Wine-themed movies used to be few and far between. Indeed, the topic of fine wine was thought to be box office poison prior to the success of Sideways in 2004. Fortunately for us wine lovers, major independent and documentary film distributor First Run Features has been taking on more such titles for theatrical and/or home video distribution. In just the last few months, First Run has released three wine-themed movies.
The one that has received the most attention and critical acclaim -- deservedly so -- is a documentary about the three-day Master Sommelier exam. Somm, the first feature film by writer/director Jason Wise, employs striking visuals and high level production values to tell a compelling story about the wine world's toughest exam -- one that less than 200 people have passed in the history of the Court of Master Sommeliers.
The exam is the closest thing the wine world has to an intense sporting competition, so there is lots of testosterone on display. The film focuses on four exam candidates, all men, who at the time of filming were all based in the San Francisco Bay Area. One of them, Brian McLintic, is an athlete and former baseball player who observes lots of parallels between competing in this event and his former sports career. It's his wife who deftly sums up Brian and his study group as, "like guys in a locker room, with wine."
Another candidate, Ian Cauble, insists there is a positive aspect to the intensive preparation for this exam, which requires participants to respond to questions about all aspects of winemaking and every wine region of the world; to demonstrate professional wine service in a very challenging environment; and to identify as accurately as possible the region, grape variety and vintage of six different wines in a 25-minute blindtasting. He claims human beings rarely stop to experience things deeply these days so that studying wine as required for this competition makes one "live life through your senses for that quick 25 minutes; it's like nothing else matters except for this liquid."
The film also does a nice job of touching on the history of wine and its importance to culture, in part through short interviews with an eclectic group of winemakers. They include, from the U.S., Bo Barrett, Whitney Fisher and Pax Mahle, and from Europe, Wilhelm Haag, Paul Graf von Schönborn and Andrea Cecchi.
One of the film's most indelible characters is Fred Dame, who was the first American to pass, on his first try, the Master Sommelier exam in Britain where the Court of Master Sommeliers was established. It was Fred who, as the film makes clear, was instrumental in establishing an annual version of the three-day exam in the United States, and who also regularly participates in administering the exam and in coaching candidates for it. Fred is a highly intimidating presence. Those hoping to follow in his footsteps aspire to be able to "Dame" a wine, i.e., to identify the variety, region and vintage accurately by spending only a few seconds nosing its bouquet.
All in all, this is the most suspenseful film about the world of fine wine I've ever seen, giving us a rare glimpse into the world of the Court of Master Sommeliers, whose examination and certification processes had never before been filmed. Even though its focus is a group of "self absorbed egomaniacs," in the words of one of their wives, one does find oneself rooting for all four to succeed.
Wine, Women & Friends is a charming little film about two women winemakers -- Jo and Carol -- who make 10,000 bottles of wine annually under the name Domaine Les Cabotines in Collias, a small village in the Languedoc region in the south of France. These two women and their community of helpful friends and neighbors are the perfect antidote to the non-stop testosterone fest that is "Somm."
Jo, a forensic veterinarian by day, acts as viticulturist, while Carol, a nurse by trade, is the winemaker. The two are a lesbian couple that has been together for 19 years at the time of filming. They reclaimed a small vineyard, planted with Syrah and Grenache, and started making wine six years earlier.
The film, produced and directed by Fiona Cunningham-Reid, is structured to follow one season of winemaking. It begins with September's grape harvest, then moves through fermentation, separation of the mark from the wine in November, winter pruning, March flowering, and bottling of the previous year's production in May.
We learn this is all a lot of work, even for two strong and resourceful women. They accomplish a lot, however, with the help of their friends. This community assists them in pruning the vines, picking the grapes and with bottling. As the film evolves, we begin to learn that many of their friends are not only expats, but also lesbian and gay. The women and their friends clearly derive a lot of joy and camaraderie from working together, as well as pride in making quality wines that are gaining a local reputation, winning medals in regional competitions. The women sell their wines from their small cellar across the street from the village's city hall.
There is some mention of a traditional culture of jealousy of the successes of others in the south of France, as well as some hostility on the part of a few neighbors based possibly on homophobia. This includes an uncooperative neighbor who refuses to move her vehicle on a day that's long been posted as one on which cars need to be removed from the narrow street alongside the cellar so as to allow the mobile bottling line to set up there. Nonetheless, there appears to be general acceptance of the couple's enterprise in the community, and a sense that it serves as the welcoming center of a growing contingent of lesbians and gay men.
The final film, Boom Grape: Argentine Malbec, directed and produced by Sky Pinnick, is for me the most disappointing. For the most part, it is a richly produced celebration of Malbec's surprising success as an Argentinian export, especially to the U.S. market. The film was financed by the giant wine distribution company Southern Wine & Spirits, whose CEO appears in several boosterish scenes in the film.
Other interviews include well known names responsible for some of Argentina's most successful Malbecs -- people like Santiago Achaval and Héctor Durigutti. There's also a cameo by Gary Vaynerchuk and an inordinate number of clips of a young woman named Nicole Ciani, general manager of a wine bar called Terroir in Tribeca. In increasingly grating responses, she makes clear she is not only not a big fan of Malbec, but also has little respect for consumers who ask for it because it's "easy to pronounce" and easy drinking.
Although the film looks good it includes a lot of filler -- e.g., numerous talking heads repeating the point that Malbec is "the Queen" or "the star" in Argentina. There are also brief contrasting interviews with Canadians who tried to jump on the Malbec bandwagon. Dana Rothkop from British Columbia moves to Argentina and apparently succeeds in producing good wine, while a male couple from Toronto invest in a vineyard after minimal research, hoping to have it managed for them, only to lose their entire investment when the weeds grow bigger than the vines.
If you're already a big fan of Malbec, you might enjoy this lengthy celebration. I found the film, however, neither very informative nor particularly interesting. Its main virtue is that it looks good and includes brief interviews with several Argentine winemakers whose families have long been involved in growing Malbec and whose affection for each other and love for what they do is palpable.