The universe of movies about wine is admittedly small, and probably for good reason. Sideways has remained at the top of the pile by entropy as much as anything, and it’s not a film that has aged with grace; Miles, the main character, is a rough parody of the sort of wine people best forgotten. From there, the canon descends into things like Somm and the incoherent Bottle Shock, which often leave the impression of wine as a domain for wankers.
Since wine is unlikely to get its version of Ratatouille or The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover anytime soon (and even if it did, I’m not sure I’d want to watch it), I humbly propose a different candidate: Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s 2000 ode to classic rock in its late-decadent moment.
Wine doesn’t have a lot to do with the movie, at least on its surface. It shows up in a couple of hotel room scenes featuring Penny Lane (Kate Hudson)—the super-groupie who follows the movie’s fictional band, Stillwater, on the road—namely when she’s trysting or washing down an attempted overdose of quaaludes. But in another way, Almost Famous has everything to do with the charms and cautions of today’s wine world.
The movie sets itself in 1973, with Stillwater—a sort of mash-up of the early-days Allman Brothers and the Eagles—touring the country. More specifically, it follows the teenaged William Miller (Patrick Fugit), who’s a stand-in for Crowe (who wrote about both those real bands, and many others, as a precocious teen recruited by Rolling Stone). William finds himself trying to be a Grown Up Journalist while still being a fan at heart. And he grapples with this in the company of a group of female companions, the Band-Aids—because they’re not, you know, groupies—which includes Penny, who consumes herself with the band’s lead singer, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). Complications, as they say, ensue in a long cross-country party that doesn’t end. (Until it does.)
At its heart, the movie is about loving artistry—or at least artistic pretensions—in an intensely personal and pleasurable way. That’s the obvious parallel to wine, although not the only one. When watching it again recently, I was particularly taken by a line from another Band-Aid, Sapphire (Fairuza Balk), who complains to Russell about a trashy new crop of groupies: “They don’t even know what it is to be a fan, you know? To truly love some silly little piece of music or some band so much that it hurts.”
Of course, love is complicated, and part of the import of Almost Famous is that it comes at a moment of afterglow for rock’s great, initial ‘60s burst of energy: The Beatles, The Who, so on. Skepticism comes in by way of a fictionalized Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the real-life editor of Creem magazine, who stood out as a clear-eyed voice unswayed by the romance of rock, and grew cynical as Rolling Stone and others succeeded with a more mainstream view of music. Almost Famous may be William’s story, but it’s Lester’s movie.
In the movie, Lester’s view of music is probably too cynical, but those who complain about how wine has sold out and simply become what he calls, “an industry of cool,” will find solace in his worldview. “It’s just a shame you missed out on rock and roll, it’s over,” he tells William. “You got here just in time for the death rattle.”
In particular, Lester is wary of what rock represents beyond its own artistry: a party that never ends. That party provides the narrative thread of Almost Famous—Russell on acid, standing on a rooftop shouting “I am a golden god”—and most of its fun. And it is more or less where wine has gone lately. Sure, wine always was about having a good time, but recently that has become a more deliberate act; the wine world has cast off much of its past stuffiness and become something more vital, raucous and eminently Instagrammable.
Putting on my Lester hat, it’s fair to be a bit cynical about that shift. Today, we witness a subset of winemakers and wine merchants and jet-setting writers (in the movie, Lester called their music counterparts “swill merchants”), always landing in a new city, always pimping a new restaurant, always sharing their drinking exploits in the form of another rare bottle posted to their feed. It’s not a big leap to perceive the serial posts of Ganevat-slash-Allemand-slash-Roumier as a sort of nerdy equivalent of the endless party of a band on the road. And certainly there’s hope, among wine people, of capturing that romance of rock.
But make no mistake: These endless bottle-popping road shows are carefully curated. They omit the boring bits (paying barrel invoices, running inventory) and portray wine life as a break from the mundane, which is the same as what everyone wants from their rock gods. As Russell puts it to William: “Everybody understands, this is the circus. Everybody’s trying not to go home. Nobody’s saying goodbye.”
The analogy here isn’t even a stretch. There’s good reason that famous winemakers are dubbed “rock stars.” On the one hand, that’s silly, in that these are people who crush grapes and put fermented grape juice in bottles. On the other, the fetishism that attends both is almost exactly the same. And William realizes that such fetishes have their downsides, which is why so much of the movie depicts him being pulled in while simultaneously trying to stay at a distance.
In fact, I can’t think of another movie that so well captures this particular tension: To write effectively about either wine or rock, you have to love your subject—to be a fan. But to do it well, you have to step back and be a critic, to not always join the party. To invoke a quintessential Lester line: “You have to make your reputation on being honest, and unmerciful.” Indeed, this theme provides one of the movie’s persistent in-jokes: the idea that 15-year-old William, writing for Rolling Stone, is “the enemy.” (“He looks harmless, but he does represent the magazine that trashed ‘Layla,’ broke up Cream, ripped every album Led Zeppelin ever made,” Jeff Bebe, Stillwater’s lead singer, tells his band mate. “Don’t forget the rules, man. This little shit is the enemy.”)
Yet the movie’s real enemy is the exact same as one that imperils wine’s more sincere, carefree side. In Almost Famous, caution comes in the form of Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon), a band manager who persuades Stillwater to charter an airplane and book more gigs to cover the deficit with their record label. The glib Dennis is a familiar figure in rock, and in wine: the inveterate promoter who sees only dollar signs, all while proclaiming to still love the thing itself.
Perhaps wine has done a better job of cloaking these economic realities. It puts forward a romantic sheen of sun-dappled vines and the good life, but there are plenty of Dennis Hopes, subsuming places like Napa and Bordeaux with record-setting prices and a crafty sort of luxury arbitrage. Dennis sums it up perfectly: “You gotta take what you can, when you can, while you can, and you gotta do it now. That’s what the big boys do.”
Lester’s view of this is, not surprisingly, apocalyptic: “These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of rock stars, and they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it,” he tells William. Of course, his predictions about the end of things never come true, but what he considers the triumph of that industry of cool sure has. Rock devolved into arena shows and ticket prices—until punk and rap provided a new path. (And then they, too, were subsumed by commerce.)
Has wine fallen down that path? Not exactly. If anything, it contains a world of new and bright-eyed opportunity—a final breaking of the bounds of old taste and the old rules. This new world can fall short—as in some of the rougher quadrants of natural wine—and it can be co-opted. But that’s why I keep finding wisdom in Almost Famous. It transmits both the love of a thing, and a cautionary note: music, like wine, needs to be put in perspective. Much of what’s produced of either is transitory and faddish, and at times it’s hard to know what will last, and what’s gossamer.
Still, both can consume us in a wonderful way. It’s like when William, sitting Russell down for one last interview, asks: “What do you love about music?”
“To begin with,” Russell answers, “everything.”