Like many of you, I went to see Iron Man Three this weekend. I left the theater giddy, frantic to recap my favorite moments, “and then”-ing like a child. The film is not just the best of the Iron Man series but the best of the Marvel movies to date, topping even The Avengers’ dizzying heights. Robert Downey Jr. reigns in what was dangerously approaching shtick and gives us his most human Tony Stark yet. And he is bolstered by a bevy of powerhouse performances*, made all the more triumphant by the incredibly tight script holding everything together.
I want to go and watch it again, right now, just to follow that wonderfully labyrinthine plot.
Oh shit and the set pieces! Much has been said, and rightly, about Stark’s attack on the Mandarin’s compound, and his inventive use of improvised weaponry. But my favorite action beat, and the one that gets most directly at the improvisational nature of Tony Stark, happens earlier in the film when Stark, handcuffed, takes down a pair of Radioactive Men using only his wits and the tools at hand.
I’m not here to go on and on about the film, smarter people here on BAD have done so already (and you should go read their reviews). But I do want to talk about one scene in particular, and what it says about the character of Tony Stark.
I had suspected, due to his love of Champagne in the first two films, that Stark ought to be counted amongst the ranks of cinema's great winos, alongside James Bond, Hannibal Lecter and W.C. Fields.
Dom Perignon straight from the bottle, no less. Let’s all party like Iron Man parties.
But it wasn’t until an early scene in Iron Man Three that I was sure. There’s no other way to put it: Tony Stark sits on a goddamn throne surrounded by a million dollars’ worth of wine. What I found particularly interesting, though, is that he sits amidst cases and cases of not just fine wine, but specifically super modern wine from California.
The Science of California Wine.
California’s wine industry, from the word go, has been all about innovation. In 1779, Father Junipero Serra planted the state’s first vineyard at Mission San Juan Capistrano, and produced its first wine in 1782. After that success, he would go on to ensure that every mission in California would have its own vineyards and produce its own wines, with the largest vineyard and winery located at Mission San Gabriel to the east of Lost Angeles. What started as meager communal wine would eventually burgeon into a comfortable if modest industry. Prohibition would put a stop to that, but it was after Repeal that California’s wine industry would really start to come into its own.
Technology was key. The remaining and newly blossoming California wineries would spend the next thirty years experimenting and developing their winemaking methods. They would do in three decades what Europe had spent centuries perfecting, and in 1976 they would prove it at the Judgment of Paris.
But that’s another story.
California winemakers used science to determine which grapes would grow best in which regions, and plant accordingly. They experimented to find the best way to use small oak barriques**. They would go on to develop cold fermentation, filtering methods, bottling closures, trellising systems…the list is long, and the vast majority of modern winemaking around the world has been at the very least influenced by California’s innovations.
Stand Amongst the Very Best, or Not At All.
I spotted the parallels immediately. Here is a man who defines himself by his ability to move forward, hoarding wine from a region that defines itself by its ability to move forward. The specifics of Tony Stark’s cellar are very telling.
While he talks to Happy Hogan (a relaxed and gleeful Jon Favreau), Tony Stark enjoys a glass of Hundred Acre Ark Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon***. Hundred Acre is the passion project of owner and winemaker Jayson Woodbridge, and it is one of California’s best wines. This is a huge, intensely flavored Cabernet Sauvignon that has generous oak influence but finds perfect, harmonious balance. It is also very expensive, and incredibly rare. The only way to get ahold of the Hundred Acre wines is to be on their waiting list, and even then there’s no guarantee of receiving the wine. That Tony Stark has fucking cases of it lying around is incredibly telling, and indicative of his state of mind and bloated sense of superiority.
Two other wines that caught my eye are the Jordan and Shafer Cabernet Sauvignons. Both of these are wines that appeal to Tony Stark’s values. They are full, even overwhelmingly powerful wines, the kind of wines that are so boisterously flavorful that they are able to distract him, even if just for a moment****.
Because that’s who Tony Stark is in Shane Black’s deft hands. He’s the guy who can’t stop. Everything, from the house to the cars to the music to the women to the drink, has to be huge and loud and ostentatious because it’s the only way he can stop thinking. He drinks extra dry Martinis because they taste of Gin And Nothing Else, and that is a really hard taste to ignore. And he collects massive, intense, ponderously heavy wines.
The Jordan and Shafer wineries share a history of constant revisionism and, again, innovation. Both endeavors were started in 1972, and both have focused their efforts on the noble Cabernet Sauvignon grape. They are some of the Greatest Wines In The World. Everybody says so. And that’s what makes the end of the scene so important.
Stark opens one of the glass doors in his cellar and picks out the wine he will share with Pepper Potts on their date night. He doesn’t choose something extravagantly expensive, something intensely flavored to the point of distraction. He picks, carefully and deliberately, a modest white wine from Mâcon, Burgundy’s least prestigious appellation. Mâcon’s wines are simple, elegant, and above all graceful. They are subtle things, the kinds of wine that do not demand attention, but rather serve to elevate their environment. They provide balance, highlighting flavors in a meal and encouraging the easy flow of quiet conversation. That’s how Tony Stark sees his relationship with Pepper Potts. She lets him stop.
*I have been reading a lot of '70s Marvel, namely Steve Engelhart’s run on The Defenders, so bear with me while I get all of this alliterative purple prose of out of my system.
**New oak allows wine to develop in ways that other containers do not. When I say a wine is oaky, what I mean is that it tastes and smells very distinctly of vanilla and, in some cases, dill. These are aromas and flavors that the wine will pick up from the new oak barrels over a period of several months.
***Reasonably sure it’s the Ark Vineyard. The camera, irritatingly, doesn’t linger long enough for me to read the fine print.
****Tony Stark has the same taste in whisky. He’s a Laphroaig man, all smoke and hellfire and nothing in the way of subtlety.
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