Falling Leaves – Georgian wine under the Soviets

The documentary Our Blood is Wine, mentioned in my previous post, has a couple of clips from the 1966 Georgian film Falling Leaves, showing scenes of winemaking in Soviet Georgia. I was motivated to find out more about this film, and discovered it on YouTube with (sadly rather sparse) English subtitles. You might need to turn the English subtitles on, in the settings for the video.

At a simplistic level, Falling Leaves can be used to illustrate the way that Soviet industrial winemaking trampled over Georgian rural traditions, and that might be all that is required of it by a wine-lover with an interest in Georgia. However, the themes of the film run deeper, and if you are interested in exploring the extremes of those depths I can only refer you to the analysis given in an this essay. Or you could just watch the film and enjoy what you can.

Our Blood is Wine – film review

This recently released documentary is about the revival of ancient winemaking traditions in Georgia, traditions that never disappeared despite suppression by Georgia’s Soviet rulers in the last century. There is now something of a renaissance, riding the wave of enthusiasm for so-called natural wine, and the ancient is now hip.

Georgian winemakers rebuilding their wine cellar. ©EmilyRailsback c/o Music Box Films

The two key people associated with the making of the documentary are its director Emily Railsback, and sommelier Jeremy Quinn, who narrates and features on-screen. Neither Emily nor Jeremy stamp their egos on the project too hard, allowing their subjects plenty of space to take centre-stage. The action meanders across Georgia, introducing us to those involved with small-scale qvevri wine production one way or another, mainly the winemakers themselves and their families, but also potters who make the qvevri, and more-academic experts such as archaeologists and ethnographers.

But even if winemaking is overtly the subject of the documentary, the winemaking details are not delved into too deeply, and that is fair enough in a way I suppose – to concentrate on the technical would be to miss the most essential message of wine’s cultural significance in Georgia. To quote Emily Railsback from the press blurb: “Things don’t always make sense in Georgia, but the hospitality and love that people show each other through eating and drinking is transformative. Jeremy and I had worked in the restaurant industry for years, and never experienced anything remotely similar. My first meal in Tbilisi was at a traditional restaurant where Jeremy was the sommelier. When guests were moved by their food, or by the company of their friends, they would break into song; the deep, heart­‐felt polyphonic song of their ancestors. It brought me to tears. I had never been around a culture that felt their highs and lows so vividly, and in community over toasting and song.”

So far, so good, but I was still left wanting more detail. Was that a qvevri base we saw being made? I thought qvevri bases were thrown, but that one did not seem to be made like that? Where is that archaeological site we visited, where the Soviets sliced the tops off buried qvevri? How did all the wines taste? What, if any, are the links between the people we met? Etc, etc. But maybe those concerns are specific to me – someone who is a bit geeky and already knows a bit about the subject matter, and who is eager to know more. If you are less bothered about that sort of thing, and are prepared just allow the impressions wash over you, I am sure you will get on better with the documentary. Either way, it undeniably gives a good general feel for the country and its culture – wine culture in particular.

If you wish to see the documentary, and are based in the USA, for screenings click on theaters here. The documentary will also be available there on demand (iTunes etc) from 20th March 2018, and on DVD from 22nd May. For more details, and other countries, announcements will be made on the film’s website and Facebook page in the next few weeks.

I was given free access to see it online as a member of the press. More significantly, I must disclose that I am totally biased as, even before seeing the documentary, I was irredeemably enthusiastic about Georgia and these wines 🙂

Update 16/03/18: Here’s a trailer for the film, published as I was writing this post

Somm – film review

So here’s another review of a documentary for wine geeks. In fact, in this case I would say the documentary is for the subset of wine geeks that are curious about what it is like to study for the Master Sommelier qualification – I must admit that included me. The production team must have hoped was that it would have broader appeal as story about the human quest for excellence against the odds, but to me this story about a group of people studying for a difficult exam was every bit as exciting as it sounds. Millions of people everyday must be undergoing that experience. Yes, believe it or not, there are other incredibly challenging academic pursuits, and the small number of Master Sommeliers does not necessarily imply that this particular qualification is any more challenging than, say, a PhD in theoretical physics. Of the two, I’d fancy my chances more with the Master Sommelier exam.

Apart from the meat of the documentary, there were also musings about wine in general, for example explaining how it touched on so many other different subject areas, from history, geography and cultural studies through to agriculture, winemaking and science. Those bits I enjoyed, probably because I agreed with the musings. Indeed, despite my comments above, I personally did quietly enjoy most of it, and learned a lot about what the qualification was about. It seems to basically comprise three elements: wine facts, restaurant service, and blind tasting. There was no mention of a dissertation component à la WSET Diploma or Master of Wine.

So let’s start with the fact bit of the documentary. Fact-cramming is not much fun, neither for the crammer nor the audience, and there does not seem much more to say other than that there was a lot of flashcard flashing. Thank God for Google!

Wine service was not covered in much depth, despite this being the core skill (you would think) of a Sommelier. I say “you would think”, but it does seem that the Master Sommelier diploma is now regarded as a general purpose wine qualification, and those who hold it like to call themselves sommeliers whatever their job actually entails. The wine service component we saw was a couple of fake customers yelling at a Master Sommelier candidate to chill a bottle of wine as quickly as possible. To me it looked like the sommelier needed more water in with the ice (I happen to be a bit of an expert on that topic after our recent trip to Italy in a heat wave).

A lot of the film dealt with the blind-tasting aspect. I suppose that is the bit that is best suited to the medium, as there is more social interaction. All the candidates seemed mighty impressive in training, reeling many words off pat to say that the wine wasn’t cloudy, followed by a list of fruits and other aromas, a description of the wine according to the dimensions of intensity, body, acidity, sweetness etc., and finally nailing the varieties, appellation and vintage – all in just a few minutes per wine. But that might just have been the documentary giving a good impression, as they were less good under examination conditions. No one gets to find out what the exam wines actually were, but the candidates guesses were all over the place. Was it Sancerre or Albariño? Barolo or Brunello? That seems more like my blind tasting experience: you think the answer should be obvious, but it is so easy to mess up, and strict time limits and examination stress cannot help either.

In summary: if you are a wine geek who wants to find what it is like to take the Master Sommelier diploma exam this documentary is definitely worth watching, but I don’t think you will be bowled over.

Barolo Boys – film review

Around 1980 I was on a budget holiday in Northern Italy, where most meals were bread, cheese and ham picnics.  However, one evening we pushed the boat out and went to a proper (albeit cheap) restaurant.  I remember we ordered a bottle of Barolo and, even though I had little interest in wine in those days, I can still conjure up a vivid image of how it tasted: brown, tannic, and totally devoid of fruit.  Today I would probably send it back, and I did consider it back then.  But of course we drank the bottle, even though it gave no pleasure.

That must have been an example of the wine that prompted the modernist revolution in Barolo.  It was the style of wine that sold for little money and kept the wine growers in poverty, as described in Barolo Boys, The Story of a Revolution.  But then how does it relate to the great traditional Barolo wines that, in the same documentary, David Berry Green said were so fantastic?  Ultimately I am still left a little confused about what the situation was before the revolution, and how it relates to the current state of affairs.  However, it seems that the quality of Barolo has been raised generally, irrespective of whether the traditionalist or modernist tag is applied. Are the Barolo Boys to thank for that?  Regardless, it must be seen as a good thing.

The Barolo Boys were a group of producers who introduced crop thinning, shorter maceration times and barrique aging, thus making the wines more appealing to consumers and critics alike, and allowing them to sell for a lot more money. The film tells this story through interviews with the people involved, and through archive clips.  However nice it was to meet the people, learn a bit about their culture and see the landscape, I am not convinced that is the best way to understand a story, but I cannot deny that I did learn quite a bit.

I am a little ashamed to admit that I used to think that the Barolo Boys was just the name of the winemakers’ football team.  Though it is that too, and the football team even featured in the film.  The other surprise was to see the documentary’s Langhe landscapes suddenly switch to the volcanic Mount Etna and Marco de Grazia.  I know about Marco – he is the guy that is currently busy raising the profile of Etna wines.  But what’s he got to do with Barolo? Ah, I see… before he arrived in Sicily he encouraged the Barolo revolution, introduced the Barolo Boys to America, and imported their wines.  In fact, it was on the American tour organised by him that their name was coined.

Interestingly, the booklet that accompanies the DVD mentions that in the early 19th century Nebbiolo was used to make a wine that was semi-sweet and slightly fizzy.  But the landowners wanted something better, so experts were called in to introduce the latest winemaking techniques.  Does that sound familiar? Terms like traditional and modern are, if they have any meaning at all, relative terms.  My only concern about change, particularly with modern communications, is that stylistic choice in the world of wine might get diminished. That might be a real danger in some cases, but I would say today’s Barolo remains distinctive. And if you want red wine in the early 19th century style, you can still get that from the region, in the form of Bracchetto d’Aqui. Has much really been lost?

If you are interested enough to read my blog, I think there is something in this documentary for you. DVDs of Barolo Boys, The Story of a Revolution are available here, along with further information. That is where I bought my copy. But be warned – the homepage is a badly-executed multimedia extravaganza, so you will probably want to turn your computer sound off.  If you want to see the trailer, you’d do better accessing it on Vimeo directly, by clicking on the above image for example.

Update 03/2016: I was recently talking to a Barolo expert (but not sure he would want to be quoted on this), who said that before the revolution the general standard was poor. But there were a few producers making good age-worthy wine that sold for more money than most, and that David Berry Green was probably mainly thinking of one in particular that he had an involvement with.

La Bobal Revisited – film review

No, this is not just a revisiting of the topic of Bobal, but a bit more about Zev Robinson‘s documentary film La Bobal Revisited.  Take a look at the trailer below.  It gives a pretty good impression of the full documentary, but is I think more fast-paced.

The actual documentary is relaxed in many ways.  It is not stuffed with neatly organised facts, but rather provides a voice for the wine people of Utiel Requena and Manchuela, the region in Eastern Spain where Bobal is grown.  The people talk, and seem united even if their views do sometimes diverge, and we are shown a series of scenes from the region in general, and of vine cultivation and winemaking in particular.  Most scenes, while often incorporating movement, seem to have something of the character of a still image, short-lasting and with a dynamic composition that demands attention.  The net effect is the feeling of simultaneous events in many places, and at many levels of detail, and thus the picture of life there is constructed.  The great pleasure is hearing people talking about things that mean a lot to them, and in their own voices.

If you are interested in seeing the documentary, get in touch with Zev by email zevrobinson@gmail.com, and I am sure he will be able to sell you a DVD and/or keep you posted about future screenings.  Finally, I should declare the fact that I know Zev personally, but the only motivation I have in writing this post is to give well-deserved exposure to an excellent documentary, and an excellent grape variety.