Just after the New Year, texts and social messages began to alert me that a video series about wine was debuting on Amazon Prime Video and Vimeo on Demand. Titled “It Starts With Wine,” the program is a production of Wine Enthusiast Media (a division of Wine Enthusiast Companies, publisher of Wine Enthusiast magazine) and currently features three visually stunningly episodes that tell the tale of wine — and food — in three different wine regions.
Wine on film has been a tough go for those who have wished to translate their passion for grapes onto celluloid, or today, as digital content. The movie “Sideways” by Alexander Payne, which celebrates its 15th year, is probably the most well-known, wine-stained, scripted film, though it was really a buddy picture set inside the milieu of vineyards. The film won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2005.
And more recently, the director and writer team of Jason Wise and his wife Christina have spent the past half-decade making a troika of excellent and entertaining documentary films under the SOMM moniker. These three films have examined the intense passions of those who inhabit the modern wine world and, while wine is the fundamental focus of the films, it is the rich stories and extreme personalities that make them such delicious watches. The first SOMM film in 2006 followed two sommeliers, Dustin Wilson and Brian McClintic, who had formerly worked at Aspen’s Little Nell hotel, in their quest to pass the master sommelier exams.
All that is to say that, though it has worked in various forms, wine and film is a challenging pairing. So it was a pleasure to binge watch the three initial “It Starts With Wine” episodes and not only take cinematic journeys to compelling wine regions but to learn something about wine, as well.
Episode one, shot on location in Uruguay, won me over instantly when Francis Mallmann, the Argentine “God of Fire,” grilled a larger-than-life rib eye steak on an open flame and washed it down with a deep, full-bodied tannat from Bodega Garzón. A beach scene shot in the hippie-chic Atlantic coastal town of José Ignacio offered up a sequence of a hole being dug in the sand and then filled with ice, before a dozen or so white wines from Bodega Garzón were dropped in to chill. Beats a YETI. It was the kind of scene that made you want to immediately book a flight south. Or to open a bottle of tannat.
Multi-talented and much-loved Harvard and Stanford-educated, San Francisco emergency room physician and Argentine winemaker (yes, you read that right) Laura Catena was the subject of the next episode. She explained her intense relationship with the high mountain vineyards and to the eponymous winery that may be the most significant in the growth of the Argentine wine industry.
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And the final episode, the longest at 37 minutes, offered a look inside the mysteries of biodynamics and featured viticulturist Joseph Brinkley from Bonterra Vineyards in Sonoma County. It too propagated wanderlust, but was, at least for me, the least compelling of the trilogy.
The pieces are largely unscripted, relying on tightly edited quotes and stream of conscience conversations, live, on camera, rather than a standard narration. The talents of Susan Kostrzewa, executive editor of Wine Enthusiast; Jim Gordon, a contributing editor; and Michael Schachner, Spanish and South American editor; are employed to explain the details of the wines and vineyards in question. The scenes with the editors are seamlessly woven and, once again, shot so beautifully that they never seem to be intrusions, but rather, organic pauses for wine info augmentation.
Oh, and did I mention the shows are visually stunning? In fact, the beauty of the pieces may be the most alluring element for viewers. Expansive drone shots of the vineyards of Bodega Garzón in Uruguay offer a Peter Pan flying-eye-view of the impeccable rows of grapes below. A hefty glass of malbec, swirled fireside in Mendoza at Bodega Catena Zapata, leads you to believe that you can virtually smell both the smoke and the aroma of the wine. And the fish taco feast on California’s Dillon Beach with splashes of Bonterra’s organic whites in the finale feels fresh and chilled, just like the wines.
The group responsible for the magnificent visuals is a Lake Tahoe-based production group called WINERAM Productions. Helmed by filmmaker and wine professional Colin West, the features were produced in ultra high definition 8K resolution using state of the art RED Epic-w cameras.
“We had about 100 terrabytes of material,” West laughed, about the quantity of quality images the cameras captured. He also thinks the provenance of the crew was a benefit.
“I think adventure filmmakers get the outdoors, they have a real feel for it,” he said as he credited drone operator Brad Scott from South Lake Tahoe and camera operator Matt Hardy, a Truckee local, among other Tahoe locals for their contributions. “They can make the outdoor shots that we wanted look stunning.”
Beautiful and transportive, “It Starts With Wine” is a noble first step by Wine Enthusiast to connect with a broader audience and the features are well worth any wine-lover’s attention.
Fill a glass and take a trip.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at [email protected]
Catena Malbec 2016
It is great to be alive in the age of Argentine malbec. On the label of this wine there is a date, 1902, which honors the year that Laura Catena’s great-grandfather first planted grapes in the high mountain vineyards of the Andes mountains. These affordable, dark, dense, dramatic wines are representative of a place and time. Originally, a Bordeaux grape used mostly for blending with cabernet sauvignon and merlot, malbec has found its true home in the heat and thin air of the Andes. A powerful attraction for those who love to pair big wines with flavorful food.