Emily Spivey created the TV series Up All Night and has writing and editing credits on some of the most beloved comedies of the past two decades, including sketch shows Saturday Night Live and Mad TV. So when Amy Poehler decided she wanted to make a movie, she asked Spivey to write the script for what would become the film Wine Country. The story of a group of middle-aged women on a trip to Napa that goes off the rails, it stars some of Spivey's real-life friends, including Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Tina Fey—and Spivey herself, playing the pessimist par excellence of the group.
Wine Spectator associate editor Ben O'Donnell spoke with Spivey about her on-screen and in-glass influences, why Sideways is one of her favorite movies, and why she thinks the filming of Wine Country could've made for a particularly revealing behind-the-scenes documentary.
Read our exclusive feature on the new movie Wine Country in the May 31, 2019, issue of Wine Spectator, on newsstands now. Plus, check out more bonus online-only content about the film, released on Netflix May 10, including our interviews with director and star Amy Poehler, costars Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch, and the winemakers behind the scenes.
Spivey and the rest of the cast declare when—if ever—to break out the Merlot:
Wine Spectator: How do you remember this movie coming together?
Emily Spivey: We all worked at SNL together, and I've known Maya [Rudolph] even longer, 20 years, from the Groundlings [improv group]. So what happened was after we all left SNL, we started a text chain with me, Paula Pell, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Ana Gasteyer. So we talked every day all day long on this text chain. When Rachel’s 50th birthday was rolling around, we all were like, "We have to take a trip together." And then so many funny things happened on that trip, Poehler and I just started talking, like, "We should do a movie of this. It feels like it could be really fun, like a Big Chill kind of thing."
WS: How would you characterize the role that wine has played in these relationships and the memories that you’ve had together?
ES: Well, it’s really all about wine, because when you’re at SNL you commiserate over wine, and then you celebrate with wine.
After the [script] read-through, we’d all go down to this restaurant called Alfredo right in Rockefeller Center and we’d order rounds and rounds of wine and have a big dinner together, a huge SNL gang. And we would always have wine and then go back and see what sketches were picked. Or after pitch meetings, we’d all go back to this little pub and we’d all have wine, so, so much of all of our histories are just wrapped in walking around in a giant gang going from restaurant to restaurant and bar to bar [laughs].
So going to wine country was really like the mother ship, or us going home to our spiritual land [laughs].
WS: What is it about a wine-country setting that makes it ideal for a movie about deep friendship and candor?
ES: I think for better or for worse, 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, and then in the morning, if you’re a little hungover, your walls are down, let’s say [laughs]. So it really is like a good place to go and just really get real with each other. That’s how Rachel’s birthday felt, in that house.
WS: Were there any standout moments or memories from the filming or just from your time being there?
ES: God, every moment was a standout moment. I really liked staying in downtown Napa, and there was a restaurant across from the Andaz, Oenotri, and we went there almost every night after we did the shooting. That’s one of my fondest memories is just having a ton of wine over there and eating their pasta. And then Rachel, Paula, Maya and I all walked down to the Oxbow Market and had oysters, and it was just like heaven on earth, it really was.
WS: There are definitely some jokes in the movie that people who are familiar with Napa and wine would be especially tickled by—from pretentious attitudes to cloudy organic wine. How did you hone your wine humor when writing this script?
ES: I think just the experience of going places and drinking wine and feeling like you don't know very much, and being worried that you’re being judged because of that, was sort of where a lot of that humor came from.
I remember there was a restaurant in New York called Quartino, and they did serve organic wine, and it was so good, but it did have sediment in the bottom. It’s a very uninteresting story [laughs], but that’s where that came from.
We really didn’t want to poke fun at the people; it was more about the perspective of these women feeling intimidated by that kind of situation with wine tastings. Many of the people we encountered on that birthday trip became characters in the movie, for sure. Even though no one was as judge-y as we are portraying, as the characters are in the movie. But for comedy, you have to turn up the volume a little bit with the personalities.
WS: Do you think anything will resonate like the Sideways “not drinking any Merlot” moment?
ES: Sideways is probably one of my favorite movies of the last 20 years. I just adore that movie. And when we set out to do this movie, we conjured Sideways so much. So I hope we could get something like, "I’m not drinking any f’ing Merlot." It’s hard to predict stuff like that. And you can’t force it either.
WS: You're also in the cast. What was filming like, with all your longtime friends?
ES: It was funny because so many things in the movie that we were acting out, in lots of ways started mirroring what was really going on behind the scenes. We all sort of fell into those exact roles that we play in the movie, a little bit. So that was kind of interesting. I wish there had been a documentary crew filming us as we got more and more tired and just really became the actual characters that we portray. It’s not exactly who we are, but it’s versions of certain predominant characteristics that we each have … that just floated out at the time.
WS: What are your hopes for the movie?
ES: I hope that people can see a little of themselves in this movie, and laugh with us. It was really nice to make a movie about women of this age. You just don’t see that kind of movie as much. It has very much a '70s aesthetic of real lo-fi, women sitting around talking about actual things that affect them, and what actual women talk about.
So I hope people—boys and girls—will enjoy seeing that, reflected back to them. I hope it’s the kind of movie that people will want to watch over and over. Because that’s the kind of movie that I like. I watch the same movies over and over because they're comforting and funny, and I hope that this becomes a fun comfort movie for everybody.