Movie Review: Wine Diamonds: Uncorking America’s Heartland

There are wineries in all 50 states. Lest we forget, Wine Diamonds, a new documentary set to hit festivals in 2017, is here to remind us with a look at winemaking in the Midwest.

Yes, the Midwest.

Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota are apparently making some good wine these days—capable, says one winemaker in the film, of standing up against the likes of Champagne.

Winemaking in the Midwest is no new thing. At the turn of the 20th Century, states like Iowa were among the largest producers of grapes and wine. That all changed with Prohibition and the advent of harsh herbicides used to support cheaper and more-efficient crops like corn and soybeans.

Today, thanks to a cadre of private grape breeders who took to hybridizing in the 1940s and 50s, Midwest winemaking is seeing a resurgence. Wine Diamonds paints the region as a new frontier full of rugged pioneers who take pride in the harsh climate and unconventional grapes.

“The world,” after all, “is much bigger than Chardonnay and Cabernet.”

The film goes to great lengths to call out the uniqueness of the Midwest. Contrasts are drawn with California, which is repeatedly criticized for being too accommodating of winemaking. “Any gorilla can make wine in California,” says one winemaker. There is heavy investment in this juxtaposition of Midwestern brawn and West Coast privilege. It’s sincere but not always astute.

I can appreciate the trials and tribulations of the men and women featured in the film. The risks they take are in fact greater than other winemakers. They battle rough and variable weather, rigid state laws, chemical drift from neighboring megafarms, and a market with a strong preference for beer and whisky over wine. On top of that, they’re making wine from grapes few have heard of, with limited winemaking tradition from which to draw.

Pioneering and laudable? Absolutely! But is the wine any good?

While I’m intrigued by the great variety available in the Midwest—roughly 40 winegrape species, many of which were created at Cornell and the University of Minnesota—I can say that the film gives reason to be skeptical about quality. The wine looks at times more like fruit punch and a poorly timed shot has the narrator comparing Midwest winemaking to that of mid-twentieth-century France while the camera pans across a bottle of “Chocolate Reserve.” Cringe.

What did pique my interest, however, is what the Midwest is doing with sparkling wine. At least one winery, Illinois Sparkling Co., is making Champagne-style wines from grapes that do well in the local soils, like St. Pepin and Chambourcin. Now that’s something I want to try.

Wine Diamonds is a beautifully filmed and well-produced documentary with a large cast. It accomplishes much in its 76 minutes, but most importantly does great service—much like Idaho Wine: From Bud to Taste Bud—to a little-known region on the rise.

My Recommendation
Wine Diamonds (see website for screening info) continues the drumbeat for regional novelty and unpretentiousness in wine. But it can’t tell you whether or not Midwest wine is actually good—and to me that’s all that matters. While I enjoyed learning about a new region, I’d rather just go find a bottle and taste for myself.

Movie Review: Bitter Grapes

In recent weeks, there has been great disruption in the South African wine industry thanks to a bold new investigative documentary called Bitter Grapes (trailer here).

The film, which runs just short of an hour, exposes the horrible conditions of workers on South African wine farms, notably Robertson Winery. While it has so far only aired in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, the impact has been substantial: five wine farms in South Africa have been served non-compliance notices and at least one Danish supermarket chain has pulled Robertson’s wines.

The film’s premise is simple enough. South African wine imports to Nordic countries have been on the rise in recent years (up something like 78%). But while consumers have been reveling in cheap wine, they have failed to see the crooked path that brought the wine to their shelves.

Danish journalist and filmmaker Tom Heinemann exposes a form of modern slavery that’s long gone either unseen or ignored on South African wine farms. He visits the farms, speaks with the workers, and is mindful to get the other sides of the story, interviewing reps from the Nordic wine industry as well as a South African workers union. Not surprising, Heinemann is unable to get anyone from the wineries themselves to speak with him on camera.

What unfolds is a tale of ignorance, corruption, and racial divide. The majority black workforce is powerless to effect change, the white farm owners do all they can to maintain the low wage status quo and prevent union intervention, and the organizations who are supposed to be overseeing it all are, as one worker puts it, toothless.

Upwards of 100,000 workers live on the grounds of wine farms in South Africa, far away from the public eye. They live in slums, use disgusting open-air outhouses, and cook over fires built on piles of anything flammable. Deductions are taken from their already illegally low paychecks for these accommodations. In the vineyards, they spray dangerous pesticides and use little or no protection, apart from a thick paste that the women apply to their faces. South Africa actually has laws in place to protect workers from these conditions, but the laws are just not being enforced.

The most shocking scenes in Bitter Grapes are of young, pregnant women drinking heavily. This, the narrator explains, is largely due to a form of subjugation and control perpetrated by farm owners, who have historically paid their workers in alcohol. This practice only further enslaves the workers, forcing them to depend on the farmers for provision of the alcohol they crave.

Bitter Grapes is an emotionally captivating documentary. But if there’s one shortfall, apart from the absence of testimony from the farm owners, it’s the film’s call to action. In the closing scene the director of an organization called TCOE (Trust for Community Outreach and Education) urges viewers to only buy wine from South African winemakers who treat their workers with human dignity and don’t deny them their rights. Yet the whole film is an exposé on how the organizations regulating these winemakers are themselves negligent and corrupt, and how even the “Fair Trade” stickers on South African wine bottles can’t be trusted. So what’s the prescription here? What are consumers to do, short of visiting the wine farms themselves? It’s unclear.

My Recommendation
Bitter Grapes is worth the hour of your time. It’s eye opening and human. I’m not sure where else it will be aired, but do check out the website if you’re interested.

Movie Review: Sour Grapes

Sour Grapes is the first feature-length documentary about Rudy Kurniawan, the enigmatic wine forger who duped collectors out of millions of dollars. In 2013, when Kurniawan was sentenced to 10 years in prison, many questions were left unanswered, about the fraud and about Kurniawan himself. Sour Grapes doesn’t have all the answers, but it does give those of us who followed the story closely some closure regarding the nature of the man.

Hands down the best thing about Sour Grapes is the ample footage of Kurniawan. We get to hear him speak, see him interact with others, and even bid on wine. At one point, mid-auction, he chuckles, “Dude, I just opened that bottle on Thursday. Can I refill it? Put the cork back in?” (Seriously! He actually says that!) That’s something no amount of Wine Spectator articles can give you.

But the film isn’t just about Rudy. It’s a drama with a full cast. There’s Bill Koch, the billionaire wine collector who fell victim not only to Rudy but also Hardy Rodenstock, the villain forger with the punchable face featured in Benjamin Wallace’s 2009 book The Billionaire’s Vinegar. In Sour Grapes, Koch comes across as an endearing lover of wine and likeable crusader against wine fraud. Then there’s John Kapon, CEO of storied auction house Acker Merrall & Condit, who plays the unwitting accomplice in Kurniawan’s ruse. Kapon is a parallel to Michael Broadbent, the Christie’s auctioneer from the Rodenstock story. Sour Grapes does, however, allow Kapon to redeem himself, noting that Kapon has refunded many of the Kurniawan victims.

Rounding out the cast is Laurent Ponsot, proprietor of Burgundy’s Domaine Ponsot and the man credited with discovering Kurniawan’s fraud. Like Koch, Ponsot is an impassioned crusader. He did some serious traveling and investigative work before finally outing Kurniawan. He’s even been lionized for rising to his feet at an auction and publicly withdrawing a lot of Ponsot bottles he believed to be counterfeit. You root for him too.

Sour Grapes is a highbrow version of the television show American Greed’s coverage of the Kurniawan case (which I also recommend highly). But what makes Sour Grapes so much better is, again, the footage of Rudy. More than anything, it’s a fascinating character study. Kurniawan isn’t just an ordinary guy who had an “elegant hustle,” as it’s called in the film; he actually has a preternatural ability to taste wine. His friends describe him as fun, generous, and genuinely gracious. It’s simply a case of a talented and likeable individual choosing to use his talents selfishly.

My Recommendation
Sour Grapes is a must watch for anyone who followed the Kurniawan case, and just as much so for anyone interested in modern scandals of the upper set. And hey, it’s coming to Netflix this month!

Movie Review: A Year in Port

A Year in Port is a delightful primer. Like its predecessors, A Year in Burgundy and A Year in Champagne, it’s a glimpse of a prominent wine region, complete with all the best views and David Attenborough-esque narration. This third and final installment is a fitting capstone to a series that never pretended to concern itself with downplaying wine’s pretentiousness—something admirable, in a way, given today’s obsession with inclusivity.

The documentary opens, appropriately, with port’s connection to what some might consider the epicenter of pretentiousness. Britain.

British roots run deep in the Douro. The Symington family, who own several port houses in the region, is a prime example. Paul Symington looks and sounds like a Brit, but was born in Porto and grew up in the Douro. In fact, his family has been in the Douro for five generations. As Paul shares, his father had a great fear of dying in England, and asked to be returned to Portugal if that should happen.

Port is a “curiously British drink,” and according to Paul, you can be both British and Portuguese.

Elegant sequences and aerials are hallmarks of the A Year in series, and the Douro is a perfect subject. It’s a mountainous land, described as strange, tough, and remote. Electricity didn’t reach much of the region until the 1970s. But what most captivates me are its staircased, granite hillsides, which the film does a wonderful job of capturing. These steep hillsides, though beautiful, require continual re-fortification, an added cost for winemakers trying to make it in one of the most expensive wine regions in the world.

I was struck, at one point, by the odd juxtaposition between worker life and owner life in the film. In one scene, rows of stone-faced villagers stand stomping in place in giant, cement-walled pools of fermenting grape must—this after picking in the fields all day. In the next, port house owners are racing sailboats down a river and participating in opulent ceremonies. While I understand the necessity of the stomping process in port making, and don’t begrudge the owners their indulgences, nor overlook that they create jobs for the local economy—it just unsettles me, to see such contrast.

The Douro isn’t entirely polarized though. A younger set exists apart from the old money, making brilliant table wines. Port is simply too expensive to get into, so young winemakers instead choose to tap into the unfortified possibilities presented by the country’s over 400 native grape varieties.

Other highlights of the film include a look inside a cork factory, where quality assurance is religion—every cork is digitally analyzed and sniffed by an expert. There is also a demonstration of port’s version of sabrage, which involves a red-hot pair of fire tongs and a damp napkin. The port blending scenes are incredible to watch as well.

A Year in Port is a documentary perfect for PBS. It’s staid, but pretends to vivacity. Like if your grandmother said to you “let’s party”—it never quite gets properly kicking. Ultimately, however, it’s educational, well produced, and visually stunning.

My Recommendation

While A Year in Champagne remains my favorite installment in the series, A Year in Port is time well spent. You’ll learn about an important region, where patience is paramount and family history runs deep. You can watch the trailer here. It debuts on iTunes September 6.

Movie Review: Somm: Into the Bottle

It’s appropriate and ironic that Somm: Into the Bottle, the much-anticipated sequel to 2013’s hit documentary Somm, should concern itself with a question like, “Can there be any other business where there’s so much bullshit?”

It’s appropriate because Into the Bottle is an earnest attempt to demystify wine, and everyone’s begging for that. On the other hand, it’s ironic because Somm relied so heavily on the entertainment value of flavor descriptors like “fresh cut garden hose” and other, well, bullshit.

Both films have much to applaud, but in so many ways Into the Bottle surpasses its progenitor, not least of which is its wider appeal and lack of bullshit.

Into the Bottle is divided into ten “stories about wine.” Basically, it’s a series of discussions on ten topics (“the winemaker,” “the wars,” and “the New World,” to name three), selected with no apparent rhyme or reason but nonetheless well chosen, paired with the opening and on-camera consumption of a bottle of wine relevant to each topic. Watching the tasting of these bottles, which are often historic and always exceptional, though special and exciting, is also agonizing. It’s a tease that anyone will find difficult to bear without first pausing the film and cracking a bottle of one’s own.

The format is clever, effectively combining education and entertainment. In each segment, discussions of technical and historical topics segue into a focus on a specific vineyard, winemaker, and bottle, the uncorking of which becomes the capstone to each segment.

There is something to take away from each topic, but I found a few particularly enjoyable. The segment on “the vintage” has some incredible shots of old cellars. But the cellars are not picturesque in the traditional sense. They are dank, covered in hanging mold, and some of their bottles even have mushrooms sprouting on their ancient glass. Black cellar mold, evidently, is a welcome guest for the cellar master. He appreciates it, and knows it doesn’t hurt the wine. These cellars are far from “clean,” but they are real.

Wine story number four, “the wars,” I also found intriguing. Riesling is foregrounded, portrayed as the sometimes victim and other times beneficiary of the great battles between France and Germany. The segment ends with the opening of a beautifully golden 1962 Riesling, and goose bumps are had by all.

Into the Bottle is narrated by many familiar faces from the first film, but I was especially impressed with Brian McClintic. His knack for generating clear and apt analogies is much appreciated. As is his un-pedantic tone, and general nature for that matter.

“Wine wants to become vinegar. And if you can catch it at the right place on its arc, you’ve got the craziest flavors that you’ve never tasted before.”

There are so many great one-liners in this film, which make for perfect takeaways for viewers aspiring to become appreciators of wine. And that’s the great thing about Into the Bottle. Whereas Somm introduced us to the rigors involved in attaining the summit of wine knowledge, Into The Bottle takes a much more inclusive, down-to-earth approach.

“In the end, only one thing matters… is it delicious?”

If Somm is an introduction, Into the Bottle is an invitation. It’s a gesture of welcome to those who are trying to break through the smug opacity of wine and achieve some appreciation for its timelessness and craft.

My recommendation…
It’s hard to follow a hit like Somm, but Into the Bottle nails it. It’s entertaining, accessible, and whether you prefer Franzia or Pouilly-Fuissé I highly recommend you watch it.