Bottle Shock (2008)The 1976 "Judgment of Paris" has entered wine folklore as the moment when Californian wine demonstrated that it was every bit as good as, if not better than, the great wines of France. Organised by Parisian wine shop owner and British ex-pat Steven Spurrier, the Judgment was a blind tasting of ten Burgundy whites and ten Bordeaux reds against their Californian equivalents, mostly from Napa. To the consternation and initial denial of the French, two American wines came out top - Chateau Montelena's 1973 Chardonnay and Stag's Leap's 1973 SLV Cabernet Sauvignon (from their first ever vintage).
That's the basis for Bottle Shock, a film which more than any other I've seen holds a casual, almost flippant, regard for historical facts. Alan Rickman plays Spurrier, who on watching must have thought, Oh my God, I'm being portrayed on film by Alan Rickman, and then must have shuddered, Oh my God, I'm being portrayed as an ignorant, dilettante snob, before understandably considering defamation action against the makers of the film. This film does not like the French - or anyone like Spurrier who likes the French - and presents a colorful glorification of everything related to Napa (ignoring the fact that three of the Californian wines were from Santa Cruz and Monterey).
There's so much ground to turn such an iconic, almost mythical moment as the Judgment of Paris into a great film, but Bottle Shock doesn't even try. The author of the book on which this film is very loosely based even appears as a monosyllabic wine heathen, a brushstroke characterisation typical of the film. It is fun to watch, but more often than not it's funny despite itself.
Somm (2013)Somm is a documentary which follows a handful of young American men (the only women in this film are their wives) preparing to take the Master Sommelier exam. The film quotes several talking heads - mainly Master Sommeliers - saying this is the toughest exam in the world. But, rather like the Master of Wine exam which seems much harder and more thorough, this isn't an exam in the educational sense of the word; it's a test to join an exclusive men's club populated by testosterone-driven egos.
This beautifully shot film inspires us to laud the efforts of the would-be Master Sommeliers who sacrifice so much time, effort, and sanity to pass (or more likely fail) the exam (and thank goodness for their long-suffering, understanding wives without whom, etc.). Instead, I spent much of the film hoping they all failed - the arrogance of these men trying to outdo each other in their speed-tastings of expensive wines is insufferable.
Their efforts are presented uncritically, with little explanation of what tasting a wine involves. The job of a sommelier or wine educator should be to demystify wine, make it approachable and understandable, and get people to drink and experiment more; Somm, with its chosen sommeliers, instead underlines the stereotype of wine being an elitist, snobbish institution full of men congratulating themselves on their unerring taste using impenetrable language.
The most telling part of the film is when Ian - the most obsessive and unhinged of the students - misidentifies a Beringer Chardonnay (a decent, widely-available wine from Napa) as white Hermitage (one of the greatest and most exclusive of white wines, made from Marsanne and Roussanne), and refuses to admit his mistake. How on earth can anyone destined to be a Master Sommelier ever be wrong, even if they don't know how to pronounce Viognier correctly?
A Year in Burgundy (2013)This film acts pretty much as a tourist promotion, taking us through the 2011 vintage from beginning to end. As unquestioning as it is to the inherent greatness of Burgundy's wines, it's a beautiful film which gives a leisurely insight into the working life of an old, mostly traditional region. Burgundy is all about the land - as winemaker after winemaker lines up to remind us - and the film gives a great feel for that sense of place which somehow ends up in a bottle of wine. Without trying to be something it's not, this film succeeds far better than the other two films.
Only the French would describe winemaking as "Cartesian"
Making a film or programme about wine is difficult, because there's only one way to appreciate the subject: by tasting it. Sharing a talent for cinematography that the makers of Jancis Robinson's Wine Course perhaps didn't have when she ventured into television in the 1980s, these three films take different approaches: a heavily fictionalised account of a famous event; a documentary insight into the lives of those who taste wine for a living; and a documentary guide to those who make wine. The last works best because I think, ultimately, that's what we want to see: how the glass of wine we're drinking as we watch the film got made and where it comes from. The personality of a wine comes not from a taster, but from its maker.