This is the second part of a discussion on the contradictory portrayals of wine in the book and film formats of Shopgirl. You can read the first part here.
Shopgirl-the-film displays wine much more often than the book—wine only seems to be absent from Mirabelle’s hand. In the film, director Steve Martin uses wine to illustrate, even incriminate, illustrate that Ray as a man of taste, and decidedly not a man of the people. Wine is only mentioned a scant four times in the novella, yet the references are structural, not simply descriptive. Each mention supports the story arc like a column.
At the start, Mirabelle’s wearies of her lonely life, drinking “wine” at disappointing gallery openings. Her innocent confession that she is still learning wine enchants Ray, and they share a single glass of Barolo on their first date. In denial of their incompatibility, they get tipsy on a bottle Bordeaux the next time. This trend toward excess backfires when Ray gets stinkingly drunk on several bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon with an ex-flame, breaking Mirabelle’s heart.
The story starts with falsity, or better put, a mismatch. Whatever plonk they are serving at the gallery opening barely deserves to be called “wine.” Similarly, Mirabelle may be beautiful, but she goes unnoticed. She may dress fashionably and work at a department store, but she barely scrapes by. Then, in the book’s own words, she’s discovered. Ray introduces the glamour and connection that was missing from Mirabelle’s life. They mistakenly believe that this can be ritualized, or intensified, with even better results. Ray and Mirabelle lose touch with the other’s reality, almost to a point of nihilism, where wine becomes a generic sexual strategy, as opposed to a meeting point with Mirabelle. Ray takes this strategy to another woman, with terrible results. Just like in the film, wine does not feature in happy ending, or at least Mirabelle’s self-actualization. The finale is literally sobering.
With the exception of the first wine, the book’s wine-cameos represent three of the most prestigious and expensive kinds of wine available. Barolo, a red wine from North-east Italy, is made in very limited quantities, and aged for three years before release. It is almost always expensive. Bordeaux can be cheap, (and it can also be white,) but the name is often associated with the region’s exemplary reds, made from certain chateaus. “New world” wine regions propagated Bordeaux’s most heralded grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, so as to better their own reputations. Today a handful of ‘cult’ Cabs command astronomical prices. All three are stereotypically heady, heavy and tannic, with flavors ranging from black fruits to tar to tobacco to clove. They are often described as ‘masculine,’ especially in comparison to more ‘feminine’ wines from neighboring appellations, (Barolo versus Barbaresco, Left Bank versus Right Bank.) Ray spares no expense in communicating his virility to Mirabelle. By allowing her to tap into it, she becomes empowered by his desire for her.
Yet as the varietal name-dropping becomes more obvious, the connection fizzles. Distinction becomes prized over nuance, and fantasty replaces true connection. Barolo might be well known to wine drinkers, but it doesn’t have the same cachet as Bordeaux, which again is overshadowed by the name-brand recognition of Cabernet Sauvignon. Ray is surely getting drunk with another woman on a ‘New World,’ (aka, not Bordelais,) Cabernet, wines that are increasingly dismissed as showy, aggressive, and opportunistic– just like the philosophy of their planters. According to some contemporary sommeliers, cult Cabernets are simply high-octane, break-the-bank cousins of whatever “wine” was being poured at the gallery opening.
Ray’s gradual lapse from Barolo to Napa never happens in the movie, where he drinks cult Californians almost the entire time. (There is one Chateauneuf du Pape, although explaining why this is makes things worse would take another blog post.) The server pours Merryvale’s Profile on their first date. Ray drinks Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc and Stag’s Leap Diana with take-out, by himself. Even a bottle of Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon appears on the table of the tacky Mexican restaurant. These might be the product of product placement: Clos du Val can be found in quite a few movies.
That doesn’t change the story they tell about their drinkers. Infamously, New World cult wines don’t demand that their consumer know anything about wine, only that they can remember the words ‘Cabernet Sauvignon,’ ‘Napa,’ and be willing to pay for it. Gone are the intricacies of Bordeax geography and Chateau ranking, or small appellations tucked far away in Piemonte. Ray may be from Seattle, but Ray drinks Californian. And innocent, hardworking Mirabelle can barely be shown drinking at all.