Why wine movies keep falling flat

Robert Joseph considers Uncorked, Netflix's new movie, and wonders if film-makers have missed something fundamental about wine.

A still from the movie Uncorked
A still from the movie Uncorked

I enjoyed the Netflix movie, Uncorked, and totally disagreed with the wine commentators who were annoyed by what they considered to be its wine ‘inaccuracies’. 

Film makers take liberties. It’s how they create compelling stories in under two hours. Most keen sports fans are aware, for example, that film makers simplify the way athletes train. I’m also certain that Winston Churchill never took a trip on the London underground in the middle of World War ll. But that’s exactly what he does in the 2017 movie Darkest Hour.

In any case, while Uncorked may be about a would-be sommelier, the real subject of the film is family and succession and relationships. The story would have worked just as well if the career that had taken Elijah’s fancy was archaeology. The wine chatterati might not have noticed how implausibly quickly the young man learned how to identify ancient shards, but they’d have been washed along by the emotional tide of the story.

So, no, I wasn’t in the least bothered that Uncorked implied that Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible is the only reading material required by any would-be Master Sommelier. 

I was far more struck by the social impact the film could have on the lives of countless people across the world that, thanks to the size of Netflix’s audience. Like my imaginary, archaeology-inspired Netflix movie – Unearthed? – it might lead a new group to consider entering a professional domain they once thought of as the exclusive preserve of people with white skin.

As associate producer DLynn Proctor, also star of the documentary Somm (the model on whom Elijah’s character was loosely based), said in a Real Business of Wine webcast, his middle class African-American parents couldn’t tell him about being a sommelier, because they didn’t know about sommeliers.

But watching it dispassionately, I had the same problem with Uncorked as I have had with other so-called ‘wine movies’. Wine is presented as a fascinating product to be deconstructed in terms of its colour and acidity and tannin, and as the object of competitive guessing games. Characters, usually but not exclusively men, obsess about details. It’s all very intellectual.

As a viewer I understood that Elijah loved wine but I never knew why he loved it, or even the nature of that love. If there were no sommelier badges to be won, would his passion have been as intense? 

The film I keep returning to when I feel a little disappointed by wine movies is Babette’s Feast, the 1987 adaptation of a Karen Blixen short story. The French actress Stéphane Audran plays Babette, a 19th century refugee who has been working as unpaid housekeeper and cook for a pair of elderly sisters in a devoutly religious community on the remote west coast of Denmark.

After winning 10,000 francs in the lottery, Babette decides to spend it all on producing a single banquet, using food and wine imported from France. And the film is all about love and seduction: the love the Frenchwoman has for what her guests are going to eat and drink, and the way they are seduced by it.

I have never seen anything to do with wine on screen that is quite as affecting as Babette’s face as she relishes her first mouthful of Burgundy, a Clos Vougeot, in nearly 15 years. Or of the change in the expression of one of the sisters as the impact on her tongue of the wine she has reluctantly sipped, fires a stream of dopamine molecules at a cluster of nerve cells in her brain known as the nucleus accumbens, or the pleasure centre.

Babette’s Feast developed a cult following, leading to groups of friends getting together to try to recreate the meal. British chef, Oliver Rowe, who took on the challenge for the London Kinovino supper club in 2016 told Vice that the film is “not like watching a cookery demo. But you get a sense of her cooking, tasting things, her skill and patience… You can almost taste things as you see them." And, he goes on “By the end of the meal, [the guests] are all pissed and telling each other how much they love each other and all their rifts get healed. I get really choked up just talking about it."

When speaking on the Realbizwine webcast last week, DLynn hinted at the possibility of a sequel to Uncorked. I’d certainly love to see it – but with just a bit more dopamine and a tad less acidity and tannin.

Robert Joseph

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