William Kelley catches up with director Jason Wise, who's Somm: Into the Bottle film about the history of wine and starring some of the wine world's biggest names launched on iTunes in early 2016.
‘Somm: Into the Bottle is my first film about wine,’ insists director Jason Wise.
He argues his original and acclaimed Somm, which followed four young sommeliers cramming to pass the gruelingly difficult Master Sommelier exam ‘was very much focused on the human story. We just had to gloss over so many questions about wine.’
His sequel attempts to answer some of those questions—or at least, as he says, to touch a vast and complex topic: the creation of wine and wine culture.
Wise’s undertaking was ambitious. He says the film ‘was incredibly difficult to make—but it was fun to drink all those wines! The biggest challenge was to stop filming,’ and work out how four years of footage fitted together.
The film’s conceit is simple. Two diners enter a restaurant, where they are presented with the wine list. Wise describes a wine list as ‘a storybook that only certain people know how to read’. As its pages turn, Wise and his cast of sommeliers—including luminaries like Raj Parr and Aldo Sohm—tell that story in ten ‘chapters’.
That simple structure helps make sense of a variety of complex and sometimes technical subjects, from the role of oak barrels in winemaking to the importance of wine critics and their scores.
It would have been easy for a film like this to become a polarising polemic; a fate Wise worked hard to avoid. Dogmatism, he believes, is limiting: ‘whenever you take options away, it bothers me’.
A conversation in the cellars of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti crystallised his sense of directorial responsibility. At Wise’s request, estate co-owner Aubert de Villaine opened a bottle of Echezeaux 2004, a challenging year, instead of the great vintage he had selected.
‘I’ll do this’, Aubert offered, ‘if you promise not to make Mondovino.’
For Wise, that was a freighted moment. But the true emotional crux of the film lies in the chapter on ‘Wine and War’, as vignerons in Champagne and Alsace recount how their regions were torn apart by the conflicts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Indeed, one of the film’s great strengths is its attention to historical context.
That sense of the past lies behind some of the film’s most touching moments, such as when Jean Trimbach shares a bottle of his family’s 1962 Riesling Clos St. Hune with his son, expounding on the vigneron’s responsibility as the guardian of an inheritance.
Of course, it was no hardship to drink wines like the 1962 Clos St. Hune. Bottles like that, Wise recalls, ‘rocked my foundation’. He singles out the 1969 Chave Hermitage, enjoyed in the family’s ancient cellars in Mauves, as perhaps the most profound.
The great bottles, Wise reflects, were made more arresting by the alliance of wealth—cultural if not material—and humility that he found in many world renowned winemakers.
How does Wise think Somm: Into the Bottle will fare with a UK audience versus a US one? ‘I guess some nuances will be lost, but that’s unavoidable.’
In Europe, he says the sommelier’s profession is much more modest, so sommeliers’ prominence in his film may be unfamiliar to non-American viewers.
He feels sommeliers share two defining characteristics that are universal. Firstly, ‘you have to have food on your brain. If you’re not pairing wine with food, you’re not a somm.’
Secondly, it’s about service. Whether an easy-going San Francisco hipster or a polished Francophone, the sommelier strives ‘to give you something you love that didn’t know existed’.
Wise’s ambition in Somm: Into the Bottle has been much the same, and he should be pleased with what he has achieved.
Somm: Into the Bottle was made available to buy worldwide on iTunes Movies from 29 January 2016 at $12.99. It will be available to rent on iTunes on 9 February. It will also be available on DVD from Amazon on 9 February, for $19.95.
Editing by Chris Mercer
SOMM, the 2012 Napa Valley Film Festival’s headlining film and debut feature from director Jason Wise, attempts to pull back
Making a compelling documentary on wine is not the easiest of tasks. In 2005 we had Mondovino, which grossed just