Curious as to which historical movie wine reference had resonated most with its audience, I sent the question to my entire contact list, and the response was surprising in its unanimity. Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs, more specifically his chilling recollection of enjoying a census taker’s liver with a ‘nice Chianti’, came out overwhelmingly on top. So since this scene is clearly etched in the memory of my friends and family, it seems to me the most appropriate place to begin…
The character of Lecter, for all his faults, is a man of fine taste and superior intelligence. Anyone who has read the books on which the film is based, or seen the more recent television series, will attest to the fact that Hannibal is a brilliant academic, art connoisseur, musician and board member of the Baltimore Philharmonic Orchestra. A once respected psychiatrist who - until his capture and subsequent incarceration for unthinkable, cannibalistic crimes - had epitomised everything the elite gentleman pertains to - articulate, charming and cultured, a central figure in the esteemed social set of his city.
Whilst wine may not be central to the plot of this movie, it is integral to the character’s authenticity. Wine appreciation is so often considered the realm of the intellectual and by Hannibal’s referencing it in almost throwaway fashion, the viewers’ perception of him as highbrow and scholarly is reinforced. Recognised as one of cinema’s all time favourite quotes, the classic line ‘A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti’ is ironically a deviation from the novel’s ‘Big Amarone’, with the change perhaps an attempt to appease an American audience - for whom Amarone (at that time) was not widely known.
A somewhat less gruesome affair, and one in which wine plays the undeniable lead, is Alexander Payne’s 2004 offering, Sideways. This charming, comedic tale follows writer and wine aficionado Miles Raymond (Paul Giametti) and his friend / former college roommate Jack Cole (Thomas Haden-Church) as they take a week-long road trip through Santa Barbara wine country. The film is in essence, a love song to wine and an ode to the Pinot Noir grape in particular. Its beautiful setting serves not only as an idyllic backdrop for the story, but also as an advertisement for the visually stunning Californian coast and the American wine industry in general; it has since been documented that the Santa Ynez Valley area received an influx of tourists in the years following its release, and that many of the featured properties reported an upturn in business.
The film’s two hours seven minutes contain countless references to the world’s great grapes and the subsequent wines which are made from them. Many will recall with a smile, the famous scene outside a bar, when Miles snaps ‘if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any fucking Merlot!’. But it is the intimate ‘Pinot Noir’ scene for which I remember this film so fondly. When asked by potential love interest, Maya, why he likes Pinot so much, Miles delivers a beautifully constructed monologue that speaks perhaps more of himself than it does of the grape. ‘It’s a hard grape to grow… It’s thin-skinned, temperamental. It’s not a survivor like Cabernet that can grow anywhere and thrive even when neglected. Pinot needs constant care and attention…’. The clever screenplay allows the wine to appear as both the subject of the conversation and also the subtext - to be used as a vehicle through which Miles can unravel emotionally and reveal a little of himself that might otherwise have been too difficult. He finishes with ‘Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression’ - from which we can infer that he is asking if Maya could be that person…
Whilst Sideways may have been inadvertently responsible for a fall in US Merlot sales, it certainly did not deter Martin Campbell, director of the 2006 James Bond outing Casino Royale from casting a famous Merlot-dominated blend in one of the film’s most memorable scenes. In what surely ranks amongst the best train sequences of the franchise (a remarkable feat given Bond’s epic battle with Mr. Big in Live and Let Die and the opening train-top sequence of Skyfall), the ‘I’m the money’ scene sees James (Daniel Craig), sharing a bottle of Château Angélus with Vesper Lynd, played by Eva Green.
As their train hurtles through the fictional Swiss station of Chur Ost (the Graubünden city of Chur has no such station in real life), the two enjoy dinner with the Angélus assuming pride of place in the centre of the screen. For those of you not familiar with the wine, Angélus is a prestigious Premier Grand Cru Classé blend from Bordeaux’s Saint-Émilion appellation, renowned for its harmonious structure and aromatic intensity; its elegance and seductiveness make it the perfect pairing for this scene, which is filled with flirtatiousness and sexual tension.
Angélus is not the only Saint-Émilion superstar to get in on the action though. 2007s Ratatouille - one of that new breed genre aimed at children, but with an undercurrent of adult in-jokes that make the usually unthinkable ‘cinema trip with the kids’ just about bearable, makes reference to what is widely regarded as one of the finest clarets of the century. In the poignant ‘perspective’ restaurant scene, feared food critic Anton Ego is transported back to his childhood by the exquisite taste of Remy’s titular dish. A flashback to his mother’s home cooking and a subsequent sequence which sees him devouring the plate of food in front of him with apparent delight, is followed by his overwhelmingly positive review of the meal and it’s maker… and finally serves the audience the transformation it has been waiting for!
The wine pairing here - a 1947 Château Cheval Blanc - is an atypical, yet unanimously acclaimed vintage from one of the most celebrated Bordeaux estates. An opulent, largely irresistible blend of equal parts Cabernet Franc and Merlot, just over one-hundred-thousand bottles of this delectable wine were produced… and if you happen to have one in your cellar, it’s rather like holding the winning lottery ticket! The film also features a reference to another highly acclaimed Bordeaux blend - Château Latour from Pauillac AOC, specifically the vintage of 1961 - one of the few wines to receive the superlative six stars from British critic Michael Broadbent.
It is Bordeaux wines that also take centre stage in the cult 1987 film Withnail and I - the Bruce Robinson vehicle which first propelled Richard E. Grant to prominence. An unlikely hit in many ways, this story of two out of work actors, one - an extravagant alcoholic, the other - his quiet, contemplative companion - has achieved classic status on account of its gritty, but rather charming and hilarious depiction of England in 1969, and the perpetually posed question as to how much of the plot is really fiction.
Non-surprisingly, given Withnail’s penchant for a tipple, the film features numerous wine related scenes including his much quoted ‘we want the finest wines available to humanity! We want them here and we want them now!’ outburst in a Lake District tearoom. It culminates in a memorable and somewhat tragic sequence which sees the eponymous lead saying goodbye to his friend Marwood (the ‘I’ of the film’s title), before reciting a soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to a pack of wolves. Alone in the rain and drinking a 1953 Château Margaux from the bottle, he cries out ‘What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a God!’ as the credits (and most likely the tears) roll.
And the list goes on and on… who can forget the Golden Globe winning adaptation of The Secret of Santa Vittoria, Ridley Scott’s uplifting romantic comedy, A Good Year, or some of the greatest scenes from the Steve Martin movies, The Jerk (1979) and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988). And whilst not technically films, no list would be complete without a mention to the famous Fawlty Towers ‘Bordeaux from a Claret’ scene or Monty Python’s ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch.
So if you’re not already acquainted with the big screen classics and the world’s fine wines, or you haven’t yet considered the role that one has played in the other, maybe now is the time to sit back, pour yourself a glass of your favourite vino and push the play button. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship…