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The Oeno File: Message in a Bottle

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Anyone who has scrolled through a Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime menu has probably noticed that a lot of documentaries about wine are available for viewing. The idyllic rural locations of wine growing regions across the world certainly offer an alluring, visually appealing setting for any aspiring or experienced documentarian. Who wouldn’t want to spend a few weeks or months in some of the world’s most beautiful locations surrounded by great food and wine and the fascinating people who produce it?

The escapist element has probably helped wine documentaries enjoy a growing audience over the years. The phenomenon seemed to gain momentum in 2004, which for some reason was a bountiful “vintage” for wine-focused films both factual and fictional. Of course, the biggest success story of that year was the Alexander Payne–directed comedy/drama/romance film Sideways, which was released in the fall of 2004 and earned five Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture) and an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. But the documentary Mondovino—both the abridged theatrical release and the complete 10-episode version—was also an important film released that year that provided a revealing insider’s glimpse of the wine industry and set the standard for various wine docs that followed.

The best wine documentaries that I’ve viewed usually manage to educate as much as they entertain, although I’ve enjoyed a few enlightening films that were drier than a William Fèvre Les Clos Grand Cru Chablis and amusing flicks that were as light as a supermarket Pinot Grigio. The following are a handful of wine documentaries that I recommend adding to your streaming or rental queue.

Mondovino (2004)

While this film seems biased against American wine producers (hundreds of smaller wineries in the U.S. make terroir-driven wines in a similar fashion to the Old World vintners the film celebrates), this documentary about the globalization of wine did help expose how a few larger winemakers were inspired more by chasing high scores from critic Robert Parker than following their own muse. If you’re thirsty for more insight after viewing the 135-minute theatrical release, the complete 10-part series is a must-buy.

Blood into Wine (2010)

Maynard James Keenan may be best known as the enigmatic frontman for Tool, but in recent years he’s spent more time in his Northern Arizona vineyards crafting wine for his Caduceus Cellars label than making music. This film reveals the trials and tribulations behind his seemingly Sisyphean effort as well as his eventual triumphs.

A Year in Burgundy (2013)

This film is the next best thing to actually spending a year working in the vineyards of France’s most highly regarded wine region, providing a brief but informative glimpse at the techniques, challenges and passion (plus a little bit of history and tradition) involved in making Burgundy wine. The “sequel,” A Year in Champagne, is also worthy viewing although it’s not quite as fascinating or revealing.

Somm: Into the Bottle (2015)

Director Jason Wise’s follow-up to Somm, which captured the attempts of four sommeliers to pass the incredibly difficult Court of Master Sommeliers Examination, takes an entirely different course by focusing on 10 distinct topics that include “the vintage,” “the new world,” “the barrels” and “the point scores.” The stories that the film tells are often thought-provoking, and seeing Wise taste several of the world’s most desirable and rare wines makes me wonder why I didn’t think of making a similar film first.

Sour Grapes (2016)

The pursuit of fine wines is often fraught with peril, especially for anyone with a big ego, a bigger wallet, unlimited greed and a complete lack of discretion. This documentary about notorious wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan is a cautionary tale about how a conman pulled off his ambitious and audacious crime mostly by taking advantage of the personal weaknesses of collectors, connoisseurs and experts. The fact that Kurniawan’s forgeries may still be out there should motivate anyone interested in upper echelon wines to educate themselves thoroughly before handing over their cash.

Other recommendations: American Wine Story, Barolo Boys, Boom Varietal, Corked, Langhe DOC, Prohibition (directed by Ken Burns), Red Obsession.

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