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A couple of films with some good vintage

“Wine is sunlight held together by water.” –Galileo Galilei as quoted by sommelier and wine shop owner Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman) in Bottle Shock.

“Good wine shops are like good book stores, with good stories and history waiting to be discovered on those shelves.” –Me, Twitter

Last summer, I happened to read an article in Smithsonian Magazine about a Lebanese winemaker in Bekaa Valley and it so captured my imagination that I drove about 30 miles to one of the only wine shops in the area that carried a Massaya wine. An empty bottle of Massaya Classic, with its deep maroon label scrolled with gold, still sits on a bookshelf in our dining room, reminding me not only of the intense and unique flavor of those grapes from the troubled soil of Lebanon but also of the winemaker and his story.

There’s something about wine—the patience, persistence and artistry it takes to make a good one, the stories behind all that toil and art, the mystery and life associated with a vineyard. In Bottle Shock, Spurrier—who quoted “the poetic wisdom of the Italian physicist, philosopher and stargazer” above—touches on the archetypal nature of it all:

It all begins with the soil, the vine, the grape. The smell of the vineyard. Like inhaling birth. It awakens some . . . ancestral, some . . . primordial—anyway, some deeply imprinted and probably subconscious place in my soul.

It’s always been intriguing to me that Jesus’ first miracle was changing water into the most exquisite of wines and some of his most well-known teachings have to do with vineyards. Perhaps there is something about the vineyard and wine that invites those kinds of moments?

Anyways, perhaps all this will help you understand, then, why I enjoyed a couple of films I recently ran across that touch on these aspects surrounding vintners and wine.

The aforementioned and quoted Bottle Shock is one of them. A story about the wine itself, this film is based on the events that led to the 1976 Judgement in Paris, where a line up of California wines ranked higher than many French wines in a blind taste test, launching the Napa Valley vintages onto the world stage. In particular it focuses on vintner Jim Barrett (Bill Pulman), a divorced and struggling winemaker whose watching his dream slip through his fingers—until the English elitist and fraught wine shop owner Spurrier (played to the hilt by the always wonderful Alan Rickman) comes to Napa looking to line up some California wines in what he thinks will be a humiliating defeat in a taste contest against French wines. Spurrier transforms before our eyes as he samples the exquisite wines by the dirt crusted farmers of Napa. “These California wines are all so . . . good,” he confesses with disbelief at one point.

Besides an intriguing story behind the Judgment in Paris, the film also has some thoughtful musings on wine and winemaking—some of which have already brought God-talk to these open spaces. In particular, I really like Jim’s comment about the best fertilizer being the owner’s footprints because it gives me a wonderful image of God and his footprints in the soil of his Kingdom. And his reflection on how a dry soil and struggling grape makes for a more intense wine while a pampered grape makes for a lazy one. (For more, go here.)

And this film reminded me to think about the stories behind the labels I peruse in wine shops. From their sparse descriptions printed on the back labels, I wonder what kind of art, life, and dreams went into those bottles: Who are the people behind them? Did the vintner’s footprints sink deep enough into the soil? Was the grape pampered and lazy, or did it struggle and intensify? And in some ways, I guess I also find in all this a reminder to pay more attention to and ponder what stories lie behind the faces of those with whom I cross paths. How have the struggles and suffering of this broken world changed them? And where are God’s footprints in their lives? How can I better see his footprints in mine through their eyes?

In A Good Year (which was recommended by Karen at Reel Artsy), wine and winemaking serve less as a focal point and more as a catalyst in the story. The admittedly predictable but feel-good film follows Max Skinner (Russell Crowe), an aggressive, calculating and somewhat underhanded financial trader whose life consists of making the next deal and out-scheming his competitors. When he gets word that his Uncle Henry (Albert Finney) whom he hasn’t seen in 10 years has died, leaving him the vineyard in Province where he spent all his summers as a boy after his parents died, Max travels to get the estate (which seems to produce a truly awful wine) ready for a quick sell off. But once he’s there, the memories of his time with his uncle and the people he encounters (maybe even the land itself) beckon him on a journey back to life and love.

The film has an interesting background. According to this article, British author Peter Mayle—who had written several travelogue style books about France—was having lunch with friend and film director Ridley Scott (who owned property in Province like Mayle) and the two discussed the phenomenon of garage wines (“a high-quality, extremely expensive wine produced in small quantities”) and thought it would make for a good story. Scott told Mayle that if Mayle wrote the book, Scott would buy the film rights. And so it happened: Mayle wrote the novel and Scott directed the film adapted from it.

It is interesting to watch the results of such a collaboration. Indeed, the film does have a bit of the travelogue feel to it, with lingering shots on the landscape, vineyard and house that (as good travelogues have a tendency to do) serve to intensify the invitation to long for the land and life contained in the midst of that scenery.

It also serves well in contrast to the hustle and harshness of Max’s cutthroat world of finance—which, if we are honest, might not be so unlike our own lives as well. In some ways, I think we all are all tempted to engage in the race to get ahead and stay afloat, a race where people become objects to move, use or step over. At one point, someone tells Max that it is not that the vineyard doesn’t fit with his life—it’s his life that doesn’t fit with the slower, more organic and relationship oriented life of the vineyard.

As a follower of Jesus, I can’t help but think how that invites us to look at our own lives and see where they don’t fit with the wide open spaces of the organic, green and wild vineyard of God’s kingdom. Where have I become so engaged in the rat race around me that I have started to treat people like objects to be used or move in my own agenda? Where have I become so distracted that I can’t see the beauty, life and goodness of God right in front of me?

The film is also a feel-good testimony to the power of love to reach through time and space to change a life. In some ways, it reminds me of a quote I recently ran across in Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter, where Hannah ruminates about this eternal nature of love:

As I have told [this story] over, the past visible again in the present, the dead living still in their absence, this dream of time seems to come to rest in eternity. My mind, I think, has started to become, it is close to being, the room of love where the absent are present, the dead are alive, time is eternal, and all the creatures prosperous. The room of love is the love that holds us all, and it is not ours. It goes back before we were born. It goes all the way back. It is Heaven's. Or it is Heaven, and we are in it only by willingness. By whose love, Andy Catlett, do we love this world and ourselves and one another? Do you think we invented it ourselves? I ask with confidence, for I know you know we didn't.

There is a bit of that in this story, as Uncle Henry’s acceptance and love for Max reaches past his death and the 10 years during which they haven’t seen each other to nudge and move Max back to a real and worthy life—one in which he puts the needs of others above himself, in which he too loves.

Neither of these films received rave critical reviews (and understandably so), but they are films that left me feeling good afterwards. They are films that in their own ways affirm art, love and life—and I can’t help but think that they echo in some part the artistry, love and life we find in the wide open spaces of God’s Kingdom. And that means, if we’re paying attention, they also bring a bit of God-talk into open spaces, too.

(Images: Bottleshock, Freestyle Releasing and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment; A Good Year, Fox 2000 Pictures)