directed by Randall Miller
written by Jody Savin, Randall Miller, Ross Schwartz
starring Bill Pullman, Alan Rickman, Chris Pine, Freddy Rodriguez, Rachel Taylor, Eliza Dushku, Dennis Farina, Miguel Sandoval
Among its many virtues this film is a love poem to not only wine but to the elements that are essential to creating it–the soil, the vine and the grapes. It delicately explores the many nuances that are necessary to the process of bringing the best out of the grapes and emerging with a perfect bottle of pristine wine. It’s a story of redemption, of vision, and the trials of a volatile father-son relationship that struggles at every turn to right itself.
This is the true story of how Napa Valley took on the snooty French in a wine competition in 1976. The film uses many rock songs from that area (specifically the Doobie Brothers, America and Bread) to issue forth a well-rounded picture of the times that has barely recovered from the shadow of Woodstock and all of its famed and documented excesses. Alan Rickman plays Steven Spurrier, an English wine snob who is struggling to keep his business afloat. He gets word that California has emerged as a threat to the vaunted position of the wine capital of the world that the French has about itself. He takes it upon himself to travel to the states to stake out the competition in search for proof that there is something there worth troubling himself over.
It’s rather comical to watch Spurrier attempt to navigate his way in foreign territory where he maintains an elevated air of acute snobbishness and outright disdain. He meets a vinter named Jim Barrett (Pullman) who is having trouble getting his wine out to the public. There is a complicated relationship between the two men because Barrett doesn’t much appreciate Spurrier’s attitude and Spurrier simply doesn’t understand where Barrett is coming from. Barrett’s son Beau (Pine) is struggling to figure out what he wants to do. His father wants him to get back into school but Beau is hesitant and would rather continue drifting than commit to institutionalized learning that would put a crimp in his lazy lifestyle. He would much rather continue helping Barrett maintain his vinery despite the heated conflicts that boil up between him and his father. Sam (Taylor) appears and announces herself as Barrett’s new intern. She becomes a fixture at the vinery and essential to understanding the complexities inherent in the story.
Freddie Rodriguez plays Gustavo Brambila, who possesses an uncanny talent for guessing the vintage and type of any wine put before him. He’s something of a drifter as well and there is a commotion when he finally brings forth his own wine grown on the vinery of Mr. Garcia (Sandoval). Barrett fires him because he feels as if Gustavo has stabbed him in the back after giving him a place to work and establish himself in the art of making wine.
Each character brings something essential to this story that becomes an homage to the painstaking process of creating a bottle of wine that will cause fanatics to swoon with acute pleasure. This is a totem to the connoisseur who cherishes fine wine and appreciates the layers and the textures that go into making it. The film celebrates those whose passion for outstanding wine has elevate their sensibilities and provided them with an appetite for beauty in art, music and the very creative process itself. It’s clear that the artistry of wine making is a fundamental aspect of this film and it explores it with great skill and a dedication to both the simplicity of enjoying a well-constructed wine and the complexity of bringing it into fruition.
Beau and his father often box to take out their frustrations on one another. It’s a symbol for the difficulties that Beau faces regarding his relationship with Barrett. He yearns to prove that he is capable of standing up on his own but this assurance is easily betrayed every time his father knocks him to the canvas. Beau is a typical longhair who cries out for freedom and rallies in his person against all forms of oppression. He is the type who has never lost the spirit of Woodstock and that tumultuous age where things changed so rapidly that it was difficult to keep one’s bearings amidst all the chaos. Beau has had an easy enough life and this has not prepared him for participating in the world as it is.
This is also a story about intimacies that are hard won and often emerge after long stretches of discomfort and psychological anguish. Joe (Dushku) is another character who has emerged from the sixties with a strong, forceful approach to life that has seen her inherit her father’s bar. She too has been unable to fully extract herself from his influence but she does everything she can to keep herself afloat in a world that is about to elect a peanut farmer from Georgia to the highest office in the land.
The US bicentennial hangs over every scene in this film. It’s a year for celebration and remembering the past with songs, banners, and a genuine sense of unity. This powers the film as the underdog Napa Valley vinters take on the French in a contest that has the potential to utterly transform the wine industry into something that the French are aghast to even contemplate. Strangely the contest itself isn’t played as necessarily the most significant aspect of the film. The relationships that are forged between characters are equally important to the judgement of experts whose opinion counts above all others. Still, the tension is palpable as the film winds down to who came home with top prize in the competition. Really, it’s no mystery because why would they make such a film if the French actually won the thing? They wouldn’t so its no distress to betray the conclusion by announcing who won in advance.
The performances in this film are all stellar. Particularly impressive is Bill Pullman who I will go out on a limb in saying deserves an Oscar nod for this performance. It’s nuanced, cool, contained, and wholly believable throughout. He possesses a rare mastery of emotion in this film and the internal conflict that drives his character is clearly visible on his face. Barrett is anguished and cannot find a balance until near the end when he finally emerges from a cocoon that has rendered him paralyzed for much of the film. Freddy Rodriguez plays another exceedingly complex character who is reserved and finds it difficult to fully open up. Rodriguez gives Gustavo a viability and a strength that is informed by his ease of movement. Alan Rickman is a delight in this film as a man whose entire belief system is questioned at every turn. His character is not particularly complex as it’s easy to determine which way the wind is blowing through his actions and posture. Rickman brings a charm and a grace to Spurrier that carries him through the film. Chris Pine is sensational as the tormented Beau. He is a beacon of light which comes through in his cool attitude toward everything about him.
Overall this film taps into the innate urge to delve into the mysteries of the vine in order to emerge drunk, sanguine, and alert to the possibilities of love, determination, and unadulterated beauty. It celebrates the artistry of the process which can be translated into every creative endeavor. It’s a film that allows for a glorious investigation into every aspect of bringing a hearty, richly textured glass of wine to those who can appreciate it and those who can’t. In a way despite its pitting of neophytes versus so-considered experts it still maintains a level of intimacy with wine that most of simply do not possess. Ultimately it’s a film about family and the many ways in which it is defined. It’s about the bringing together of people toward a specific goal that rewards its participants and enlightens anyone fortunate enough to share in its glory.