FOOD CULTURE – Once Upon A Vine

15 Apr 2002

To paraphrase Woody Allen, a Beaujolais vintage may be good or bad, but there’s always the chance that next year’s will be better. Like certain wines, the cinema ‘matures’ in the course of time and measures its growth through the perception of public, consumers and buffs. The relationship between wine and cinema is defined by the niche the former has carved out for itself in the collective imagination. To trace the story of wine on film, traveling back in time from Woody Allen to the Lumière brothers, is to write a sort of social history of what is unquestionably the most evocative and culturally significant tipple humanity has ever known.

Two relatively recent movies, Manhattan Murder Mystery, directed by Woody Allen, and Company Man, in which Allen has a bit part, contain references to the wine world. Albeit sporadic and marginal, they nonetheless assign a symbolic value to the drink. In the first, Diane Keaton attends wine-tasting courses, slightly to the disgust of Allen but with a level of motivation that reflects the new social prestige attached to wine experts. In the second, on the other hand, Allen offers a caricature of a scatter-brained pleasure-seeking wine – that of the talented tippler is something of a cinematic stereotype – in late 50s Cuba.

Another take on wine in film is the mildly tongue-in-cheek one which sees the stuff as a symbol of the ‘wisdom of the elderly’. One of the very first Lumière films features a group of old men sitting round a table drinking wine and coming up with maxims such as, ‘Many believe that wine puts a man’s desires to sleep, but that’s only true when a man’s already sleepy anyway’.

Two important leitmotivs of the American cinema are prohibitionism and alcoholism – dissipation and dependence. Henry King’s The Earth is Mine, starring Rock Hudson, celebrates the production of Californian wines during the period of prohibition years. Let’s hope that one day a great director will have the idea of reconstructing the history of the Mondavi family, who began supplying Californian wines to New York’s Italo-American community precisely during that period, and who are now world leaders in the sector. Good men for the job would be Martin Scorsese or, better still, Francis Ford Coppola, who happens to produce fine wines in California himself.

The second, alcoholism, is the subject of classics such as Blake Edwards’s Days of Wine and Roses, The Lost Weekend by the great Billy Wilder and the more recent Leaving Las Vegas, starring Nicolas Cage,

Lately, American cinema has identified quality wine as one of the distinctive traits of new styles of living. This is the case, for example, of Blood and Wine by Bob Rafelson, in which Jack Nicholson supplies fine wines to top Los Angeles professionals, and French Kiss by Lawrence Kasdan, in which the indestructible myth of the French countryside and its wines provide the pretext for a love story between Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline.

Cinematic references to French and Italian wines have often reflected the differing levels of prestige of the two. It is French vintage wine, of course, that is jealously stored in the cellar (though it then transpires it contains uranium!) in the Hitchcock classic Notorius, starring Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant. For decades, French wine was associated with savoir faire,as the myriad of jokes and puns on the subject in the films of the great Italian comic Totò testify.

Italian wine, instead, conjured up visions of rambles through the Roman countryside, Mediterranean sensuality and art (among other things, in James Ivory’s A Room With A View, it is a celebrations of what it means to be Tuscan). Save for a few sporadic scenes of new urban contexts (wine bars and modern osterie as meeting-places for youngsters), wine continues to mirror a slightly provincial, countrified way of being Italian – all men in vests and flasks of Chianti. Among the few exceptions to the rule are Bertolucci’s Novecento, in which Burt Lancaster gives his peasants a bottle of wine apiece to celebrate the birth of Alfredo Berlinghieri (what better way of expressing a deep feeling of identification with the land and the symbolic rituals of the rural civilization of his native Emilia?) and Bevilacqua’s La califfa (The Caliph) in which lambrusco encapsulates local identity.

With their proverbial elegance, the French have prolonged what, after all, has, always been one of their favorite myths. Think of Luis De Funès’ food and wine connoisseur who suddenly loses his sense of smell and taste in L’aile ou la cuisse (The Wing or the Thigh) – what else could he be but French? And who can forget the enchanting heroine of Rohmer’s Conte d’Automne (Autumn Tale), a keen vine dresser who respects the ecosystem and for whom lifestyle and and quality production become one and the same thing.

Alas, with exceptions such as the Rohmer work cited above, no film has ever based its narrative on wine. The same cannot be said of food. Deftly and deeply, in fact, films such as Babette’s Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, Big Night and Tampopo have all used gastronomy (ie, civilization, symbolic exchange, cultural fabric) as their central theme.

Antonio Attorre, a food and wine journalist, lives in the Marche region of Italy and collaborates with Slow Food Editore

Photo: Ingrid Bergman e Cary Grant in ‘Notorious’

Adapted by John Irving

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