"Let me know what you smell. There's no wrong answer." Comedian Craig Cackowski is pouring wine for Amy Poehler and Rachel Dratch, trying to engage them in a tasting exercise. The trio are posted up at a counter on a winery patio under a salmon-hued umbrella.
"I wanna say ... canned peaches?" offers Dratch. Cackowski scoffs—wrong answer. The women take turns guessing, but Dratch is flailing. "Grapes," earns a sneer, so she aims higher-falutin: "Jasmine!"
"No," Cackowski shakes his head. "That's egregious."
"Pinot Grigious," Dratch smirks, clinking glasses with Poehler.
"We had such an amazing experience in Napa with amazing vintners who told us so much about their wonderful winemaking and let us taste so many amazing things," says Poehler about the making of her new movie. "And then we would just be like, ‘We're rolling!' And just chugging back the wine," goofing off.
Few goof better: The extended tasting riff was completely improvised—three '90s alums of the famed Second City comedy troupe ad-libbing again.
Wine Country, to be released May 10 by Netflix, is the first feature film directed by Amy Poehler. Its ensemble cast of real-life friends is a dream team of comedic talent. In addition to Poehler and Dratch, it features Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, Ana Gasteyer, Emily Spivey and Paula Pell, a group that powered Saturday Night Live's early-2000s renaissance: All seven of the women worked as performers, writers or both on the show at the time.
Two decades and many star turns later, they reunited in Napa, filming on location at Artesa Estate, Quintessa winery, Baldacci Family Vineyards and in the town of Calistoga. With its cast of marquee names and release on the streaming platform that claims 139 million subscribers, Wine Country could be the biggest movie set in wine country since 2004's Sideways.
Extended Cut: Read the full interviews with director Amy Poehler, costars Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch, writer Emily Spivey and the winemakers behind the scenes at WineSpectator.com/WineCountryMovie.
Poehler's directorial feature debut, she decided, would be a comedy/drama about the bonds, tensions, depths and idiosyncrasies of female friendship in middle age, loosely based on a real reunion trip she took to California wine country with her castmates a few years ago to celebrate Dratch's 50th birthday.
"It is not a documentary, and we are not playing ourselves," Poehler says. "We kind of cherry-picked some of the [real-life] moments and put them in the film. We did have dance parties in the living room and have kind of teary conversations in the hot tub and go into the deep end as most female friendships do."
"Drinking wine and hanging out for that length of time is like a truth serum, and so you really end up breaking it down late at night—in a good way—after a bunch of wine," laughs Emily Spivey, who both co-wrote and acts in the movie. "For comedy, you have to turn up the volume a little bit with the personalities."
"To turn this into a film was almost an instant idea," says Poehler, who enlisted Spivey and another writer and SNL alum, Liz Cackowski (Craig's sister), and then "just kind of took it from there. So it was very organic—much like the winery that we visit in the movie."
Poehler chose Napa as a setting and reconnoitered some of the specific locations herself, as evocative places to set the tone for her story. "I think it's fun to set up an expectation where you're at a place that's beautiful and bountiful, and there to relax, and then to bring all of your baggage—literally and figuratively—with you," she says. "And that happens all the time in life, right? We climb a mountain, we move to a new city, we're in a new relationship, yet it's still us. There's no mountain you can climb, there's no winery you can go to, there's no country you can escape to where you can get rid of who you are and what you want."
Also, adds Dratch, "It's not like we're going to Daytona Beach."
In the film, the far-flung friends, who go back decades, converge on a vacation home in Napa rented out by a straight-talking loner (Fey) who keeps bees (for pleasure, not honey) and makes "edible organic soaps." Rebecca (Dratch) is the birthday girl who's uncomfortable with all the fuss; Abby (Poehler) is the take-charge trip-planner who has codified and printed out the weekend's "no-worries, minute-by-minute" itinerary; Catherine (Gasteyer) is a workaholic pizza entrepreneur; Naomi (Rudolph) is a foul-mouthed mom of four; Spivey plays a dark-souled, anxious writer; and Val (Pell) is a spirited lesbian lonelyheart.
Over the course of the weekend, the friends nearly take "molly" (but decide to listen to a TED Talk about it instead) and visit an organic winery where the staff pourer quizzes the annoyed group on what the sediment in the wine is called ("Mud?" "Shavings?" "Wine waste?" "Minerality?"). Soon, they're clashing with a clutch of suspender- and fedora-clad millennials at an art gallery—and, later, with a snake that bites Rudolph's character (a scene based on a true spider). Things continue to go downhill as the baggage the women have brought comes tumbling out.
"It's like being part of an amazing basketball team," says Maya Rudolph. "I know how to set up any of them to score, and they do the same for me. It's a very group-based sport, this kind of comedy. And that history that we have together allows it to be really full and informed and just a great examination of this time in our lives."
Bonus video: The cast discuss when to drink Cabernet, and sometimes that's "with pancakes."
The Napa Valley wines, dines, lodges, and shuffles along many thousands of visitors every week, but even the quick-pulsing heart of American enotourism was nearly overwhelmed by the full press of a feature-film production team.
"It was like the circus coming to town," says Susan Sueiro, president of Artesa, describing a caravan of trailers for the cast, for hair, makeup and wardrobe, for the commissary—hundreds of crew members bustling around the property with props, cameras, booms and all manner of rigs for lighting and sound. "They basically turned our parking lot into a movie lot."
"It's a huge operation that comes in. Their original ask was to close a whole bunch of streets in downtown," says Chris Canning, mayor of Calistoga (pop. 5,273), which, like some other Napa locations, is identifiable by name in the movie—Canning's primary condition when he sat down with the production company. "Because it is a unique, real place, and it's our backdrop, it's our face."
Kellie Duckhorn, general manager of the five-employee Baldacci Family, recalls her first reaction when approached by a scout: "Yeah, we're not interested." But the crew "was very friendly and familial. To have tons of people climbing over 20 acres, it was fun."
For the seven cast members, the road to wine country and Wine Country began at 30 Rockefeller Center, where the SNL crowd would head down to drink at the now-closed Alfredo restaurant after script read-through, or to gather in anticipation of Lorne Michaels' posting of which sketches had been picked for the week's show.
"Even though it led to a very vampiric life, we were able to celebrate after every performance, which was really needed because some weeks you felt like you had really scored and other weeks you didn't," says Poehler. "I've raised a glass many times with these ladies, in many settings. Often dressed as some strange character."
Of her many characters, wine-sipping sophisticate is one Poehler began practicing even as a kid, in her family dining room. "When I was young, we used to put fruit punch in the wineglasses, and me and my best friend would sit and pretend to be adults. There's a few things when you're a young person that feel like what will happen when you get older. One of them is driving a car and another one is cooking dinner. And drinking wine. I think we probably pretended to be drunk too," she laughs.
Poehler graduated from playacting wine routines to performing them professionally. While with Second City, she waited tables, getting an early taste of both ritzy labels and the label-drinkers who ordered them. "There was this whole new world of bottles that were really expensive, corks that were very long, vintages that were very rare, and all of the pageantry that came along with it." Working the floor helped Poehler learn to read a room and act a part. "You had to do these quick character studies about how this person wanted that wine presented."
Tasting fine wine on the job also gave her an early appreciation for what was in the bottle. "One of the kind of jokes that we have in the movie is that none of the women are particularly interested in learning that much about wine. For comedy's sake, we really leaned into being in a beautiful, pristine setting and having a lot of people eager to talk to us about wine, and us not being very interested," says Poehler. "That's different from my personality in real life. Because I kind of love it. I love all the wine terms, and the way people take their time in trying to figure out how something tastes and feels, and I love unpacking the regions." Last December, Poehler even opened a wineshop, Zula, in the Prospect Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn with two friends in the wine business.
Being a director, one of the perks is "you get to wear your own clothes," says Poehler, but the drawback is "I was the tee-totaler, because I was the one going to bed every night with homework." The wine on-screen, it should be noted, is Hollywood magic—juice diluted to a color that looks real in the lighting.
For the rest of the cast, though, a trip to wine country to film was still a trip to wine country, and they filled the limited downtime they had with classic Napa wine-and-dining experiences.
We were staying right in the town of Napa, so we would all go across the street to a restaurant called Oenotri," says Dratch. "There was this really young sommelier, he looked like he was 23 years old, who'd come and speak his wine language to us."
Dratch had done several previous tours of wine country, visiting Longboard Vineyards and Lynmar Estate in Sonoma and once stomping grapes with winemaker Pax Mahle. But she is self-deprecating about her own tastes, cracking that "my first bottle of Riunite really set the tone for everything," and adding, "Put in the word ‘tannins.' Say that I said tannins!"
"Rachel, Paula, Maya and I all walked down to Oxbow Market and had oysters, and it was just like heaven on earth," says Spivey.
After the filming at Artesa, Sueiro invited the cast and crew to taste. "They heard that I was in a Prince cover band so they put on Prince," recalls Rudolph. "I could talk to a sommelier forever. I don't want them to just pour. I like learning about someone's craft and their world and the love and dedication that goes into it."
Everyone in Wine Country is counting down the days until May 10.
"We've never been in a movie before, so we don't know if this is gonna be like our Pahlmeyer moment," says Agustin Francisco Huneeus, proprietor of Quintessa, referring to that wine's prominent cameo in the 1994 movie Disclosure. "I have fantasies about what this movie could do for Napa."
Napans are sensitive to the image that Napa is pompous, or out of touch, or caters only to older, wealthy men. They welcome the chance to change perceptions and "maybe dispel some of the fear of it being a stuffy or pretentious experience," says Sueiro.
"Here in wine country, there's a lot of women doing incredible work as winemakers, as vineyard managers, as sommeliers. Seeing women enjoying those wines as well" was meaningful to Sueiro.
And to Poehler. "I think there's been an incredible push to serve different voices, but I think film, honestly, has a way to go. I'm excited that there's strong female leads in this film that are not, you know, obsessed with the same guy or whether or not they're going to get married, or some of the more similar tropes we're used to.
"Most of the women I know that are in their 40s or 50s are in their prime living and very incredibly interested and interesting and are deep, complex thinkers. And so it was important to try to represent those women on screen.
"I'm very excited for people to see it," Poehler concludes. "I'm really hoping this is the kind of film that women will go see, and also invite their friends over to watch together. Because you really do want to drink wine while you watch it."