Why aren’t there more good movies about fishing? Or swimming? Or cycling.
The new Netflix effort Wine Country has not been well received by many in the wine fraternity. Peter Pharos, a contributor to Tim Atkin.com dismissed it as ‘Sideways in Trump Country’, saying that its title was “the greatest clickbait ever played on the wine trade” because “the wine-interested viewer should be aware that, unlike its forebear, Wine Country has no interest in fermented grape juice whatsoever”.
For those who are unfamiliar with Wine Country, it follows five women on a jaunt to Napa to celebrate one of them turning 50. Money being evidently no object, they rent a house – complete with cook-cum-tour-guide – visit a few wineries, smart restaurants and an art gallery, drink copious amounts of wine and do a bit of singing and home-truth-telling.
The group is led by Amy Poehler, star of the highly successful US TV series, Parks & Recreation and was apparently based on a real trip by her and some friends to Napa a few years ago.
The reviews for the movie were, well, patchy. According to the online rating site rottentomatoes.com, it scored a 67% approval with 60 international critics. There is little likelihood of Wine Country being up for any of the awards that were given to Sideways, the only good wine movie most people can name.
Even some of the more positive comments were less than laudatory. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone who gave it two and a half stars out of five wrote that “Amy Poehler's directing debut about six female friends on a weekend break in Napa trips up on its journey from silly to soul-searching. No matter. Poehler seems to think that the pleasure of their company is enough. She's right.” Sara Stewart of the New York Post noted that the film never left its “comfort zone, but it'll probably be a hit regardless with women of a certain age”.
And that’s the point. Wine Country is no more about wine or the Napa Valley than Mamma Mia was about Greek islands, or Tin Cup, a 1996 Kevin Costner vehicle that scored very similarly with critics, was about golf. It’s about the five women.
Food lovers will resent their lack of interest in fine dining – and cuttlefish – and art aficionados may not like their disrespectful attitude towards an evidently sincere artist. And, of course wine people may hate their attitude to the people who are trying to educate them about wine.
Anyone who falls outside these groups will recognise the humour that is being poked at their seriousness. I actually liked the segment in which the women are invited to name the aromas they can find in a wine by a supercilious sommelier-type, who then dismisses one of them saying “tinned peaches” as “wrong”. I’ve met that man. Or men who are very like him. Just as I’ve met groups of girls getting out of stretch limos at Napa and Sonoma wineries on a day out with a bride-to-be. And I’ve watched their giggly response to the business of wine tasting. Like Amy Poehler and her friends, they’re having fun. Their trip might just as easily have involved learning to sail a yacht or riding with cattle (anyone remember Billy Crystal’s 1991 movie City Slickers?)
Movies are all essentially about people and stories; everything else is background. If the characters are sufficiently engaging, the narrative may get away with being lacklustre. And vice versa. There wasn’t that much of a story to Sideways, but the people in it were highly watchable. Ridley Scott’s A Good Year was set in Provence and looked gorgeous but Russell Crowe’s attempt to play a British bond trader struck few chords with critics who rated it at a miserable 25%. Bottle Shock, the movie about Steven Spurrier’s Judgement of Paris tasting did a little better, scraping 48%. It still struggled to recoup its production budget. I would have walked out, but I watched it on a plane.
For what it’s worth, I didn’t particularly enjoy Wine Country, but then, I didn’t much like Mamma Mia either, and plenty of other people did. I’ll bet that over time, like A Good Year, Amy Poehler’s movie will keep lots of people happy for a while – and inspire a fair number of them to book a break in Napa. And if they sing and get drunk and pay no attention to the wine lectures while they’re there, I suspect the wineries won’t be overly bothered as they count the dollars the visitors have spent.