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09.28.2009  
 

Wine Films Debut in Napa

Documentary and 'Sideways' remake have world premieres at film festival

 
by Paul Fanson
 
 
Japanese Sideways
 
"Sideways" from the East: Instead of the Central Coast, characters in the new Japanese version have their wine country adventure in Napa Valley.
 
Napa, Calif. -- Two movies of special interest to the wine community received their worldwide premieres in Napa Valley over the weekend. Both were presented at the 23rd Napa Sonoma Wine Country Film Festival to enthusiastic audiences largely composed of the wine community. Many viewers were included in the films; others' families were featured.

One was "America's Wine: The Legacy of Prohibition," a documentary produced by Carla De Luca Worfolk. The second was the Japanese remake of the phenomenon "Sideways," but restaged in Napa Valley with a Japanese cast.

"America's Wine: The Legacy of Prohibition" was the first film ever commissioned by the University of California's Bancroft Library at Berkeley, California's historical depository.

Film Producer Carla de Luca Worfolk John Wine Institute
 
Producer Carla de Luca Worfolk poses with her father, former Wine Institute president/CEO John De Luca, at the premiere of her documentary.
Worfolk, an Emmy Award-winning former CNN producer, is the daughter of John De Luca, the former president and CEO of the Wine Institute, who occupies a prominent place in the film along with many other experts and historical figures.

The film starts with the origins of winemaking in the United States and the role of immigrants -- particularly those from Italy -- then describes the social issues and forces that led to Prohibition. Interestingly, that debacle was first triggered by the needs of World War I, then passed into law over President Woodrow Wilson's veto in 1920.

The documentary also depicts the excesses of the "Noble experiment" and its devastating impact on the families that produced wine -- and on American society as a whole.

Using archival film and photographs animated with camera movements, the film also includes extensive interviews with legendary figures like Ernest Gallo, Robert Mondavi and Brother Timothy Diener in their last on-camera appearances collected for the Bancroft Library collection.

This film shows how growers and wineries overcame the era's constitutional barriers, notably by expanding production of grapes to meet the demands of immigrant families in the East, who made wine legally from the grapes -- and sometimes sold it, too. Other families survived by making medicinal and sacramental wine, while some simply produced or imported illegal alcoholic beverages until President Franklin Roosevelt helped engineer Prohibition's end partly to boost the economy caught in Depression.

Many became the "Phoenix Generation," which slowly rebuilt the U.S. wine industry from the ashes of illegality into a flourishing global competitor, as American tastes evolved from sweet, high-alcohol alternatives to spirits to today's fine table wines.
 
The documentary's finale focuses on the legacy of Prohibition, fragmented laws and customs that treat the 50 states virtually as separate countries for wine sales, and continue to hinder the business today.

Primarily intended as an educational piece, it is inspiring and compelling to those among its community, but would benefit from editing. A shorter version is being proposed to PBS. It makes only minor nods to objectivity, and is a paean to wine and those who produced it.

The standing-room audience at the premiere, which consisted primarily of invited guests, included members of pioneering wine families such as Seghesio, Martini, Daniels and Bundschu, and even the reclusive David Kent of The Wine Group, all of whom enjoyed wines from the sponsoring Gallo family's collection.

A kinder 'Sideways'
Also premiering at the Film Festival was the new Japanese adaptation of "Sideways," set almost entirely in Napa Valley (with a prologue and ending in Los Angeles). It was directed by Cellin Gluck, a Japanese-American raised in Japan.

It was considered the Japanese "re-imagination" of the 2005 Academy Award-winning film that continues to have an astonishing impact on the Santa Barbara wine country where it was filmed, and on the fortunes of Pinot Noir and Merlot wines.

Much more sentimental than the sometimes bitingly hilarious original, the story is a heart-warming tale of two old friends -- Michio (Fumio Kohinata, in Paul Giamatti's role) and Daisuke (Katsuhisa Namase in Thomas Haden Church's role), who venture out on a weeklong roadtrip and end up in the Napa Valley.

There they serendipitously encounter Michio's old heartthrob Mayuko (Kyoka Suzuki in the Virginia Madsen part), whom he tutored during his exchange-student days 20 years earlier. They also meet her free-spirited friend Mina (Rinko Kikuchi, in Sandra Oh's part), who was raised in America.

Definitely gentler than the original, the new "Sideways" does include most of its iconic scenes, although in muted versions: No stealing from a mother, or naked men flapping down the road, though a skillet serves as a suitable stand-in for a motorcycle helmet when scoundrel-bashing is called for.

Like the original, this "Sideways" is redolent with California wine references and names, and many locals garnered cameo speaking parts, including Margaux Singleton of Calistoga's Enoteca cult wine shop, Domaine Chandon publicist Lara Abbot as a wine educator at Newton, and Donna Scala, the chef and co-owner of Bistro Don Giovanni -- plus many others from the wine community. Set mainly in Calistoga, it especially highlights Frog's Leap Winery, and Newton and Darioush wines.

The audience at the premiere included numerous Napa Valley residents who appear in the film, as well as members of the cast and crew.

Unlike the original, it doesn't bash Merlot -- or any other wine -- but heaps praise on Pinot and Cabernet.

The film, which reportedly was made for a tiny $3 million (the original cost $17 million) opens Oct. 5 in Japan, and heavy promotion there seems likely to benefit California wine sales -- and encourage hordes of Japanese visitors to Napa Valley: a welcome development with the valley's tourist trade and high-end wine sales suffering in the sputtering economy.
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