Wake Up Call

Hollywood and Wine

Picture this: Director Sam Pillsbury is shooting a Western-style movie in New Zealand and, as the gunslinger crashes through the saloon doors, he's not shootin' blanks.

The weapons he draws from his holsters make loud pops as he uncorks them -- a coupla bottles of Dos Cabezas 1998 Sauvignon Blanc.

That won't happen in Sam Pillsbury's Crooked Earth, starring Temuera Morrison (Once Were Warriors), an adventure he shot last year in New Zealand. But as a partner in Arizona's Dos Cabezas Winery, Pillsbury was a bit chagrined to find that one of his products was more in demand than the other. Pleased to supply wines for a White House dinner in February, he balked a little when asked to supply wines for the Arizona Film Festival down in Tucson in April. "Well, sure," he said, "but what about showing my film?"

And guess what? You can see the film down in Tucson next month.

This is a story about the director, his partner, his wife, his mother-in-law, a cook and good wine.

Somehow, they all meet at the same intersection, and it's not in the California wine country but here in Arizona, a few miles south of Willcox.

You might call it Hollywood and Wine.

Sam Pillsbury began his film career in New Zealand, and made it to Los Angeles where he met his wife, beautiful script supervisor Melanie Bermudez. She is the daughter of the late José Bermudez, whose gigantic copper relief Galaxy hangs at Sky Harbor Airport. His mother-in-law is the very lively sculptor Geny Dignac, whose boldly colored, lit-from-within Plexiglas pieces are as luminous as she is herself.

They were among the scintillating guests gathered to introduce me to Dos Cabezas Wines at a Will Bruder-designed desert hideaway in Happy Valley, a perfect setting for the desert (not dessert) wines we would enjoy.

The homeowner, who played the cook, is Daniel Lentz, an Arizona State University professor, oenophile, and acclaimed Los Angeles composer whose works often feature wine and food.

The partner, Al Buhl, who has been vintnering for seven years, described his vineyard as "just a couple of miles away from the Bonito Bean Company and a cotton gin."

But a vineyard in the desert?

"It [has] red oxide alluvial soil at 4,500 feet, watered by an artesian well," says Buhl, who collaborates with the more experienced Kent Callaghan of nearby Callaghan Vineyards. Each has recently won awards and worldwide attention in the Wine Advocate and France's Le Monde. Dos Cabeza's 1998 Chardonnay took gold, while the 1998 Sangiovese won a silver medal in the 2000 Arizona Governor's Cup Tasting. Their superb 1998 Petit Sirah won Best Red Wine and a gold medal at the 2000 Connoisseur Classic Southwest Wine Competition.

Hugh Johnson, in his 2002 pocket wine book, noted, "Al Buhl at Dos Cabezas is producing fantastic wines from Petite Sirah and a blend of Petite Sirah with Sangiovese."

"We released four more from the 2000 vintage last year," says Buhl. "A dry Riesling, a Pinot Gris, a Sauvignon Blanc and a dessert-style (not desert) Viognier, much like a true Sauternes."

But the big news is, "Sam and I just got asked to send a shipment of the Pinot Gris to the White House for a state dinner [for] governors on February 24th, to accompany a first course of Maryland crabcakes."

Pillsbury describes the Pinot Gris as having "a deep, gold Alsatian style, terrific nose, melon and a bit of citrus, with a hint of green apple."

Daniel Shanks is the White House chef who selected the Pinot Gris, and Pillsbury says, "Shanks complimented the wine's viscosity and intense varietal fruit."

Back at the ranch in Happy Valley was a Sauvignon Blanc, a Viognier, a Sangiovese, and the Pinot ranged down the center of the table like transmitters across a Kansas plain. The Sauvignon Blanc leaped into my mouth so spiritedly it fairly knocked my head back. It settled down a bit on second sip, but still had a tantalizing near-sparkle to the last.

As the reds began breathing, Lentz poured me a 1997 Viognier. One whiff was like prying open a fresh pot of herbes de France. It was big enough in the mouth to go with the salmon Lentz was serving. The Pinot was clean and well-balanced, with a spectacular finish that perfectly complemented his buttery grilled halibut. And the Sangiovese paired masterfully with his demi-glacéed morels tucked lovingly under a feather-light quilt of polenta.

Pillsbury's wry good humor was evident in our e-mail exchanges long before we met over dinner. I wondered if he might be the next Francis Ford Coppola, whose wines and films I admire. Asked about his own film career, he mentioned the well-received Morgan's Ferry, and said, "But you may know me best for Free Willy Three, and recently for The Wedding Dress on CBS and Taking Back our Town, for Lifetime."

We talked again about Crooked Earth. The script appealed to him because, "I've been deeply committed to issues of human rights and it's partly about the right of an indigenous people to live autonomously."

He also describes Crooked Earth as a contemporary Western. Was he making a wine Western to go with spaghetti Westerns?

"Guess I didn't think about product placement," he quips. "But in a Western, the landscape is always prominent. This movie is about passionate, lyrical, poetic ideals. It is funny, though -- our vineyard has a Spanish name and two Conquistadors on the label -- was this land then taken by the Spanish, and should it be returned to the Apache? We're planting grapes in Cochise County while I'm shooting a land-rights movie in New Zealand."

He and Melanie clearly have a reverence for the land.

"It's the kind of beautiful country that could only produce something as beautiful as these wines," she says, tipping her glass for a refill of the Sangiovese.

You can find these still-affordable wines at Drinkwater's, Duck and Decanter, Epicurean Wine Service, House Wines, Paul's Pantry, Sportsman's Fine Wines, and AZ Wines. Pizzeria Bianco carries their Toscano, a blend of Sangiovese and Petit Sirah. It's a complex wine with lovely ripe cherry, and a hint of chocolate in the finish. You can also sample them at the Biltmore Farmer's Market on most Fridays.