Sonoma’s Food, Wine, and Film Mashup

This year’s Sonoma International Film Festival features some surprisingly good pairings (Chardonnay and kettle corn) and very some odd choices (a lifetime achievement award for Bruce Willis?).
bruce willis and mushroom tart

In 2007, at a screening of the Oscar®-nominated Danish drama After the Wedding, sommelier Chris Sawyer poured a Muscardini Cellars Syrah. The wine’s intensity and the way it evolved once the bottle was open seemed to reflect the film perfectly. “The characters continue to open,” he says. “You meet them at first and maybe you think they are idiots or quirky or something. But by the end, you kind of want to hug them. It’s the same thing with a good wine. It’s a great experience waiting to happen. But you have to be patient.”

A self-described “movie junkie”—he watches about three films a week and is a regular on the festival circuit—Sawyer spent the past three years pairing movies and wine as the official sommelier of the annual Sonoma International Film Festival. He claims to be the only one of his kind, and even in this wine-centric region, he may be right.

Wine and food are the backbone of Sonoma County, the idyllic Northern California region known for its wineries and bountiful produce, but today the film industry also comes to town for a few days each spring (this year, that’s now through April 5), adding an entertaining mix of high-maintenance Hollywood to the otherwise laid-back Sonoma lifestyle. The festival was conceived 12 years ago as the Sonoma Valley Film Festival by two locals, Jerry Seltzer and Carolyn Stolman, who envisioned it as a way not just to celebrate movies, but also to pair them with the county’s signature food and wine to raise money for the city of Sonoma to join the international sister cities program (yes, they have a sibling in Italy: Greve in Chianti). In recent years, as the festival has grown, Sawyer’s feisty personality has helped maintain the mission of highlighting the region’s products along with the movies.

There are plenty of ways to go wrong matching the respective characteristics of wine, food, and film. There is the cop-out: French wine with a French film, or pad Thai to go with an Asian flick. And then there’s the simplistic interpretation—like when, for a 2006 screening of the indie drama Hog Island, festival culinary director Catherine Driggers simply chose a pairing of freshly shucked oysters from the popular fishery that “coincidentally” shares the same name as the film.

With the right movie, however, the straightforward approach can lead to a fun culinary experience. In 2005, for dessert at their restaurant Girl and The Fig, Sondra Bernstein and Gary Saperstein built a theme around Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, creating a playful plate of sweets for two: a cappuccino cup filled with a molten chocolate lava cake; a chocolate-dipped fig; pastel Easter Peeps and jelly beans. The restaurant is one of a handful of eateries and wineries that make special film-themed dishes and host events in the spirit of the weekend. This year, Catherine Driggers and Olive & Vine are bagging a special flavored popcorn each day (truffle and Parmesan are among the offerings so far); moviegoers can take the snack with them into the local theatres. And vintners Tom and Becky Larson have paired popcorn with wine at their Cornerstone Estate and Larson Family wineries. Butter and oak in their 2005 Sadler Wells Chardonnay marry nicely with the butter-and-sea-salt coating of their traditional popcorn, while a rich caramel kettle corn is calmed by the full-flavored sweetness of a 2006 Late Harvest Chardonnay. Again, they sell these items to go; in keeping with the sprit of the festival, theatres have obliged by adopting a temporary BYOB—and BYO-popcorn—policy. It’s fitting in this intimate town, where the community center and a bleacher-filled veterans’ hall serve as screening venues for festival films, along with a 75-year-old movie theater.

The primary focus among the sommeliers and chefs this year’s event is tomorrow night’s gala and subsequent festivities in honor of Bruce Willis, who will (somewhat incredibly) receive the festival’s lifetime achievement award this year. (The selection was made by festival chairman Kevin McNeely, who is a longtime friend of Willis’s.) The gala’s signature cocktail will be the Die Hard, a take on a classic sidecar with equal parts Korbel brandy, triple sec, and lemon juice. It sounds more like Willis’s ho-hum sequel than the debut first-rate thriller.

Sawyer—who is also the sommelier at The Lodge at Sonoma—has conceived a Willis pairing his own. For a VIP event at the Buena Vista Winery in Willis’s honor, he re-watched Pulp Fiction, The Sixth Sense, the first two Die Hard flicks, and Blind Date, the movie that launched Willis’s career. Teaming up with chef de cuisine Janine Flavo, a colleague at The Lodge, Sawyer will pair three hors d’oeuvres and three wines from Buena Vista, plus a Cabernet Sauvignon from nearby Atlas Creek, with the five films.

The last wine is meant to accompany a mini short rib panini with a rich jus and the films Die Hard and Die Hard 2—chosen, Sawyer explains, because the Atlas Creek is made under extreme conditions. “It’s all mountain vineyards. You look at that character he played in Die Hard and Die Hard 2, and he’s kind of a hard-core guy who comes in contact with terrorists all the time.” Similarly, “the vines come in contact with the terrors of Mother Nature all the time.”

A big mental leap, perhaps; but Sawyer reasons, “You just have to have an open mind and images inside your head.”

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