninotchka (1939) and the long running amateur sleuth series, The Thin Man (1936-1947).

Movies of the 1940s and wine

“Here’s looking at you kid,” Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) famously toasts the lovely Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in their Paris flat, with a bottle of Mumm Cordon Rouge champagne.

Casablanca (1942) has it all: a great cast, some of the most famous lines in movie history and enough champagne, brandy and cocktails to float a boat – understandable, perhaps, given that Rick runs a champagne and cocktail bar.

Some of the classic scene stealers happen in bars and Casablanca has one of the best. Who can forget Rick’s locals, whipped up into a patriotic fervour by the club band, silencing the Germans’ rendition of their national anthem, “Die Wacht am Rhein,” with a thunderous rendition of “The Marseillaise?”

Other movies with bar scenes you won’t forget: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Mean Streets(1973), Star Wars (1977), Apocalypse Now (1979),The Shining (1980), Withnail and I (1987), Cocktail (1988), Trainspotting (1996) and Goodwill Hunting (1997).

The 1950s and alcohol

While America and Russia are squaring up to each other at the height of the Cold War, Marilyn Monroe, the actress that excells at playing the ditzy blonde, is in her pomp and showing us that you can still have fun.

Fun for Marilyn Monroe invariably involved a bottle of Champagne. She was bonkers about the stuff and is reported on one occasion to have bathed in 350 bottles of the premier fizz; a chilly, skin-tingling and eye-wateringly expensive experience.

Marilyn Monroe certainly knew how to come up with some curious food pairings in her movies. Gaze in fascination as she plots with Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable on how to snare a millionaire husband, over a lunch of Champagne and Hot Dogs, in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953).

Two years later, in The Seven Year Itch, Monroe visits her on-screen neighbour, publishing executive Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell), with a bottle of Champagne and a packet of crisps. “Did you ever dunk a potato chip in Champagne?”, she questions in her trademark breathy tone, as he resolutely hams chopsticks on the piano.

This wine-food pairing is not so daft as you might imagine: Champagne is high in acidity; potato chips (crisps) are heavy in fat and salt; the latter is the perfect foil for the former.

Wine in the Swinging ‘60’s

This is the decade when the class barriers come crashing down; a time when the young find their voice, learn to say no, and experiment with illicit substances.

Into this psychadelic melting pot steps the clean-cut, impeccably dressed spy, James Bond, in the 1962 opener to the Bond genre, DR No. The ultimate action hero and ladies man likes a drink as much as his spliffed-out contemporaries. If it wasn’t for James Bond the classic Vodka Martini, “Shaken, not stirred,” would have slipped into obscurity. Like the great statesman, Winston Churchill, Mr Bond is also very partial to a glass or two of Bollinger. In these early Bond movies, however, you never see him drunk; he is quite capable of walking in a straight line.

This is more than can be said for Anthony Quinn, as the perpetually drunk, shambolic Bombolini, mayor of a small Italian town in the 1969 comedy caper, The Secret of Santa Vittoria.

Set in beautiful rolling wine country, World War 2 is in full swing and Italy has just surrendered. Our mayor decides the Germans are not laying their Teutonic paws on the towns wine cellar and promptly hides the bulk of it. The entire movie is then a cat and mouse duel between Quinn and his German opposite number, played by Hardy Kruger.

Movies of the 1970s and wine

If there is one movie scene that brilliantly captures some of the snobberies and absurdities surrounding wine, It is Steve Martin’s cameo appearance as the Sommelier in The Muppet Movie (1979).

Kermit and Miss Piggy are out on a date and Kermit selects a bottle of bubbly from the wine list. This turns out to be a Muscatel from Idaho, not exactly the epicentre of sparkling wine production.
Steve Martin’s character does his best to maintain a professional air; no unwrapping of foil and untwisting of wire clasp required here, merely a good old corkscrew; Miss Piggy intervenes as Kermit is about to get his tastebuds round the sickly sweet liquid, reminding him that it is the wine expert’s role to try the wine first; Steve Martin, barely able to suppress a grimace as he tastes the fizzy liquid, manfully forces out the words “an excellent choice.”

Wine, pop culture and the 1980s

“Anybody can be a non-drunk. It takes a special talent to be a drunk. It takes endurance.”

Brutally honest, plain speaking from poet and alcoholic, Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke) to his publisher, Tully Serenson (Faye Dunaway), in the 1987 cult movie, Barfly.

Movies have never shied away from addressing alcohol’s darker side, alcoholism. Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick graphically illustrated this in the 1962 hard-hitter, Days of Wine and Roses, rumoured to be required viewing amongst the Alcoholics Anonymous community because of it accurate if rather preachy message.

Barfly, unlike the others, pulls off the seemingly impossible feat of being brutally honest yet highly entertaining. This has a rainy Sunday afternoon and a log fire written all over it.

Other movies that explore this issue, albeit in very different ways, include Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), Arthur (1981), Strange Brew (1983), Under the Volcano (1984), Leaving Las Vegas (1995), Bad Santa (2003), House of Sand and Fog (2003) and Factotum (2005).

Significant rise in wine quality and its place in the movies of the 1990s

“I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”Who can forget those immortal lines delivered with such malevolent calmness by Anthony Hopkins, as the psychiatrist and psychotic, Hannibal Lecter, in the 1991 classic horror movie, Silence of the Lambs?

Dark humour at its very best, or incredibly bad taste, there is a subtext to these lines that passed most of us by at the time. Who, except the medical profession and those who suffer from depression, realise that Lecter is not illustrating his gastronomic preferences here but is instead making a medical joke?

Lecter’s depression could be contained and helped with the aid of Monoamine oxidase inhibitors or MOAI’s. For this treatment to be effective, there are 3 things that he should avoid at all costs: liver, beans and wine.

As a medical professional, Lecter knows this perfectly well. He is having fun at the expense of his protagonist, Clarice Starling (Jody Foster), whilst at the same time subtly hinting that he has been a bad boy and skipped his medication.

Recently a war of words has broken out on the blogsphere over Hannibal’s choice of wine. Those of you who have read the book by Robert Harris know that Hannibal chose an Amarone to accompany his liver and beans. In the movie he has switched to Chianti. Some wine buffs accuse the filmmakers of dumbing down. Non-wine buffs retort with accusations of snobbery and ‘who cares.’

Your enjoyment, or terror, is not going to be affected by the choice of wine; if your Chianti is a classico the chances are its good; if you are talking rhythm and iambic pentameters then Chianti scans better than Amarone. Perhaps it’s time for a peace accord folks.

A new millennium brings more wine in the movies. Merlot vs Pinot Noir?

“No, if anyone orders, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot.” Miles (Paul Giamatti), failing writer, wine-snob and depressed English teacher emphatically tells his buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church), in the 2004 movie hit Sideways.

Never underestimate the power of words. These 2 lines stopped Merlot sales in their tracks. As the actress Virginia Madsen, who starred in the movie, commented to the wonderfully named Strawberry Sarayan, in The New York Times, “If you saw it on a menu, you’d throw it across a room.”

When Miles waxed lyrical to his buddy about the merits of the Pinot Noir grape, as they meander through California’s Santa Ynez wine country, the wine world took notice. Suddenly everyone was planting Pinot vines. Merlot’s fortunes waned, whilst Pinot Noir’s star was in its ascendancy.

When Merlot is good it is very good. The producers knew this full well, which is why they approached Christian Mouiex of Chateau Petrus, the most famous Merlot. The script did not impress the great winemaker and he politely declined their entreaties. Chateau Petrus doesn’t need that kind of publicity but Merlot as a varital could certainly use it.

Ironically, the vinous love of Miles’s life, Chateau Cheval Blanc, is a blend of Merlot and the other grape variety that gets a tongue-lashing from the wine-snob, Cabernet Franc.

Wine and snobbery are inextricably linked and other movies that explore this include: The Muppet Movie (1979), Corked (2009), Bottle Shock (2009)

Wine in the 2010s and our outlook on the future

In 2013 the seemingly impossible happens. A movie is released about wine that appeals to the wine buff and uninitiated alike. What’s even more extraordinary is that it is a documentary. There have wine documentaries before, most memorably Mondovino (2004) but none quite like this.

Somm follows four students in their quest to pass the ultimate test in wine, Master Sommelier. You are taken into the mysterious world of wine tasting that explores every nuance of wine, spirits and cigars in great detail.

You remain gripped to the end because, whether you know your Pinot Noir from your Merlot, you appreciate that these guys are giving their all. This is a master class in dedication and discipline.

If the genre grips you also track down the following: From Ground to Glass (2006) follows filmmaker Robert DaFoe as he learns how to make his own wine from ‘pros’ like Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clenendon; Blood into Wine (2010), a film that explores a rock musician’s mission to singlehandedly kick-start a wine industry in the inhospitable Arizona desert; Chateau Chunder (2012), which chronicles the meteoric rise of Aussie wine in Britain; Red Obsession (2013), a look at China’s obsession with Premier cru wines from Bordeaux as the ultimate luxury must-have.

Wine and the Movies: review on how wine was featured in the moviesAs for me, I’m going to settle down with a refreshing glass of Provencal rosé and enjoy Russell Crowe’s transformation from obnoxious city banker to lovestruck provencal winemaker in A Good Year (2004). Climate, soils, grape varieties- it’s all here – this is wine education at its most laid back.


Hopefully you’ve enjoyed our fun roundup post about wine and the movies.

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