‘Somm: Into the Bottle’: Film Review

Somm: Into the Bottle - H 2015
Courtesy of Forgotten Man Films
Pleasantly approachable.

Jason Wise's follow-up to his 2012 documentary 'Somm' is a deep dive into the particulars of wine production and consumption worldwide.

The world of fine wine is often depicted as musty, esoteric and even unattainable for average consumers. Tricky foreign-language terms, impenetrably confusing labels and astronomically expensive sales prices for rare bottles all contribute to this unfortunate impression. For anyone curious about the inner workings of the wine trade and the heritage of outstanding world wineries, Jason Wise's follow-up to his 2012 documentary Somm will help decipher many of these sometimes obscure topics.

Both more specific and broader in scope than the original film, Somm: Into the Bottle looks at some of the world’s top brands and the production methods behind these renowned wines. Absorbing enough for specialists and accessible enough for the vinously adventurous, this sequel of sorts should eventually reach a widespread audience via Samuel Goldwyn Films’ theatrical run, in conjunction with a VOD release on iTunes.

Somm offered a window on the demanding particulars required for candidates to pass the examination to become a Master Sommelier, widely considered one of the most difficult distinctions to achieve in the wine trade. Into the Bottle exchanges test prep for textbook examples of winemaking by examining the multitude of factors inherent in wine production and distribution. Moving beyond the competitive setting of Somm, the new film sacrifices a certain degree of tension, although several of the original film’s Master Sommeliers return to provide guidance and context, including Brian McClintic, Ian Cauble and DLynn Proctor.

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Wise divides the film, shot over three years in six countries, into “10 stories about wine,” detailing the intricacies of production, marketing and hospitality. Earlier segments examine the concept of terroir — the combination of environmental and cultivation factors that makes every vineyard unique — and the variation of individual vintages, as weather and other factors impact each annual grape harvest. Later sections deal with winemaking techniques, emphasizing traditional and artisanal approaches. Cauble contextualizes the interaction of this multiplicity of factors at one point by observing that “there’s over 100 variables that translate into the glass that’s in front of you.”

One of the most significant factors separating Old World wine producers in Europe and their New World counterparts in the U.S., South America and Australia is a depth of history, sometimes going back hundreds of years for European wineries. In France’s famed Hermitage region of the northern Rhone Valley, Jean-Louis Chave is the sixteenth generation of winemakers in his family, producing some of the world’s most renowned bottlings of Syrah. Most American wineries by contrast may have less than 40 or 50 years of experience, although consumers and critics often consider New World winemakers more innovative than their European competitors.

Wise somewhat hyperbolically singles out California’s pioneering Robert Mondavi (who in 1966 opened the first Napa Valley winery following the end of Prohibition) as an iconic trendsetter in both the production and marketing of California wine. Contemporary winemakers Steve Matthiasson, Rajat Parr, Ted Lemon and Pax Mahle contextualize Mondavi’s contribution to the American industry with observations on the current state of wine culture in the U.S., reflecting as well on the influence of European traditions.

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Sometimes the wine-worshipping gets a bit excessive, lending credence to a comment from Carole Meredith, a retired UC Davis professor of grape genetics, who vocalizes what may be on viewer’s minds: “Can there be any other business where there’s so much BS?” And in fact some of the film’s segments seem unnecessary, such as a rather obscure focus on barrel aging of Italian Barolos, while others are so perfunctory that they could well be incorporated elsewhere, as with a discussion on the point-scoring system for marketing wines, while a section on sommeliers and wine service seems redundant.

Winemakers are central to many of these conversations, of course, lending the film some of its most distinctive highlights by opening rare and historic bottles. Wine enthusiasts may feel some chagrin watching these rare vintages uncorked merely for a documentary, but will surely experience a frisson of anticipation when Aubert de Villaine, a seventh-generation winemaker at the world’s top Burgundy producer Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (DRC), leads the filmmakers into his immaculate cellar.

“If you get a winery visit at DRC, it’s like the Holy Grail,”  McClintic enthuses. “You’re not going to find a better expression of Pinot Noir in the world," and proprietor de Villaine obliges by pouring a $900 bottle of 2004 Echezeaux grand cru for the filmmakers. Despite these thrills, Somm: Into the Bottle also exhibits some fairly notable omissions, entirely bypassing discussion of the robust global auction market, ignoring the American three-tier distribution system and neglecting any mention of distinctive fortified wines, such as Port and Sherry.

Editors Bryan Carr and Jackson Myers, along with Wise, have accessibly packaged some fairly expansive technical content sourced from a variety of formats, including archival materials and animated sequences inserted alongside conventional interview segments and scenic footage of wine-country landscapes, which Wise and lenser Myers enticingly capture on camera with a direct, lively style. In fact, Somm: Into the Bottle is so packed with personality and fascinating details that viewers will be able to return repeatedly to the documentary without soon exhausting all that it has to offer.

Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Production company: Forgotten Man Films
: Jason Wise
Screenwriters: Jason Wise, Christina Wise
Producers: Jason Wise, Christina Wise, Jackson Myers
Executive producers: Diane Carpenter, William Fowler
Director of photography: Jackson Myers
Music: Brian Carmody
Editors: Bryan Carr, Jackson Myers, Jason Wise

Not rated, 90 minutes