American Wine Story, the latest documentary on wine, was officially released on Monday, October 13th. The film’s plot is described thus: “After an upstart winemaker’s untimely death, his sister steps in to try to save his fledgling winery for his eight-year old sold. The movie blends this with other tales of risk and re-invention in the wine industry.”
While this is an accurate summary, it doesn’t give you the emotional impact of the straight-forward, honest and heart-felt statements from so many people interviewed in the movie. This is probably the most real, authentic and inspiring documentary I’ve seen about how having the dream to live and work in wine requires major sacrifices, and how people deal with them and persevere.
The opening is a shock, seeing the funeral of Oregon winemaker Jimi Brooks who died suddenly at age 38 just before harvest, a decade ago. Wine movies don’t start this way. There follows a touching interview with the Jimi’s son Brooks and sister Jane discussing their feelings about having Pascal Brooks pick up his father’s torch. The honesty is impressive; Pascal says “there are moments where I feel I don’t want to do this, and then more moments where I do really want to do this.” This feels authentic and vulnerable, not something coached.
Similarly, the narrator is frank about saying that wine in America is young; we don’t have families who have been cultivating vines here since the Romans. The common thread in America is “that they discovered wine in the undiscovered parts of themselves”, and for most, before they took major risks, “they had an epiphany, and understood that every bottle of wine contains a little magic.” This includes the mystery and the personal epiphany which is key to understanding why people choose wine as a profession in America instead of being born into it. A shot of a cork branded with the slogan “born again” is a great visual.
I liked the background music; it pulses in a sensual way like good wine does and supports the dialog without getting in the way, adding to the emotional impact of the script. I also like the cinematography. Even scenes of retail wine shops (shot in black and white) seem sensual, and that’s a hard act to pull off! I like how people interviewed seem to be encouraged to be as personal and informal and authentic as possible; it makes the subject seem both fresh and exciting, which for someone like me having spent decades in the industry, is impressive. One of the best quotes, by Jay Selman of grape radio, is “once you get bitten by the bug, the choice [whether to go into the wine business] isn’t yours anymore, you have to do it.”
The cinematography is both sensitive and sensual, with personal interviews with those remembering Jimi, or moving shots of wide-angle vineyards, to detail shots budding shoots, to raindrops on barrels.
Alan Baker left a 17 year career in Minnesota Public Radio to start over in the wine business in California. “I talked about it long enough that I had to do it or look like an idiot,” he laughs. We hear shots of his podcasts about his experience. “This is about dreams. It’s about the unknowable future. It’s about those stirrings deep inside that ask us who we are and what we are,” states one audio clip.
Probably my favorite quote from the narrator is, “If there’s a recipe for making wine in America, there are two key ingredients: the capacity to dream, and the courage to act upon it.” It’s inspiring then to hear the personal stories of music industry executives, computer code writers who made wine at home and others who dared to dream and then took the leap of faith to make it real…and took the risks as well.
“My plan was to go to law school,” said one. “I worked for the phone company,” said another. “I was an IT guy”… “I was a stay-at-home dad”… “I worked for a venture capital company”… “I was one of the privileged few that got to play a game [football]” … “One day I just realized I was doing more wine-oriented stuff than I was doing my actual job; and that should tell you something when you realize what your passion is all about.” You come to realize that all these people with diverse backgrounds had the two ingredients in the recipe for making American wine and get to hear their stories. “I kept on seeing myself under an olive tree, drinking a glass of my wine,” said Al Schornberg of Keswick Vineyards in the Monticello AVA of Virginia. The next time you see Al, he and his wife Cindy are describing a harrowing flight in a plane which seemed likely to crash; they had 30 minutes before they were able to land, and thought a lot about priorities and the future. When they landed safely, Al sold his company and started looking for a place to plant a vineyard and start a winery.
A rewarding part of the movie was having Pascal and others remembering his father and seeing the seed of wine taking root in him and growing, which is bittersweet. Jimi confided in a friend that he didn’t have anything to leave as a legacy for Pascal except the winery, which has since come to pass. The salient thread of the movie is Jimi Brooks and the hole he left in the lives of friends, family and the Oregon wine industry, but also how he enriched all of them. It’s a touching personal tribute, but it fits with the personal stories of Americans from all over the country interviewed in the film who found their lives transformed by the magic of wine.
Probably the most emotionally moving part of the film for me was Jimi Brook’s sister Jane telling how she drove to Jimi’s house the day he died (at the beginning of harvest) and found a crowd of people she didn’t know telling her they wanted to make Jimi’s wine to help out his family and not charge for it. “I was very taken-aback. I remember wondering why they wanted to help us so much; it took me awhile to understand it,” she said. Since she had a business background, they asked if she would step in and manage the winery; “I said ‘Yes’ because I didn’t know what else to say.” “Seeing the celebration of his life after [the funeral], I realized I didn’t know that guy, said his father.
As the author of Beyond Jefferson’s Vines, the book about the history of Virginia wine from the Jamestown Settlement to the present, I appreciate that the filmmakers went to Monticello and included mention of Jefferson and his friend Filipo Mazzei’s efforts at establishing vineyards planted with European grapevines. They acknowledge his major contribution as “planting the seeds of a national obsession…today vines are planted and wines made in the least likely corners of every state in the Union,” and it’s true that every state now has a winery (Alaska gets juice to make into wine from British Columbia next door). The narrator points out another truism of the story of American wine; “when pioneers hear something can’t be done, they take it up as a challenge.” Missouri winery owner Michael Amigoni owner explains “What continues to motivate me is that I’m doing something to push the envelope on what kinds of varieties are being grown here in Missouri.”
One of my favorite things about this documentary is that doesn’t hold back how emotionally and financially difficult realities of making money growing grapes and making wine. There is frank talk about “being at war on all fronts” with Nature, from weather extremes like freezes and hailstorms to fungal diseases to fighting animal and insect pests. Anyone who is considering following the dream needs to be fully informed of the risks, and the interviews in the movie (along with the scenes of hail, snow etc.) do a good job of being a “reality check.”
Vintners like Luca Paschina of Virginia’s Barboursville Vineyards explain that in sub-optimal vintages, they won’t make their flagship wine (Octagon), because they’re committed to having only top-quality grapes in that bottle. You can imagine the financial loss (Octagon sells for $49) in sub-optimal vintages. “If we look at what makes the most money, we wouldn’t be making wine,” says another winery owner.
Interviewees talk about relationships ending, going down to 20% of their former income, or realizing they’d left their support networks behind in another time zone. “You risk everything; you risk being out on the street. What do you do if you fail?” asks Jay Selman. “It was very discouraging to work 80 hour weeks for years and go backwards in cash flow,” said another. “I’d projected a seven year break-through to profitability,” says Oregon pinot pioneer Dick Erath of Prince Hill Vineyards in Oregon. “It took more like eleven.” “One bank I went to had a loan officer who used to be in the wine office and he made it clear I wasn’t going to get a loan. We literally didn’t have the money to buy groceries; it was very difficult. “Neither of us were getting much sleep; it was really, really emotionally trying the first few years,” says Kendall Carlisle of Carlisle Winery in Santa Rosa, California.
Another thing I think commendable about this film is that California does not dominate the scene; actually Oregon gets the most attention but there are interviews with vintners in Washington, Missouri, Arizona and Virginia, demonstrating the nation-wide nature of the wine industry today. Dick Erath comments on this; he talks about Arizona being where Oregon was 20 years ago, and sees regional wine elsewhere in the country fighting the same battle for respectability that Oregon fought then. “We’re established,” says Paschina of Barboursville Vineyards. “I know we can make world-class wine here. Some people will find out and some won’t, and that’s OK.”
Another solid truism is explained elegantly by an industry member in the film; “In order to work in wine, you have to have a curiosity about that whole world, all sides of it, you have to be a Renaissance person interested in biology and chemistry but at the same time interested in art and poetry. Nowadays with the economy is so large, you see someone making something with their hands, and they’re fighting the good fight.”
After Jimi’s memorial service it’s heartwarming to hear how his sister Janey came around to agreeing to manage the winery after calling friends and distributors and asking them what Jimi was doing that was different and why it mattered. “I didn’t have any fears because I didn’t understand what I was doing,” she laughed. Jimi’s friends in the wine industry acknowledge and admire her for her focus and professionalism despite her lack of industry experience and point out that she grew the winery from 3,000 to 12,000 cases. “The connection I have to Jimi and so many people through him by doing this, I can’t replace that,” says Jane. “It would be a really big void.”
The final segment of the movie, like the friends and family of Jimi moving out of their loss, focuses on affirmations by the people who you’ve heard being interviewed; they went through sacrifice and tough times, but they made it through. “Make sure it’s your passion,” says one. “I talked to a few winemakers, and not one encouraged me to do it,” said one. “Follow your heart, and if you truly believe this is what you should do, then do it.” “We saw one problem after another as a challenge,” says another. “We weren’t in it for the money, but for the passion,” says another. “I feel so fortunate to do what I love and what I’m passionate about,” says another. “In a way, it’s not work.” “You have to be willing to give it your all,” says another.
“Wine in America is about the absence of rules and the freedom to imagine. It’s the understanding that the American dream is not just an abstract idea but something you write for yourself with the faith that if you choose to pursue it, you just might have a shot at achieving it,” says the narrator. “Wine touches us deep in our hearts and grabs our emotions, and for that reason I think you can reach people and move people through wine…I can tell you times when I’ve opened and tasted a bottle of wine and burst into tears,” confides an interviewee. “Wine has made me more passionate and more interested in people”, says Jay Selman.
It’s appropriate the movie ends with Pascal Brooks talking about following in his father’s footsteps and trying to connect with parts of his father he didn’t know, and quotes Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, “A man’s greatest profession is to learn to know himself.” “I’m not afraid to die, says Pascal, “I’m really afraid not to live.” I think when he sees this documentary he’ll be confident that he needn’t worry about that, with a life in wine.
I came to feel a sense of validation through listening to the many interviews, being in the wine industry myself, and despite the necessary reality check, it’s inspirational; anyone considering a career in wine should see it. American Wine Story is a “Three Crows Production”, written by David Baker with cinematography by Truen Pence, Kegan sims and Justin Smith, produced by David Baker, Truen Pence, Kegan Sims, and Justin Smith. To purchase the film ($12.99, or $15.99 for the deluxe version), visit http://americanwinestory.vhx.tv/.