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Hand in Hand: Christopher Sawyer matches enological characteristics with movies.

Days of Wine & Celluloid

The Sonoma Valley Film Festival sommelier samples this year's offerings, and invents a few cinematic wine pairings to make them go down better

By David Templeton

'Is it legal to even suggest a wine to go along with a movie about Sesame Street?" asks Christopher Sawyer, with a wicked laugh. "Something about that just seems wrong!"

Sawyer, a longtime journalist specializing in writing about wines and vintages in hip, understandable, Generation X-Y-Z­friendly ways, is also the star sommelier at Carneros Bistro and Wine Bar at the Lodge in Sonoma. His professional duties include suggesting which wines go best with which meals and desserts. His eerie aptitude for finding the right bottle for the right plate, and his poetic descriptions of how the food and drink will make beautiful tastes together, has led to his appointment as the world's first and only film-festival sommelier, working with Cinema Epicuria, the ninth annual Sonoma County Film Festival, which runs April 5­9 all over the town of Sonoma.

As the festival's sommelier, it will be Sawyer's job to work with sponsoring wineries to select the right wine to serve with each of the festival's 70-plus films. To help Sawyer warm up for the big movie-and-wine-pairing marathon--and also to test his aptitude for this highly specialized kind of work--I invite him to my house to watch a few of the movies that will be featured at this year's festival. The pairings he suggests in my living room are not necessarily those he will choose for the actual festival. For our Saturday-evening exercise, Sawyer is allowed to fantasize having access to the entire world of available wines.

Which leads us to The World According to Sesame Street (screening Sunday, April 9, at 10am), a documentary by Linda Goldstein Knowlton that examines the complicated and sensitive process of adapting the hit educational TV show to some of the many countries, including Croatia, in which it now runs. It is a surprisingly sharp and political film. Once Sawyer has dealt with his inner conflict over pairing a wine to go with a movie about Elmo, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, he goes to work, naming a Grgich Hills Zinfandel as the perfect pairing for this movie.

"It's a wine they make using grapes from Croatia," Sawyer explains. "So that is really a politically themed pairing, Sesame Street and any Grgich Hills Zinfandel. It's a very good wine for a very good movie about a very good television show."

The next movie we sample is Joshua Michael Stern's Neverwas, the closing-night film (screening Sunday, April 9, at 6:30pm and 9:30pm), destined to become one of the more talked-about offerings of the weekend. Starring Aaron Eckhart, William Hurt, Sir Ian McKellen, Jessica Lange and others, it's the story of a therapist whose life changes when he comes to work at a semi-mystical mental-health hospital, where some of the patients teach him a few things about the relationship between madness and wonder.

"I'm sitting here watching this movie," says Sawyer, "and the characters are deepening, they're getting more complex as we go. What it's making me think of is a Pickberry by Ravenswood, a layered kind of wine with Cab, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, grown in kind of a smaller subregion of Sonoma Valley. It's a complex wine, and this movie is very complex, and seems to be thickening as we watch. The Pickberry is a perfect pairing for this movie."

Next up is Brad Kimmel's Novem (screening Friday, April 7, at 10pm, and Sunday, April 9, at 3:30pm), a kind of "mockumentary" purporting to be found footage of the final recording sessions of a forgotten '70s rock band named Novem, a gang of musical mavericks who died in a fiery crash immediately after recording the long-lost album. The whole thing is frisky, fun--and fake.

"With this movie," Sawyer says, "I'd have to go out of Sonoma Valley, to Rodney Strong, partly to honor Rodney Strong who just passed away recently--which is a big loss of a great maverick of the wine industry. They have a wine, an estate-bottled Zinfandel, called Knotty Vines, which is a kind of cover name for old vines, but in this case they're not old vines. See where I'm going with this? Knotty Vines is a tweaky, fun wine, a young wine that appears to be old--but isn't really old, like this movie."

It's getting late, and we're running out of time, but have only sampled a handful of the movies that will be on hand at the festival. We haven't even gotten close to looking at some of the big movies like The Legend of Lucy Keyes (screening Friday, April 7, at 12:30pm), featuring Julie Delpy as a woman who sees ghosts, and the highly touted Brazilian documentary Favela Rising (screening Wednesday, April 5, at 6:30pm and 9:30pm), about a musical movement within one of Brazil's squatter communities, to be introduced by actor Danny Glover.

With a stack of preview tapes we won't have time to preview, we resort to working through the festival program. I read the descriptions of some of the films, and Sawyer, working quickly, instantly pronounces his pairings.

"The Thursday-night film looks good," I say. "It's Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School, starring Robert Carlyle, Marisa Tomei and Mary Steenburgen. It's a sweet and emotional about growing up amidst broken dreams and--"

"Stop right there," Sawyer says. "I've already got it. Nicholson Ranch Pinot Noir. Because it's a wine that is all about charm and depth. This is obviously a movie with charm and depth and emotion, and Pinot Noir is nothing if not charming, deep and emotional."

We keep going.

The Blue Butterfly, in which an entomologist (William Hurt) takes a boy with cancer to Costa Rica to track down a rare butterfly. "This obviously requires something rare and unusual," says Sawyer. "I'd suggest something like the Malbec, which you can only get at Arrowood Winery, a very limited-release Malbec, or the Laurel Glen on Sonoma Mountain, which imports a couple of wines they make down in Argentina."

How about Kinky Boots: a drag-queen superstar rescues a fading Old World shoe factory? "For this movie, you need a wine that's been made by people willing to step outside the bounds of expected behavior," Sawyer says. "Maybe something like a Gundlach Bundschu Tempranillo. Kinky Boots is a movie about people with passion daring to take the world into new directions, and in that way it's just like the winemakers at Gundlach Bundschu--passionate people who are ready to introduce people to new things."

"'Starbucking. Opening-night at the lounge,'" I read. "'A caffeine-fueled young man sets out to visit every Starbucks on the planet.'"

"This is all about Cab," says Sawyer. "Cabernet and the flavor of coffee, what we would call mocha, is a very common term used with the styles of Cabernet that are used with a lot of toasty oak."

F*ck: The Documentary. "'The history of the word, how it's used, why it's such a no-no, with hilarious commentary from all the big names from both sides of our cultural divide,'" I intone.

"This sounds like a movie that demands a big wine," Sawyer says. "You've got to have a lot of gusto if you're going to throw out that word in public conversation. Same thing with a big, red wine. One that comes to mind is Say Hello from Sebastiani, a proprietary blend. It's like nobody else's wine. It is a big winery that has a lot of staying power, if you see what I mean, because they are now 102 years old."

As the evening comes to a close, I ask Sawyer one last question.

"We've been having fun with the idea of matching a wine's flavors and history to the stories and moods of a film," I state. "But how much can your choice of wine really affect the experience of watching a movie?"

"Does a great romantic evening become enhanced by having a great bottle of wine at the table?" Sawyer replies. "It depends on the situation and who you are with. In the case of the Sonoma Valley Film Festival, it's a festival that is all about the romance of the movies, and also the romance of wine. Of course wine enhances the experience. On the other hand, can a really great movie also enhance the experience of drinking a good glass or two of wine? Why not? Wine and movies are complete sensual experiences, and combining them together in creative ways only improves the experience of both."


For the complete schedule of the Sonoma Valley Film Festival, go to www.cinemaepicuria.org.

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From the March 29-April 4, 2006 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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