The Celluloid Pantry: “Fresh” Wine and The Jerk (1979)

Does all wine necessarily get better with age? Short answer: No. But in the late 70s, director/actor Orson Welles famously brought the oversimplified notion home to TV viewers when he did a turn as pitchman for the California jug wine producer, Paul Masson (you can see him in action here). Swirling his glass and raising one eyebrow, he intonated in a rich baritone, “We will sell no wine before its time.”

The idea seemed to stick with the American public.

Not long after, Steve Martin (above) starred in his first feature role as dim-witted gas station attendant/inventor Navin R. Johnson in the goofy rags-to-riches-to-rags tale, The Jerk (1979). Here, in an ironic play on the Paul Masson concept, the newly flush, but still culturally clueless Navin takes his girlfriend, Marie (Bernadette Peters) to a fancy French restaurant, where he’s appalled by the service. First of all, the wine on the table is far from recent.

“Would Monsieur care for another bottle of the Chateau Latour?” the waiter asks.

“Ah, yes,” says Navin suavely, “But no more 1966. Let’s splurge. Bring us some fresh wine. The freshest you’ve got. This year! No more of this old stuff.” (In a separate gag later in the film, Navin will dispense high-end wine from a water cooler out of oversized jugs, complete with “Chateau Lafite Rothschild” labels.)

The waiter complies, but just then, Navin notices something disturbing on Marie’s plate: “Stay calm. Stay calm,” he warns her. “Don’t look down, don’t look down! Look up! Just keep your eyes up and keep them that way, okay?”

He calls the waiter over: “There are snails on her plate. Now get them out of here before she sees them! You would think that in a fancy restaurant at these prices you could keep the snails off the food! There are so many snails there you can’t even see the food! Can you believe this? First they didn’t have the bamboo umbrellas for the wine, and now snails on the food!”

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– Nora