Lori Anderson: Drinking under influence of cinema

Hard liquor coupling: Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardener. Picture: AP
Hard liquor coupling: Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardener. Picture: AP
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While wine has always played a leading role in our lives, writes Lori Anderson, it can also perform a dramatic function

Now that asking “What’s your star sign?” has fallen into naff oblivion, there must surely be some other semiotic way for us to judge each other?

How do we now navigate our way through initial social interactions and emerge all-knowing? Ah yes, here’s the litmus test: “What do you want to drink?”

From Babycham and lemonade to Scotch on the rocks, our choice will define us. Firstly, do beware of anyone ordering Babycham: they may very well be a female serial killer who has just gotten out after 30 years.

Me? Oh thanks for asking, I’ll have an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan. Whilst this may be acceptable in a bar, sitting down to dinner and ordering the aforementioned with each course has made me look like the illicit offspring of that hard liquor coupling, Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner. Despite such stellar provenance there is a certain sophistication that has long lain outwith the grasp of little old wine drinking me.

I have committed great travesties against wine. Besotted with Brideshead Revisited, I asked for a bottle of Chateau D’Yquem for my 18th birthday. Returning from a Jack Daniel’s and Coke and vodka and gin and tonic night out with my former school chum, we decided to break out the good stuff. We both deemed it utterly repulsive and poured it down the sink. I priced the bottle recently, and realised that I would never again be able to croon, “Je ne regrette rien”. I am wringing my hands, mea culpa, Sauternes.

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Last week I decided to challenge my palate and embrace red wine. I called upon the services of London’s finest barman at Claridge’s Fumoir and, during a Goldilock’s tasting session, discovered the following: the Burgundy – no, too watery; the Malbec – too earthy and astringent; but – the warming velvety oubliette that is Crozes-Hermitage Les Jalets, Jaboulet 2010 – I fell headlong into.

After several phone calls and online cul de sacs, I located a respectable and very patient Edinburgh vintner, The Fine Wine Company, and tracked down my prey. Only one problem – I don’t own a corkscrew. Tantalus, I now share your eternal damnation.

Red wine, confidently sipped from goblets the size of fish bowls, is the new signifier of a powerful woman in American TV drama, according to a recent article in The International New York Times. The prime examples of contemporary female oenophiles are Claire Underwood – Lady MacBeth to Kevin Spacey in House of Cards; Julianna Margulies’ character Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife; and Olivia Pope, the lead character in Scandal whose cultured thirst extends to having a rare case of Chateauneuf-du-Pape shipped out to her island retreat.

The author Eric Asimov explains that the drink could be viewed in the same manner as Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca “downing shots to dull the pain” but “in practice it’s different because it’s wine, not spirits, and those who love wine see it as far more than a numbing palliative for heartache and anxiety.”

The robustness of red wine reflects on the confidence and character of the drinker, which explains why Carrie Mathison, the hard-bitten CIA station chief in Homeland who hides her bi-polar nature, drinks white. “The white wine connotes the skittishness of her mental instability,” explains Asimov. “Red wine would be too solid for her character.” I feel a warning lies within: order a white wine spritzer and one may as well sport a lurid My Little Pony T-shirt.

The influence of the screen, both large and small, on our drinking habits can be remarkable. It is now a decade since Sideways, the classic US indie movie, in which two middle-aged friends set off on a wine tour around Santa Barbara, but sales of merlot have yet to recover. In one scene, Paul Giamatti’s depressed wine snob declares: “If anybody orders merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any f***ing merlot!” After the film’s release sales of merlot slumped while those of pinot noir, which Giamatti’s character praises, steadily soared.

It’s too early to tell if the jeroboams of champagne guzzled by Oxford toffs in The Riot Club, a film based on the Bullingdon Club, enjoy a rush of sales. Likewise, Timothy Spall has elevated the cinematic presence of sherry by consuming it most lustfully in Mr Turner.

Women have always had an admiration and appreciation for the fermented grape, even if at times their tippling had to be done in secret. The first female wine drinker was, according to legend, a depressed member of the harem of King Jamsheed, who decided to end it all by taking a large amount of fermented grapes which she believed to be poisoned. What she discovered would eventually be emulated by every woman who has ever reached for a bottle of pinot noir at precisely “wine o’clock”: the dark storm clouds parted and she was bathed in the deliriously warm rays of alcoholic intoxication.

The sight of a drunken woman was intolerable for the early Romans who instituted a law forbidding women to drink and permitting husbands to kill them if caught raiding the wine cellar. Few husbands took such a homicidal approach, however – the last recorded divorce on the grounds of a wife’s drinking habit was in 194 BC. The Romans also invented “the toast” when they started dropping small pieces of burnt bread into wine as a means of cutting down excessive acidity. Attitudes, however, have changed with the millenniums and it was also the Italians – who else? – who published a study that claimed that women who drank two glasses of wine a day enjoyed a better sex life than those who were teetotal.

Cheers, big ears.

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