For her feature directorial debut, Amy Poehler decided to head to Napa. The Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation star recruited an ensemble cast of her real-life friends who powered SNL's early-2000s renaissance—Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, Emily Spivey and Paula Pell—and loosely based the plot on a reunion trip they took to California wine country a few years ago to celebrate Dratch’s 50th birthday.
It may be a fictional comedy/drama, but Wine Country's backdrop is authentic Napa. Filming took place on location at Artesa Estate, Quintessa winery, Baldacci Family Vineyards and in the town of Calistoga. With the movie coming out on Netflix May 10, Poehler spoke with Wine Spectator associate editor Ben O'Donnell about the inspiration for the film, how to craft a wine joke, her '90s adventures as a wine server at swanky Chicago restaurants, the perks (and buzzkills) of being in the director's chair—and how to improv a wine review.
Read our exclusive feature on the new movie Wine Country in the May 31, 2019, issue of Wine Spectator, on newsstands April 16. Watch this space for more bonus online-only content about the film, to be released on Netflix May 10.
Wine Spectator: You wrote [in the book Yes Please] that wine was sort of in the house when you were growing up, and you associated it with being a grown-up.
Amy Poehler: Yes! I grew up in Massachusetts in a tiny ranch house, and the dining room was always kind of cooler than the rest of the house, a little dusty, had your one set of fancy plates—and your wineglasses.
And when I was young we used to put fruit punch in the wineglasses and sit, me and my best friend, 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 [laughs].
WS: And then you had some formative wine experience in Chicago and New York working in restaurants, hanging out with either professional or at least self-styled wine people?
AP: I waited tables most of my teenage and early adult life, and Chicago, I was there during the mid-'90s when there was this huge financial boom. So 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.
So when somebody ordered an expensive bottle of wine, you would have one customer who ordered it because they thought it was delicious, and sometimes you had another customer who ordered it because they wanted everyone to know how much money they were spending. So you had to do these quick character studies about how this person wanted that wine presented.
Because I was in the service industry, I got the chance to try stuff that I never would have tried before. And it was always amazing when your palate was awakened to the sense that [authoritative voice], "I see, this is really, really good." So we’d have wine tastings all the time and get to try different stuff and get to talk about it.
Photo credit: Colleen Hayes/Netflix
WS: Did any of the food attitudes and habits you took note of in those years—and since—make it into the movie?
AP: Well, 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. So 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.
That’s different from my personality in real life. Because I kind of love it. I dig having to describe something, and 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. The more adjectives, the better. But my character in Wine Country has no time for it.
WS: But it sounds like you’re well positioned to riff on wine humor in the movie. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
AP: Yeah, we had some stuff in the movie where we go to an organic winery and our sommelier, played by Liz Cackowski, is very proudly showing us all the sediment that’s in our glass as if that’s something that we should be very pleased about and also grateful for. And she calls the sediment "wine diamonds," which is really funny to us. She just really loves to talk about how natural everything is, and how everything is so green and from the soil, and the wine itself is so natural that it almost tastes like dirt.
And we kind of make fun of the very high-end winery that loves to use very dramatic hyperbole to explain what we’re drinking, so, “If Cabernet is the king, then this Chardonnay is its queen!”
We shot up in Napa for a few weeks, and we had such an amazing experience there with amazing vintners who told us so much about their wonderful winemaking and also let us taste so many amazing things, and were awesome, awesome people to get to know and work with. And then we would just be like, "We’re rolling!" And just chugging back the wine, not interested in it at all [laughs].
I should point out that in the movies you can’t drink real wine all day, so unfortunately, a lot of it was fake juices of different kinds that were diluted to get to the right color.
WS: What are some elements of your real-life wine-country trips that made it into movie in some form?
AP: I mean, it is not a documentary, and we are not playing ourselves, but we kind of cherry-picked some of the moments and put them in the film. We did all get together for Rachel [Dratch]’s birthday one year in wine country. 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.
What we wanted to celebrate ultimately is, there’s not, I don’t think, enough films enjoying the rich conversation that women over 40 get into with each other, because when you’re away from your partner or family, and you have the weekend to be together, you just truly jump in pretty quick.
So when I was making the film, I was just trying to picture what it would be like to have a film of constant conversation that starts talking and ends talking, and is about peeking in on a moment in these women’s lives where a lot of them are keeping things to themselves, and not keeping their relationships current, and so by doing so, they’re kind of in fear of losing the intimate friendships that they have.
Photo credit: Colleen Hayes/Netflix
WS: This is your first directorial feature—at what point did you conceive of this project and how you wanted to go about it?
AP: It wasn’t too complicated. I’d been directing television and looking to direct a feature, and to turn this [trip] into a film was almost an instant idea, because we were all together, and we’re always just looking for projects where we can work together. So after the trip, I said to Emily Spivey, who was on the trip and is in the film, and is a terrific writer, "Should we try to write this as a script and turn this into a movie?"
We enlisted Liz Cackowski, our old friend, who is also an SNL alum, and just kind of took it from there. So it was very organic—much like the winery that we visit in the movie.
WS: When you were scoping things out, how did you decide, "I want to do this part in Calistoga, and this small organic winery and then this bigger, flashier winery"?
AP: Well, a lot of it was in the script. We wanted to update what it looks like now to be in Napa. We just wanted to kind of show the different variations and styles [of settings].
We were really grateful that Calistoga opened up its streets to us, because we were coming a short time after the fires, which were incredibly devastating for that area, and very traumatic. And a lot of places that we scouted had burned, or had suffered a lot of loss.
WS: Why is wine country a particularly fitting setting for telling this particular story?
AP: I think it’s fun to set up an expectation where you’re there, 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. 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. We’re still there with all of our shit [laughs].
And I think that’s what we’re trying to do in Wine Country. Wherever you go, there you are. 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.
WS: What were some of the challenges and some of the things you found to be rewarding in directing?
AP: Some things I like about directing are you get to wear your own clothes, and that’s really great! I think it’s really exciting to work on a film from the beginning to the end. In projects as an actor or a writer, you’ve often committed a certain time, and then you kind of jump off the train.
When you’re directing, you are really involved in every day and big picture in how that final product is going to be seen. And it was really amazing to work with these women, because although they are my good friends, they are also just incredibly talented performers. My hardest challenge really was just to figure out everybody’s schedule. Once we locked all of that into place, a lot of it was letting those women do what they do best.
WS: In the filming and off the clock—if you were at all—what were some of the things you did and places you ate and drank? What was the wine experience of shooting Wine Country?
AP: Well, I was the teetotaler because I was the one going to bed every night with homework. I know a bunch of the ladies, while we were filming, also had great dinners and got to relax and unwind, but I was always the nerd who was going to bed early.
I didn’t drink, for example, I think the entire time I shot this movie. I think I had my first glass of wine three days before we wrapped, because I was too anxious about making sure we got everything right. So, funnily enough, I had the opposite of any kind of debaucherous time in wine country. I’m gonna have to go back there and do it up right next time.
WS: The real heart of the film is a story about the humor and the tensions and the real talk of an all-woman group in middle age—why aren’t there more stories like this, and do you think that’s changing?
AP: Yeah, I do. I think there are so many stories yet to tell, obviously. But I think there’s been an incredible push to serve different voices, whether that be changing writers’ rooms and celebrating other people’s experiences. 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 that we’re used to.
I think representation matters, and most of the women I know that are in their forties and fifties 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.
WS: Going back to your SNL days and the friendships with these women through the years, how did wine fit into your relationships then and now?
AP: What was so wonderful about working at SNL is we would always have a party after the show! And even though that 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. I’ve raised a glass many times with these ladies, in many different settings, wearing many different outfits. Often dressed as some strange character. So we’re going to try it one more time.
WS: You also co-own a wine shop. What are you drinking now?
AP: I mean, I’m a creature of habit. My fellow owners, Mike Robertson and Amy Miles, who run Zula, which is the wine store that we own in Brooklyn, although they’re constantly introducing me to new things, I’m kind of a basic bitch when it comes to wine. So I enjoy Grüner, Grüner is what I’m drinking right now, which I’m sure is very off-season. And I enjoy the umlaut in my wine. I always look for the umlaut. In anything I drink [laughs].
WS: Any California or Napa stuff that you’re digging these days?
AP: We shot at a winery, Artesa, and they had an amazing vineyard and winery in Napa. They had an amazing—the Albariño was fantastic. I’m trying to think of a better word. The Albariño was, the Albariño was playful, daring and not afraid to cause a scene, and I was all in on that. Loved it. Highly recommend.