In a magnificent repudiation of France’s Loi Evin, which prohibits depicting people enjoying wine (albeit in advertising, not in film), the 20th annual Oenovidéo film festival held from May 30 to June 2 celebrated wine and winemaking in all its cinematic glory.
From the 124 films entered in the international competition, the world’s oldest film festival dedicated to bringing wine to the big screen, 26 films from 14 countries were selected as finalists. This year’s competition was held in southern France’s fortified Cité de Carcassonne, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Europe’s largest walled medieval city.
Your intrepid blogger sat through all 26 of the films in the competition. The organizer of the event, the Forum Œnologie, an association dedicated to the cultural and pedagogical impact of wine and grapevines, says that there were 15 hours of film on view. My aching posterior and eyestrain by the end of the festival say that this might be a conservative estimate.
Right off, I have to say that I was disappointed, as I had decided to attend the festival because I hoped to see a film about 12 Languedoc vineyards, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, which included a number of winemakers who I have written about on The Vine Route. Something about the length, several knowledgeable people in attendance told me, kept it from being selected by the jury, headed by the director of Les Choristes, one of my favorite recent French films (the English title is The Chorus; if you haven’t seen it, get the DVD). I suppose that my backside should be thankful that the two-and-one-half hour film wasn’t among the contenders, but I’m still going to buy the DVD when it’s out to watch it on my much more comfortable, in comparison to the Carcassonne theater seating, sofa.
My disappointment ended there, however. Combining two of my favorite subjects—wine and the cinema, was pure pleasure. The films in the competition ranged from the very technical La taille de la vigne, a 13-minute detailed explanation of how to prune vines, to the whimsical Vendanges d’hiver (named “Best Short Feature), a 10-minute film about a winemaker who decides not to sell his vineyard after the appearance of an eccentric visitor who, despite the absence of any fruit in the month of April, “harvests” grapes from his vines.
One of my favorite films was Zucco, the wine of the son of the King of the French, a documentary from Italy about how one of the world’s richest men in the late 19th century, Henri d’Orléans, the Duke d’Aumale (who was the youngest son of France’s Louis-Philippe, the bourgeois pretender from Orleans to the defunct French throne and Marie-Amélie de Bourbon-Siciles, the Princess of Salerno and Marie-Antoinette’s niece), came to create the 16,000-acre Zucco estate near Palermo, Sicily. Sadly, Zucco wine no longer exists. This is a shame, as we also learn from the film, that this wine, in addition to being one of the world’s finest wines in the late 19th century, was also a low-intervention, natural wine. After the Duke d’Aumale died, the estate was split into five different properties, the largest serving as a horse farm for the Aga Kahn.
Beautifully filmed and interwoven with present-day interviews and historical film footage to tell a story about a pioneer of today’s natural wine trend, the film received the “Prix de la Revue des Œnologues” (the official journal of oenology in France). Its having received an award related to oenology is somewhat curious, as Zucco wine doesn’t exist for either tasting or analysis. I guess that a Game of Thrones award, for complicated royal genealogies, wasn’t available.
A number of the films were in what I would categorize as promotional films thinly disguised as documentaries. These include A Year in Burgundy (winner of the “People’s Choice Award”), The Sale of Bordeaux Gran Cru Primeurs (designated “Best film for wine professionals”), Boom Varietal: The rise of Argentine Malbec (awarded a prize for “Best Images”), Les femmes et le champagne… (a look at the high rate of mortality of men in the Champagne region–no, actually, this film profiled women who have taken over major Champagne houses, following the deaths of fathers or husbands), and Red Obsession (a film about the relationship between Bordeaux and China; this film was named, along with another film about China–À la poursuite de Mme L, a farcical look at French wine exporters’ desperate attempts to pry open the Chinese market, as the “Best Long Feature” film.
A Year in Provence with wine
A Year in Burgundy follows seven winemaking families from Burgundy during the 2001 vintage. Former BBC filmmaker David Kennard made the film. Martine Saunier, who is from Burgundy originally but who now lives in California, where she imports wine, provided the winemaking contacts. It’s a nice, intimate portrait of these winemaking families, and it provides a good explanation of the complex notion of Burgundian terroir. But the film, filled with softly diffused views of vineyards and ancient vaulted wine cellars, is only saved from descending into Merchant-Ivory, Room-with-a-viewisque vapidness (my apologies to my wife and all other women who love this film) by the appearance of Lalou Bize-Leroy from the Maison Leroy négociant business and the Leroy and d’Auvenay wine domaines. Besides having a great stage name, Madame Bize-Leroy has incredible screen presence. Platinum blonde and sensual in a vigneronne with-dirt-under-her-fingernails sort of way, even at an age (she started working with her father in 1955 at Maison Leroy) where most of her compatriots have retired for several decades, Bize-Leroy obviously merits her nickname, the “Grande Dame of Burgundy.” This is someone with Burgundian terroir flowing in her veins. Her great-grandfather created Maison Leroy in 1868, and her father co-ran the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti until she took over that responsibility in the 1980s. That lasted until a spectacular falling-out in 1992 with her DRC partner Aubert de Villaine.
Access to winemakers like this helps to bring the film to life. When Bize-Leroy tells us that she knows every one of the vines in her vineyards by heart, and that if she doesn’t visit them every day they’re not content, we believe her. We might wish that we could afford to taste one of her wines—which can cost thousands of dollars a bottle, but seeing her on the screen is a not-so-bad voyeuristic compromise.
Petite Madame Saunier (she stands less than five-feet tall in her stocking feet), who is the film’s Executive Producer, said at Oenovidéo as she picked up the film’s “People’s Choice” award, that a U.S. distributor has been found for A Year in Burgundy, and that she was off to Portugal’s Douro Valley to assist in filming the second film in what is obviously going to be a wine-related film series. There is a third film planned for the Champagne region, so it appears that voyeurism makes for an effective wine-marketing strategy. I just hope that the Portuguese and Champenois equivalent of Lalou Bise-Leroy exists.
The film, The Sale of Bordeaux Grand Cru Primeur, with its depiction of the machinations used by the Bordelais Châteaux-Négociants-Courtiers triumvirate to continually increase the prices of their wines through the En Primeur system, leaves you feeling in need of a good long shower. The fourth cog in this well-oiled machine are the wine journalists. Many of the journalists involved in these Grands vins de Bordeaux En Primeur Tastings—French wine critic Michel Bettane, British wine writers Oz Clarke and Jancis Robinson, and the all-powerful American wine critic Robert Parker—appear in this film as well as “Best Long Feature Film” winner Red Obsession.
Quenching China’s thirst
Australia-based Lion Rock Films made Red Obsession, a tale of how recession-afflicted U.S. and U.K. markets have been swept aside by China’s voracious appetite for luxury products, including fine wines. This big-budget production (with even a voiceover by New Zealand-born Australian actor Russell Crowe) begins with the same Bordeaux En Primeur gang-of-four (along with Robert, Jancis, Oz and Michel B sipping and spitting again, on cue). But the film doesn’t really begin to gain traction until it arrives in Hong Kong and Mainland China.
Here, a cast of particularly voracious wine collectors, who treat fine wine as trophies, take over. There’s the immensely rich Chinese wine collector who made his fortune manufacturing plastic sex toys, a woman who says that she doesn’t even look at the other bidders during auctions—she just leaves her paddle raised until the prize is hers, and Christie’s Auction House’s Hong Kong director, who insists, repeatedly, that “fine wine has been undervalued,” so why is there grousing about skyrocketing prices that put it out of the reach of everyone but the Chinese (my beloved late-mother would have placed all of them in the “more-money-than-brains” category).
You come away from this thinking: “Where’s Shakespeare when we so desperately need an artistic interpretation of greedy fools, moneylenders, bankers and the moral vacuity of the newly wealthy.” Not that Red Obsession does a bad job of it, particularly the film’s moral lesson that allowing wealthy Chinese to suck up the fine wine market is a particularly risky strategy for Bordeaux chateaux.
This lesson is being driven home by the Chinese response to recent EU trade duties levied on Chinese solar panels. The Chinese commerce ministry immediately announced that it was launching an anti-dumping probe into wine imported from the EU—and the 140 million liters of French wine exported annually to China—worth over €600 million, is suddenly at threat. The gang-of-four in Bordeaux may have to make way for a fifth member—trade lawyers. For whom Shakespeare, as he wrote in Henry VI, had a particularly effective remedy: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
An obviously talented young Spanish filmmaker, Jorge Mazo, won two awards for his short feature Le vin, culture universelle (“The universal culture of wine”)—“Best Storyline and Production” and the “Prix de l’imaginarium (“Most Imaginative Film”). This four-minute and forty-second film shows an attractive young couple sharing a bottle of wine with an alien (one can only hope that the aliens aren’t wealthier than the Chinese, or Christie’s will be setting up a Mars auction house). See the short video for yourself below.
Several other films deserve mention for their sensitive portrayals of winemakers. The first one, Graeme and Alice, is a film about a young English couple in the Languedoc region of southern France. Graeme has left his London medical practice to follow his dream of making wine. He works part-time as a doctor, but his life increasingly revolves around taking care of the Domaine Trois Terres vineyard that he created in 2004. Alice stoically assists him, bravely renovating their stone house, bearing the majority of the responsibility of raising their two young children, and selling their wine at local markets. The film’s director, a retired English filmmaker named Hugh Raggett who met this young couple when he moved to France several years ago, said that he made the film because he knew nothing at all about how wine is made. By the end of Graeme and Alice we know a lot more about winemaking, how difficult it is to work as a small-plot winemaker, and the sacrifices it imposes on winemaking families. The film didn’t win any awards, but the satisfaction of producing wine that has already won several international wine awards, is, I’m sure, reward enough for this extremely likeable couple.
No wine left behind (winner of the “Wine, Health and the Pleasure of Life” award), a film about a young American veteran who, with the assistance of other fellow Marines that served with him, finds camaraderie and a sense of purpose in the creation of a California vineyard, and Like the old vine (recipient of a “Special mention” award by the Grand Jury), a film about Milenko “Mike” Grgich, who left his native Croatia to make California wine, including the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay wine that won 1st Place at the blind tasting event that became famous as “The Judgement of Paris,” are also worth mentioning (and seeing).
What Greek Crisis?
On the Greek island of Santorini, men and women maneuver between tradition and zoning-law-flaunting property developers on their windswept, desert-dry island to make wine as their ancestors have done for thousands of years. Stooped-over old men weave unique, ground-hugging, basket-shaped vines, partially buried under the island’s black volcanic soil, to protect them from the winds and hot sun.
The film, Pelican’s watch, which won the festival’s top award, the “Grand Jury’s Special Trophy,” has an early scene with an elderly man discussing what the film is trying to express. He continually stops and restarts his dialogue, heading off in different directions each time. Instead of editing out these retakes, Director Lea Binzer allows us to watch the interview in its entirety. It’s akin to the film’s beautiful opening sequence that shows a man and donkey climbing terraced steps up a mountainside in a laborious, jerky manner, with starts and stops until they finally reach their destination. Both are humorous, poetic takes that set a style that transports us, along with the film’s hauntingly beautiful musical score, through the rest of the film.
The central character in Binzer’s film is grape grower Nikos Pelekanos. Vine cultivation is a form of reflection and religious expression for him. To think that these ancient vines (some of which are over 400 years old) may be buried in the concrete tourist developments that continually encroach on the vineyards, is too much for him to imagine. Countless generations have looked over these vines, and he sees them as Santorini’s crown jewels.
Grape grower Christos Dalmiras is a grumpy old man who is followed everywhere by his three dogs and his donkey. He confronts everyone, including a group of firemen who converge on his vineyard when he burns several branches after pruning his vines. “What? In my vineyard I have to ask permission,” he screams. “I’ll break his head,” he mutters to himself, menacing the fireman with his cane. But, his bark is worse than his bite, and in an amusing sequence towards the film’s end, he and another old grape grower exchange hats like two mischievous six-year-olds.
Tradition can be defined in many different fashions. Some may see it as producing one of the world’s great white wines. Santorini’s dry white Assyrtiko wine has been called “Chardonnay on steroids” because of its pronounced minerality. But tradition for others might be taking their annual summer vacation in a tourist development built on former vineyards on a sunny Greek island.
The grape growers and winemakers in Pelican’s watch, as in the other films shown at Oenovidéo 2013, know that cultivating vines, winemaking, and, of course, wine drinking, helps them to share something unique.
My backside is already feeling much less sore, and I’m looking forward to next year’s Oenovidéo film competition.
The Minervois wine region, which surrounds Carcassonne, helped to sponsor Oenovidéo 2013. Several Minervois winemakers were present during breaks during the film festival to present their wines. Some that I particularly liked and will write about in the near future include Château Coupe-Roses, Château La Grave (particularly its 100% Grenache named “Ô Marie”), Domaine du Viala, and Domaine Lignères-Lathenay. And also in attendance was Clos du Gravillas, run by American John Bojanowski and his French wife Nicole.