Friday, October 17, 2014

"American Wine Story:" Boring documentary without a plot

Wine doesn't make a great documentary subject. You can't capture the feeling of drinking an amazing wine on film, and in talking about it, you risk sounding like someone describing an orgasm.

That's not what makes "American Wine Story," released this week for sale online, dull. First-time director David Baker exhibits a frequent problem of people trying to chronicle the lives of winemakers: he's too nice, and so are they.

The best films -- the best stories in any medium -- require conflict and strong characters. "American Wine Story" avoids any conflict, and while it's filled with strong, interesting people, it doesn't capture their personalities.

It's a sign of the way the wine industry works that at this point, I feel the need to apologize for this review. I would just ignore the film, as writers usually do about boring wines, if it weren't for the uniformly positive press "American Wine Story" has received to date. Harvey Steiman of Wine Spectator called it "fascinating, gritty and ultimately bittersweet." Gritty? It's all tinkly piano soundtrack and people talking about how much they love wine. If that sounds like a good time, stop reading and go watch it.

Oh, there's a tragic death at the core, of Oregon winemaker Jimi Brooks, who had a heart attack in 2004 at the age of 38. I suspect that Baker, who's from Oregon, set out to make a film about Brooks, conducting extensive interviews with his son, sister, and others in the industry who knew him, but discovered he didn't have enough to make a full movie.

Baker pads the film with interviews with other winemakers who, like Brooks, decided to go into the wine industry despite not having inherited vineyards. The most promising bit is when Mike and Kendall Officer of Carlisle tell about how they had little money at some points, but everything's apparently hunky dory now. The other grab-bag of winemakers from all over the U.S. -- Virginia, Missouri, Washington -- well, they all really love wine.

Late in the film, director Baker, who also narrates, says, "There's no question that opening a bottle of wine is a magical act."

But I do question that. I unscrewed a very tasty Chilean Sauvignon Blanc (Peñalolen) on Sunday. It went great with oysters, but I wouldn't call it "magic." This means I'm not the right audience for this film

In this film, there's America, and Wine, but no Story. It's only 80 minutes long, but it felt like watching grapes ripen.

Want to see a good wine documentary? Check out "Somm," now available on Amazon.

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Larry Brooks said...

I'm sure it's some sort of character flaw in me, but God, I love a bad review. Not much point being a critic if you can't savage something every so often. I especially like the comment on the soundtrack.

Robert said...

There's just no pleasing you.

Joe Roberts said...

I take it there are no car chases and explosions in this film, is that correct? ;-)

Anonymous said...

As ever, you say (write) what you think and that's good (that's why we like reading your posts). I think you're a little harsh here but that's just my opinion.

Bob Henry said...


Any word on this documentary reaching the big or small screen?

~~ Bob

“The Maestro — André Tchelistcheff — The Voice of Wine.”



W. Blake Gray said...

Bob: Nope, haven't heard anything since 2011. Maybe he's still working on it.