“Can there be any other business where there’s so much bullshit?”
That's Carole Meredith, a grape geneticist at UC Davis, mincing no words about the state of the wine business in the opening minute of Jason Wise’s “Somm: Into the Bottle.” The documentary, released last month, is more of a sibling and less of a sequel to 2012’s “Somm.” It’s a disarming and welcome exploration of an industry that is, at times, unnecessarily contentious.
“Somm” started by examining what it takes to become a master sommelier, the highest level of certification one can receive for wine service through the Court of Master Sommeliers. Cut with a traditional story arc, the film shows the best and the worst of the geeky wine subculture: passion, dedication and neuroses.
The movie focuses on four aspiring sommeliers preparing for the blind tasting part of the exam. The candidates must taste six wines in 25 minutes, describe them as accurately as possible and make an assessment of exactly what those wines are. Two of the protagonists pass the exam, two don’t. “Somm” was called many things post-release, ranging from engaging and impressive to pointless and boring.
“Into the Bottle” looks at the industry through a wider lens, taking a look at the broader field of wine production. This time, the stories are told through ten vignettes with names like “Wine Six: The Cost” and “Wine Ten: The Memory.” This ends up being a great vehicle for engagement.
While “Somm” made the point that a sommelier can never stop learning, “Into the Bottle” at least tries to break down that knowledge into bite-size pieces. This creates a level of accessibility for casual wine drinkers and documentary fans.
The stories here are insightful, vivid and personal. The main point here is not to teach, but to show humanity. A winemaker regroups after an earthquake. A gentleman pets a fungus that grows on some of his cellared bottles. A father and son experience a falling out over a style change of their Italian wine. Owners of family wineries from regions spanning the world get visibly emotional while cracking open bottles that past generations produced long before they were at the helm.
Jason Wise also brings a sense of history to his storytelling. Many of France and Germany’s wine regions were damaged or destroyed during the World Wars. Regions like Champagne and Alsace, France, and Mosel, Germany, are highlighted in the film.
Wise also looks at modern California wine and the legacy of Robert Mondavi, leader of a burgeoning post-Prohibition industry. Wine couldn’t have become big business in the U.S. without California wine, and California wouldn’t be what it is without Robert Mondavi. Winemakers in the U.S. are likened to “kids in a candy store” by their European counterparts due to the lack of planting restrictions. Wise succinctly traces the path from post-gold rush California to where the wine industry is today.
But the whirlwind of history, conflict and logistics matters little if the wine isn’t good — or if the public doesn’t care.
Fred Dame, a legitimate industry titan, points out that sommeliers “love to learn and love to share, sometimes a little bit too much.” Master sommelier Brian McClintic reminds viewers (including — or maybe especially — aspiring master sommeliers) that it is only perception that makes wines special and that ultimately, everyone’s perception is unique.
This is perhaps the biggest success of the movie. “Into the Bottle” is a delightful film that moves quickly at times between sommelier and winemaker quips but also remembers to engage the core romanticism in all of us, not just the wine junkies. And it subtly sends a message to industry folks — and this movie was certainly well anticipated in the wine business— to keep their egos in check.
No, you don’t get much of an update on the four “lead characters” from “Somm,” but they all appear in this movie. All of them appear much more comfortable in their skin this time around. There’s a lesson to be learned from that.
While “Somm” was voyeuristically exhilarating at times, “Into the Bottle” tells stories of joy and hardship that are accessible to everyone, not just the wine insider. After all, it’s the humanity that directly affects us, not mystery wines poured in front of nervous wine academics. Cheers to Jason Wise for bridging the gap between theory and practice with “Somm: Into the Bottle.”
Justin King is a certified sommelier and owner/general manager of Bridge Street Social, opening soon in DeWitt. Write him at email@example.com.