Thursday, October 23, 2014

Vino Movies: Take IV

Continuing in our nearly year-long listing of the top five winery/vineyard/wine themed movies, we're up to the number two pick, a movie that was roundly trashed by critics and ignored by audiences when it came out eight years ago:

A Good Year

Why was the movie so despised? Perhaps critics and moviegoers were expecting more from Ridley Scott, director of such classics as Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise and Gladiator. Maybe they were getting tired of Russell Crowe, who by then had gained a reputation of being, for lack of a better term, a total asshole in real life. Whatever the reason, we find A Good Year to be a hugely entertaining, well acted, beautifully filmed, and quirky love story set on a picturesque (but of course) chateau in Burgundy.

Crowe stars as Max, a day trader in London who's coming off a major trading victory, adding to his already inflated ego and bank accounts. Soon after his latest victory, he learns of the passing of his uncle (played by Albert Finney, excellent as usual), who raised Max on his chateau in Burgundy. Through flashbacks, we see hints of the unusual relationship between Max and his uncle, and we also see traces of how Max became the brilliant, albeit totally self-centered, financial wizard he is now. He travels to the vineyard, with the sole purposes of fixing it up, appraising it, and selling it. This being a Hollywood romantic comedy (although Scott, being the auteur he is, a very unique romantic comedy), his initial plans are met with interference.

The interference comes in the form of two female characters, played by Abbie Cornish and the always easy on the eyes Marion Cotillard. Cornish plays Christie, mysterious woman who claims to be the daughter of Max's uncle, who's traveled from Napa to hopefully take over the chateau. Cotillard's Fanny Chanel is the owner of a local café who met Max when they were kids. There are several subplots involving the assessment of the vineyards and the chateau, and the quality of the wine itself (wine fans will get some belly laughs from these scenes).

What makes the film special are the eccentric characters, including Max, who despite his overbearing arrogance has some appealing and funny qualities (Crowe is perfect in the role), Finney in his flamboyantly gruff mode, Max's best friend and financial manager, as well as the larger than life vineyard manager and his wife. Australian actress Cornish and Cotillard, who have since become very familiar faces (and in Cotillard's case, Oscar winner), are believable as would-be romantic interests for Max (Max is initially skeptical of Christie's claim).

The shots of the vineyards are intimate and Scott puts you there on the Chateau, thanks to whimsical touches in the barrel room and the pool and tennis court. The film is not as cynical as Sideways, and not as sexually explicit and profane, so A Good Year works as perfectly as a "Virginia winery movie night" type of movie.

The music is also wonderful, keeping in the spirit of the slightly off-kilter charm of the movie (a combination of French pop songs, French covers of American pop songs, and Harry Nilsson tunes).

Trailer for A Good Year:

If you missed the Notebook's first three choices in the Top 5, click here.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Virginia Wine Weekend Getaway Towns: Part 1

In this series, the Notebook will examine six Virginia towns and cities perfect for a fall or winter getaway. From the ocean to the bay to the hills and mountains - these towns offer something for everyone. All of the locations are in close proximity to Virginia wineries, of course; but for simplicity sake, we will just choose two wineries per location. We'll also offer some dining and lodging options (and although we are not B&B fans, we'll stick in a link to the local B&B directory for those looking for a romantic getaway).

Part 1: Chincoteague

We'll start in the extreme eastern section of the Commonwealth; extreme northeastern, to be exact. Chincoteague is so close to the Maryland border that a few reviews for dining establishments on Yelp place the restaurant in Chincoteague, MD. Chincoteague is well known to fans of literature and history for its wild ponies (actually the ponies live on adjacent Assateague Island, which does jut into Maryland - in fact 2/3 of the island is on the Maryland side).

Chincoteague is a town first, resort second. The beach is actually a 10 minute drive away, through a National Wildlife Refuge, so vacationers in the summer book here for the atmosphere first, beach second. The town is stuck in a time warp, in a good way. The mini golf courses and frozen custard stands with neon lights remind one of a bygone era. An anti corporate vibe is apparent here; you won't find Starbucks (in fact, blogger John has a vacation home on the island, and while we were imbibing in Vavino one night, we came up with a bumper sticker: Chincoteague: 200 Ducks. 0 Starbucks).

Ducks, ponies, and chickens rule the island - one thoroughfare is actually called Chicken City Road. The small, approximately three block downtown section, on the bay side, offers a wonderful wine and cheese shop that offers several Virginia wines, Wine, Cheese and More. However as two Virginia wineries are in the plans, pick up a few bottles here in the morning and head "off the island" to the Eastern Shore.

A left turn onto U.S. highway 13, the main highway on the Eastern Shore, will take you to the wineries. The first one is about a 30 minute drive south, to the town of Nassawadox. Once you arrive in the town (really a village), Holly Grove Vineyards is a relaxing 10 minute drive from the main highway.

The Eastern Shore has growing climate and soil similar to the north fork of Long Island, where Chardonnay rules supreme. As this is a very laid back, uncrowded and unpretentious location, Jonathan, the owner and winemaker, will most likely pour for you. His chardonnay was superior, crisp and dry, with apple and fig notes. His High Tide Traminette was a great complement to the Old Bay seasoned peanuts we picked up - a good balance of spice and pineapple notes. His rosé is an off-dry winner with notes of raspberry and cranberry. Finally, for the bold red fan in your group, the Merlot: Hungarian oaked (larger than normal barrels), zesty and dry.

In warmer months, you can rent kayaks and take a bottle (or two, or three) out into the nearby creeks and really vegg out. For cooler weather, you can bring a picnic and relax by the water.

Entrance to the Holly Grove tasting room:

Be sure to call Holly Grove before you visit, especially during the cooler months, to make sure someone can meet you in the tasting room. Website URL:

The second winery is a leisurely drive northbound on route 13, heading back to your weekend getaway in Chincoteague. This winery is named after the town it resides in: Bloxom Winery.

Owners Robert and Francesca Giardina planted their vines in 2000 and opened their doors to the public in 2004; they are the oldest of the three wineries on the Eastern Shore (not to snub the third location, which we also love - Chatham Vineyards). As you can tell from the owners names, this location is rooted in Old World Europe. The soil on the Eastern Shore has more in common with the soil in France and Italy compared to the mainland of Virginia, and especially the soil in California, Oregon, and Washington (the "New World" growing region of the U.S.) The soil is sandy and loamy, and very bold reds such as Merlot and Cab Sauv thrive here, as well as the aforementioned Chardonnay.

As the case with Holly Grove, there are not a huge number of wines here, but even with their limited wine list, you are bound to find something for every palate. The Merlot is deep, with notes of plum and currant. The Chardonnay is a bit more oaky than the offering at Holly Grove, but still smooth and perfect with brie cheese. Their biggest sellers are their sweeter styles: Some Like it Blush and Red Kiss. The winery is very close to the main highway and the owners explained that Salisbury, home to a few colleges, draws the "wine newbies" nearly every weekend.

In the spirit of the Mediterranean flavor of Bloxom, artisan pizza is prepared in a wood fire stove every Saturday. Sit yourself down in the enclosed patio off the tasting room and you will feel as if you've been transported to Tuscany:

The entrance to the winery is rather nondescript, but it is quiet here, and you are surrounded by vineyards.

Check the website URL before departing:

Back on the Island......

Wrap up your wine getaway on the Eastern Shore with dinner at one of Chincoteague's quaint restaurants. Our favorites include Bill's Prime Seafood and Steak and Maria's Family Restaurant, which has great pizza and fried chicken (which we discovered goes very well with Viognier.)

Plenty of motels and hotels on the island to choose from - Hampton Inn to retro mom and pops. To get a real feel for the island, we suggest a mom and pop, or one of the many B&Bs. Try the Lighthouse Inn, in the heart of downtown, walking distance to restaurants and the bay, with a picnic area including grills for guests to use. For a comprehensive B&B listing, click here.

This charming town and the nearby Eastern Shore await you for wining and dining in the salty air.