Wine on the wide screen


This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

1 Jul 2013 – SOMM, the movie about three American candidates in the MS exam, was recently released in selected cinemas and on  iTunes.

As someone with a keen interest in wine and film, I can't remember a time when so many recently made films about wine were whizzing around the film festival circuit. We have El Camino del Vino, a drama about a South American sommelier who loses his sense of taste; Red Obsession from Australia, about the relationship between China and Bordeaux; A Year in Burgundy, an observational film about well-known French wine importer Martine Saunier; the self-explanatory documentary Les Terroiristes du Languedoc; and SOMM, a film about four American wine geeks trying to pass the Master Sommelier exams.

Why so many and why have they come along all at once? Perhaps it is simply because wine is such a popular interest worldwide nowadays, and some of the world's wine fanatics must by the law of averages work in the film business. They presumably find their enthusiasm fuelled by individuals and phenomena in wine and feel impelled to record them whatever the hurdles. These are numerous, as I know from my experience of having produced and certainly presented more TV series about wine than anyone else.

Many wine lovers are puzzled by the fact that there are now so many television programmes devoted to cooking and so few about wine, but the major problem with filming wine is that nothing moves. With cooking there is the excitement of kitchen action, and the highly visual transformation of ingredients into a dish. In vineyards, on the other hand, the wind may occasionally rustle a vine, a pruner may snip off a cane, and for about a week a year a troupe of pickers gathers ripe bunches of grapes in a rather repetitive way, but that's about it. In the winery there is a little more to interest a cameraman: barrels to assemble or roll, fermenting purple must that may need to be punched down and, at long last something that really does gather a bit of speed, the blessed bottling line.

But the most interesting aspect of wine, the tasting, is decidedly not a spectator sport. In fact, even in cooking shows, the tasting bit is usually the least compelling, with dialogue rarely more exciting than a 'Mmm' or 'Really tasty'.

So, how do these various films overcome this difficulty? The director of El Camino del Vino, 30-year-old Nicolás Carreras, was going to make his debut with a documentary about top sommeliers at a wine event in Argentina. 'It was going to be about sommeliers around the world and we got the dream team together', the star of the show, Miami-based sommelier Charlie Arturaola (pictured above), told the Wine Spectator, 'but the dream team was really boring. People weren't going to want to watch six sommeliers going around Mendoza drinking wine – that is a really boring documentary.'

Carreras then had the idea of injecting a little drama. Arturaola supposedly loses his palate and embarks on a voyage of self-discovery which ends in sensory restoration. Having once suffered this affliction myself, I would suggest the symptoms are more likely to be olfactory and the solution acupuncture but, hey, this is drama, and a very beautifully shot one, too. The plot line is a little obscure but Arturaola makes an appealing larger-than-life hero and somehow the director has managed to coax convincing performances out of real wine people such as consultant oenologist Michel Rolland of Pomerol and winemaker Susana Balbo of Mendoza. Anglicised to Ways of Wine, the film has its UK premiere at Cineworld, Haymarket, London, at 6 pm this Wednesday, World Malbec Day, as part of an Argentine Film Festival.
Narrated by an unusually subdued Russell Crowe, Red Obsession takes the straight documentary route with lots of talking heads, one of which is mine (black post-primeurs teeth included) but most of which belong to luminaries in theBordeaux wine business, most memorably Christian Moueix of Libourne négociant J P Moueix confessing he is more of a wine drinker than a wine commentator – in fact he has just polished off several magnums. The theme of China's love affair with red bordeaux is a good one and there is some excellent footage from Beijing, including young Thibault Pontallier charged with selling Château Margaux to the Chinese and his thoughtful involvement with a beauty contest. (The photo, © 2012 Lion Rock Fils Pty Ltd, shows a Chinese billionaire in his  $60m-dollar cellar – full of Grange apparently. Not so sure about the pipe...) The whole thing looks most appetising and sophisticated, even if the tale ends rather abruptly, with the bursting of the Bordeaux bubble in China, perhaps necessarily, covered a little perfunctorily. I may be a little preoccupied with teeth but there is much to get them into in Red Obsession, whose directors,
Warwick Ross and David Roach advised by Master of Wine and Australian wine auctioneer Andrew Caillard, are to be congratulated, as is, particularly, cinematographer Lee Pulbrook.

A Year in Burgundy is a little more rustic, but then so is Burgundy. And there is nothing naïve about its star Martine Saunier, who has been importing some of her native land's finest wines into California for decades. But what appealed to me about this film, shot in straightforward telly doc manner, is that it includes some of the less obvious people and places in Burgundy, and Martine has an attractively straightforward, no-nonsense manner.

Les Terroiristes du Languedoc has if anything a stronger story to tell. Burgundy is very well-worn territory whose charm is that it has hardly changed in centuries, but in less than one century the Languedoc has been transformed from mixed farming country to France's wine factory to hotbed of agri-agitprop to a (rather beautiful) land where the focus has switched completely from quantity to quality, much of it in the hands of under-rewarded idealists. American Ken Payton has made this, his second film, on a shoestring and it should be of interest to wine students everywhere.

Another American, Jason Wise, on the other hand, has managed to progress his casual filming of some mates training for the MS exams from late 2008, sleeping on a sofa when necessary, into a fully fledged film for which distributors Samuel Goldwyn plan a June release in the US. I have been allowed to see only the trailer but I loved Reggie Narito MS's passionate confession: 'I cried when my parents died. I cried when my children were born. The only other time outside of that I cried was when I passed this exam.' SOMM seems likely to swell the heads and breasts of wine waiters everywhere.


Film critic's score

Wine lover's score

El Camino del Vino



Red Obsession



A Year in Burgundy



Les Terroiristes du Languedoc