Wednesday, May 8, 2013

How to make a boring wine documentary in 9 easy steps

A while ago I watched Terry Theise's film "Leading Between the Vines," a 58-minute documentary about some of the German wineries whose products he imports. Even at mid-day, I needed three breaks and a triple espresso to make it to the finish.

Theise got a lot of positive attention for his book "Reading Between the Wines," passionate ramblings about his desire to "remystify" wine. I like the wines Theise imports, but was not a fan of the book so it stands to reason that I would find the film difficult.

That said, what I didn't like about the film applies to most wine documentaries. There seems to be a template for wine documentaries, and it's obviously not an effective one because other than "Mondovino" -- which was very different from most -- no wine documentary has ever stayed in the public mind for more than a minute. (In the case of "Wine From Here," that's a shame.)

Here are the steps to make sure that your wine documentary is boring and forgotten like its predecessors:

1) Play insipid soundtrack music

When I started doing a weekly wine podcast for the San Francisco Chronicle, the producer added some banal piano-and-strings crap. I asked why he chose it, and he said because it was the kind of music he'd heard on wine shows on TV.

2) Talk a lot about dirt

A wine PR guy I know likes to say "Nobody ever walked into a wine shop and said, 'I feel like drinking something grown on calcareous soil'." Yes, the dirt under this vineyard is different from the dirt under that nearby vineyard. Fascinating! I'll bet that's going to affect the taste of the wine. I'm so on the edge of my seat.

3) Show lots of beautiful wine country landscapes

So pastoral, so lovely, so ... bor-ing. Seriously: name a popular non-wine film that uses long, loving shots of farm country. Even with great landscapes like Devil's Tower, the great Hollywood directors rarely returned to a shot more than once. But wine documentaries show the same action-less landscapes over and over.

4) Show lots of beautiful closeups of grapes and grapevines

Wow, plants! Those were so effective in the hit film ... go ahead, name one.

5) Use the namby-pamby spiritual language of secular humanists

It's interesting to delve into how Jews use wine for their religious ceremonies (and how the kosher wine industry uses them), or how Muslims can work in vineyards even if they can't drink wine. But if you're not going to talk about religion, please leave out the spirituality. Talking about your mystical experience when you don't have a specific religion is a lot like describing your own orgasm, and may actually be the same thing. The earth moved! How nice for you.

6) Don't interview your subjects about anything but wine

Let's say you're in Napa Valley and you're doing a documentary about winery owners who might include former ambassadors, tech innovators, university professors, or just heirs to family fortunes. Don't ask them about any of that stuff. Ask them if they leave any stones unturned in their quest to create the finest Cabernet.

7) Don't show us any food porn

For God's sake, keep away from sensual images of cassoulet or rib roast or grilled snapper being prepared. Instead, to show that wine goes with food, show us winemakers drinking wine and laughing at a table covered with mostly empty plates. Empty plates are the foundation of The Food Network's success, right?

8) Don't talk about business, except to complain that it exists

Commerce is evil. People aren't interested in evil. That's why there aren't any bad guys in hit movies.

9) Don't mention any prices

Because nobody who buys wine ever looks at the price.

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rapopoda said...

Hah! True.
Tho, those Oz Clarke/James May things were quite entertaining, if not terribly informative

Jack Everitt said...

10) Be sure to dumb it down a lot due to your belief that 99% of the viewers will never have drunk wine before.

Unknown said...

In another life taking classes in film in Southern California, I remember a professor talking about what it takes to make an interesting documentary -- you need some sort of conflict that (hopefully) leads to some resolution. An interesting topic in the wine world could be, for example, the zoning fights that pop up everywhere -- show the meetings, the testimony, the name calling.

W. Blake Gray said...

Stephen: Very good point. I should have put "Avoid conflict" on the list.

People want to make wine films about harmony and good times and beauty. The problem is, it's just about impossible to make an interesting film about anything without conflict.

Robert said...

Need a movie that shows the real side of the wine industry, especially the production side. Long hours, no shaving, endless pointless meetings, B.S. pitches by vendors, digging out pommace from tanks, dirty, hot conditions, the smells, the flavors, etc. A movie like that, however, might swear people off drinking wine.

kschlach said...

Since almost every wine documentary IS boring, don't you think a post on how to make an interesting wine documentary would be more interesting and worthwhile? Why tell people how to do something they already know how to do?

Sondra Barrett said...

This definitely made me smile... and I agree with Colorado . .... can you say how to make an exciting docu on wine or is that impossible? Maybe doing the opposite of your list. And here's another to add - #11 - make sure you use all that wonderful jargon - tastes like tobacco road or cat pee.

DAPZ said...

Besides"Wines from here", are there any other wine documentaries out there that you recommend?

W. Blake Gray said...

Kyle and Sondra: I appreciate the implication that I am the only blogger in the world who could possibly write on this topic. However, the truth is that the post you suggest is fair game for somebody else to write. I have chosen to write THIS post. That's how blogging goes.

W. Blake Gray said...

DAPZ: The sad thing is, no, not really. Is wine such a boring topic? We obviously don't think so.

You know what the wine movie I recommend most to friends is? "Beer Wars." And wine is barely mentioned at all. But "Beer Wars" is quite interesting -- check it out.

kschlach said...

Blake, I never implied you were the only blogger who could write on this topic. I understand how blogging works. Not to sound rude or to attack you, I was asking why you chose to write a vapid post... I expect more from you!

Unknown said...

I had a similar reaction to Terry’s foray into documentary filmmaking. It’s hard not to like Terry, his passion is so genuine. And yet, I don’t share his romantic and mystical view of wine. He talks a lot about wines made by people who are “connected” to the their vineyards, as if a vineyard tended by the same family for generations somehow results in wines that are more expressive and have more intrinsic value. He senses something magical in all this and I don’t.

I couldn’t agree more about dirt. I am so weary of people talking about soils, I immediately tune them out. I get it already - certain varieties do well in certain soils – but to ascribe the myriad of flavors and characteristics of a wine to soil types has no basis fact. It is little more than romanticism and conjecture.

I found the depictions of the struggles many families have perpetuating their winemaking tradition through successive generations intriguing. While Terry briefly explores this dilemma, I wanted to hear more.

I must admit, though, I’m a sucker for the “beautiful wine country landscapes.”

DAPZ said...

Will do. I don't know if you've watched Merlove. I've rented it and am planning to watch it this weekend. No great expectations though :)

Larry Brooks said...

The linkage between specific soils and flavor which Mr.Benson calls "little more than romanticism and conjecture", has in fact been scientifically proven by a team of researchers in Germany working on this subject for more than 10 years. The lead scientist is Andrea Bauer and the work is worth reading for anyone interested in the subject of terroir.

Charlie Olken said...


My favorite boring scene on any wine program is the taster who samples a glass of wine and says, "lovely nose, great legs".

Wine is not a topic than can be understood by watching someone else taste it.

W. Blake Gray said...

Charlie: Personally I agree with you, but Gary Vaynerchuk developed a fan base doing just that. I never understood it. But there's an audience.

Unknown said...

I made a wine documentary called Chateau Chunder - A Wine Revolution about the history of Australian wine for the ABC in Austraia and the BBC in the UK. Admittedly I may be biased but I'm pretty confident that it was anything but boring. Look up the reviews.
I can send a link to anyone interested in watching.
Stephen Oliver

jo6pac said...

SO where's the link?

Unknown said...

Larry - I thought my soil comment would get a rise out of someone. I'd love to learn more about the study you mentioned. Do you have a link?