French wine on demand: the rise of SVOD

The French may not be able to watch their own wine documentaries, says Sophie Kevany, but this hasn’t stopped them attracting the attention of Netflix and Amazon.

Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash
Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash

It has to be one of the greatest wine ironies. France, synonymous with all things vinous, is missing one of the newest trends in wine communications – on-demand documentary series, like those that appear on Netflix and Amazon. 

For years, any winemaker with money could pay a marketing, film or communications team to make a promotional video. None of those however were likely to end up on Amazon, Netflix or any other subscription video on demand (SVOD) service, as they are known. 

But now, if  winemakers can make a successful pitch to one of these services, it’s possible to end up in front of an international audience. The new wave of SVOD documentaries is all about independent filmmaking, quality production and, most of all, entertainment. To attract their attention, winemakers need to reveal the problems, challenges and mistakes that abound in winemaking – making the result far different from the usual upbeat promotional production. 
But this is not a pay-to-play arena. For the most part, the production teams are independent and want to stay that way. What winemakers can do is use their darkest moments, gravest errors and laughable idiocies to entice a professional documentary maker to feature them.

What’s the payoff?

In France of course, that effort must be accompanied by the sinking feeling that even if a SVOD provider likes the story, and sends it bouncing round the world, few if any of their domestic audience will ever see it. 

That quirk of fate is down to the Loi Evin (Evin Law), in place since 1991, which severely restricts alcohol advertising. Attempts to download any one of several wine docuseries while in in Bordeaux were met with a message that the show was “currently unavailable to watch in your location”. 

That can make things weird for the documentary makers. “It was really strange to be in France making our wine documentaries,” said Joe Fattorini, the UK-based producer of The Wine Show, shown internationally on Amazon Prime Video. “Nobody knew who we were because the Loi Evin meant they couldn’t see the show. Outside France, people stop me in the street. In France no one did unless they were a Norwegian tourist or they happened to have seen the programme on an Arab Emirates flight.” 

Fattorini’s invisibility in France is hugely symbolic. But for producers, the greatest concern is a chronic lack of advertising scope, so the emergence of SVOD is finally offering at least a few the chance to explain their work – even if it is only to export markets, and anyone in France they can send a download or USB key to. Winemaker stories are particularly suitable for SVOD documentaries because they straddle popular documentary subjects: culture, travel, food, family, land and nature. 

Right at the heart of this awakening is the Bordeaux-based Gerard Spatafora, documentary maker and director of E-Studi’OZ. As of early January, Spatafora had ten winemakers lined up to begin filming for pilots that should be ready by May. Of the ten, six are French, two Italian, one Spanish and one Georgian.

Spatafora said the first step is to make contact with SVOD buyers. “That’s not easy. But, once you have, they basically tell you what they want, based on their data analysis of what viewers want. And they already know people like gastronomy, wine, food, travel and documentaries.” The next step is to meet their format needs. “You might arrive with a one-hour documentary, and they say go turn that into a series of 20 minutes per episode. Or they might want more or less history, or background or context.”

Because he is in the early stages of SVOD content provision, Spatafora said this round will be a financial joint venture, with the chosen winemakers contributing €10,000 to €15,000 each. Matching funding from Spatafora’s side will allow for a total budget of about €200,000. 

As an example of the kind of standout narrative he’s looking for, Spatafora mentions cosmoculture. “In the Rhône Valley we found a cosmoculture wine producer. They use the stars to guide the wine growing and making. Such a great topic.”

Stories that work

Côtes du Rhône estate, Domaine Viret, is the first and, apparently, the only producer in France using cosmoculture, although the practice has been around for many thousands of years. At Machu Picchu in Peru, for example, there is a large flat, scooped out stone. Some guides say that when the Mayan’s wanted to consult the firmament on what to plant when, they would fill the stone with water and study the reflected star patterns. 
Philippe Viret, son of Alain, explained his approach. “Wine cosmoculture was developed by my father. He worked on it all his life and I have been working in this way for 30 years. It’s a mixture of organic, biodynamic and agrobiology. It is ecological and very natural.” 

Using cosmoculture, said Viret, involves many different processes. “We take into account the energetic and vibratory vectors of the earth and their influence on the vine and nature in general. We also rely on quantum physics, geometry and our understanding of the cosmos, cosmic rays and underground electrical energy called telluric lines.”  In one plot this has led Viret to test growing vines in concentric circles instead of rows. 

“Making a documentary is a way to help people understand what we do. Of showing people the reality of what happens in a year at the estate,” said Marine Lavergne, Domaine Viret’s business development and marketing director. 

Another producer is Klaas de Jong, whose recent film credits include Redbad (a mediaeval Dutch sword drama) and Wine Masters TV for Amazon Prime. De Jong does not produce paid-for content, but he does offer free viewing codes. “That means [winemakers] can access and share the documentary they are featured in, and they can use it for marketing purposes if they so choose,” he said.

De Jong’s path to wine documentaries from a highly successful film career sheds further light on their emergence. “I started thinking about this almost seven years ago when I was filming in Ibiza. There was so little about wine. When I started to look into it, I discovered one of the problems was that you need presenters and directors that know something about wine. And that was very hard to find.”

But then, he said he began to notice new formats appearing. For example the American made Chef’s Table, which first aired on Netflix in 2015. “They cut out the presenter. And they used lots of movie production techniques and a 45 minute ‘drama slot’ formula. That was all much better.” 

De Jong’s next move was to put together a trailer full of high-end film equipment. “Hundreds of thousands worth of lenses and cameras and so on. That meant we had the ability to produce very high-quality film.” At the same time, he kept the production team as small as possible. “A team of three instead of 30 or 100,” he said. “The combination meant flexibility, ease of movement and high-end production values.”

Lastly, they ruled out TV as a medium. “We decided not to sell to TV, but to the new SVOD providers. Amazon, iTunes, YouTube and so on. TV stations are not really interested in wine, it’s too niche. Or the story has to have a local angle,” de Jong said.

Other possibilities

While documentaries are attractive, not everyone has the right story or can be in one. What then? Fattorini has one answer. As of last year, he is offering to turn his team’s talents to making paid-for documentaries, under the aegis of The Wine Show Ltd. 

The service can’t get anyone on Amazon or Netflix – Fattorini has to explain that you can’t pay to be in The Wine Show – but it can deliver a high quality production. The idea is that people will want to watch it, so the end result can be used as a promotional video. Budget estimates are tricky, but an hour of The Wine Show Ltd. documentary content will cost about €450,000 ($497,000). For those looking for something more modest, the minimum would be €25,000 to €50,000. 

Fattorini said the main risk with paid-for productions is they lose their entertainment value. “We have to make sure people understand that. Our team is TV people. I always say: these are the TV rules, trust me. You have rules for wine. These are the ones for TV.” 

Instead you need a good idea, a clear narrative arc and a few dark moments. “You have to be willing to bear your soul. You made lots of money in tech and bought a vineyard? Great, but that’s not really a narrative arc. You made lots of money in tech and nearly lost it all on a vineyard before you finally figured it out? That’s an arc. That’s interesting.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he also added that independent documentaries are easier to make than the paid-for ones. With them, he said with some relish, “you can really play with the grit in the oyster.”
Get ready to bare your soul vintners: wine reality shows are go.

Sophie Kevany

This article first appeared in Issue 1, 2020 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available by subscription in print or digital.

Appeared in

For full access...

Please log in or register now»               No subscription?  Try out our free 14 day trial»

Latest Articles