It’s certainly fitting that the films selected to open this year’s Napa Valley Film Festival are about wine.
Specifically, “Like the Old Vine,” pays tribute to a winemaker who helped bring Napa Valley winemaking to the attention of the world.
The other delves into the little known world of the men and women who devote their careers in wine to serving it.
“Somm,” a cinematographic examination of what it takes to become a first-rate sommelier, received its world premiere at the Napa Valley Opera House Wednesday night.
A few hours earlier in the cozy confines of St. Helena’s Cameo, the oldest single screen theater in the United States, Milka Barisic’s loving portrait of Croatia-born Miljenko (Mike) Grgich for Croatian TV was screened for the first time in the United States.
An overflow crowd showed up and, since not all got in to the screening, Barisic gave the OK for the documentary to be shown at the Cameo soon that all who want to see it will be able to do so.
Forgotten Man Films’ Jason Wise conceived, wrote and directed “Somm,” an independently produced docudrama that deserves to be seen by anyone who’s ever enjoyed a glass of wine — and certainly those contemplating doing so.
His collaborator on this exceptional indie documentary was Jackson Myers, a student of the renowned Charles University film school in Prague. Myers spent a couple of years exploring the storied wine cellars of France and Germany, as well as the scenic vineyards and nooks and crannies of Napa Valley wineries renowned for cabernet sauvignon, so the pair could tell the story of four wine stewards whose passion was earning one of the world’s most prestigious diplomas.
In addition to introducing the viewer to four young Bay Area guys — Brian McClintic, Dustin Wilson, Ian Cauble and DLynn (cq) Proctor — bent on passing what’s called “the hardest test you’ve never heard of,” “Somm” focuses on the examination itself.
As Myers’ cameras roam about the hotel in which the exam is conducted and the rooms in which the eager savants are holed up, we learn that it takes a vast knowledge of wine — as well as spirits, sake and beer — years of study and an amazing palate to make the grade.
Filmmaker Wise has already set his audience up to be involved in what happens to these young men. We know where they work and we’ve met the spouses and industry friends. We get up close and personal with Fred Dame, the first American to successfully pass in a single year all three parts of the exam — theory, service and tasting. This feat and his high score won him the coveted Krug Cup of the British Guild of Sommeliers in 1984. He not only administers the master sommelier exam, he helps with the study habits of those invited to take it.
When it comes time for us to learn who made the grade, the tension in the room the other night was palpable. The very receptive crowd broke into applause on several occasions and gave filmmaker Jason Wise a prolonged standing ovation as the credits rolled.
“Somm” delivers a real-life drama that focuses on a segment of the wine business most of us know little about. The story is told against a magnificent backdrop of worldwide wine regions, cellars and places where would-be MS candidates can study their flash cards. In addition, there’s an attractive jazzy score by Brian Carmody that complements the storyline.
It’s easy to see that this film is a product of both love and discovery. Wise started discussions about making this film — his first feature-length effort — in 2009, a barroom discussion with a couple of the film’s principals that stretched into the early hours of the morning. That led to his being granted first-time access to the Court of Master Sommeliers exam process.
The result is an engrossing, well-made docudrama that should set the bar for all films about wine that follow. And it makes most that have gone before, like the pretentious “Sideways,” look like child’s play.
“Somm” will be screened again today at 1 p.m. at the Cameo Theater in St. Helena and at 8:30 p.m. Sunday at the Yountville Community Center. Catch it if you can.
A tribute to Grgich
When filmmaker Milka Barisic started work on a film project about zinfandel’s roots being located in Croatia, she looked up Napa Valley winemaker Mike Grgich who had championed that theory for decades.
So intrigued was she about the Croatia native’s life story that she put the zinfandel story on the back burner so she could concentrate on telling others about her fellow countryman’s escape from under the thumb of communism and the contributions he made to both California and Croatian winemaking.
“Like the Old Vines” not only focuses on Grgich’s amazing feats in California — like his chardonnay for Chateau Montelena that beat the pants off his French counterparts at a 1976 tasting in Paris — but also chronicles his return to his native Dalmatian coast village and the awarding of a diploma at the University of Zagreb nearly four decades after he left for what he terms “paradise” in the New World.
Contact the Cameo to see when additional screenings are planned.
Filmmaker Barisic said she expects to wrap up work on the zinfandel film in January and plans on exhibiting it here next year.