Three years ago, Jason Wise released SOMM, a (surprisingly) compelling documentary about four wine aficionados working to pass the ultra-competitive master-sommelier exam. Now he's back with a sequel of sorts, SOMM: Into the Bottle, which premieres on iTunes today. This film offers a glimpse into the lives of cult winemakers, like Jean-Louis Chave, Aubert de Villaine (Domaine de la Romanée-Conti), and Robert Mondavi, who produce some of the rarest, most valuable wines in the world. Wise spent three years filming his new documentary, in six countries (primarily Germany, France, and Italy), and he dives deep into the politics and histories of major regions. Here, he explains his inspiration, what it's like to taste wines that cost more than his entire film's budget, and why, at the end of the day, "none of that bullshit matters."
Why did you feel it was time for a follow-up film?
Oh, man. With the first film, I said many times it wasn't really about wine. And I didn't get into making films about wine because I was a wine person. But as I went through the first film, I really became increasingly more and more anxious, and I started falling in love with wine, especially the history aspect. And I was not making a film about that aspect, so it kind of haunted me. I also feel like SOMM was able to capitalize on something pretty miraculous at that moment: wine getting big, sommeliers being right on the cusp of exploding. But, you know, that film didn't really get to the essence of why people like wine.
So I think the answer for your question is I really, really, really wanted to make a film about why people love wine and what wine is really about. I also believe, 100 percent, that people are not afraid to learn things in documentaries anymore. There was this big stigma forever that documentaries were boring, and now all of a sudden you have this renaissance of documentaries where entertainment and education can sort of live together.
Obviously you're building upon themes from the first film — did you shoot entirely new footage for this one? Or was there any leftover content?
I would say that 10 percent of the film is previous footage, and the rest is all new. There was some irreplaceable footage from the first, which was tricky because, obviously, camera technology has changed a lot over the last five years.
How did you decide who, and what, to focus on?
In the process of the first film, I had the opportunity to go to some pretty amazing places like Ruinart Champagne, because it's a 1969 Champagne. All I could think about is how much I wanted to do something with those crazy old bottles that were just sitting there for, in a lot of cases, 50 or 100 years, waiting for someone right to open them. They become so valuable over time that people couldn't find a reason to open these bottles. And they're so rare — I became obsessed with doing a film that exploited that idea that these bottles need to be opened for a reason.
I filmed with Ruinart for the first film, and I immediately hit it off very well with the winemaker. They were the first people I called. I said, “Look, I'm going to make another wine film, and I need you to open up the best bottle you possibly can on-camera.” I expected them to say no. And they said yes! I couldn't believe it. I started seeing if I could I top every bottle. We set our sights really high. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti — nobody has filmed anything like that. That 1969 Chave Hermitage — I mean, that bottle is an impossible unicorn wine that just does not exist. You have to be like the head of the Russian mafia to even know a bottle like that exists. It became kind of hilarious, because I could have sold two of these bottles for more than my whole budget. As it went on, the bottles all started choosing me.
Did you taste all of them?
My director of photography and I drank every single one.
Oh, wow. What is that experience like, especially as someone who's not a "wine person"?
It wrecked my foundation forever. It really did. I mean, that '69 Hermitage was so good — I am not capable of explaining to you how good. It was like, every four seconds, in your mouth, it changed to be five different wines. It was so complex and incredible. And that '62 Trimbach Clos Ste Hune is ... I don't know what the analogy would be, but I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and I ate pasta my whole life. Right? Then you go to Florence and to some cruddy restaurant, and they make pasta by hand, and you have it for the first time and feel like somebody reinvented the wheel. That's how I felt with some of these bottles.
I've been drinking wine forever, and especially these last five years, but with these bottles, all of a sudden I had felt like I have never had wine in my life. It just changes you. And not one of them was bad. In the Mondavi segment, we open up with '66 Robert Mondavi, which is crazy rare. And it was perfect. Every bottle we open in the film is perfect. It's like we were at war and we don't know how to talk about it. People ask, “How was that filming? How was that bottle?” You just don't know how to talk about what you saw over there. I know that sounds ridiculous.
I found the preservation process, and all of the information about fungus, to be super interesting. I can imagine there's a fear that the wine could taste horrible after so much time.
That fungus section is the reason I made this film. In the first film, I became head-over-heels obsessed with these cellars in Europe, because in America cellars are public. You know, people go wine tasting. They see these cellars in America, and they're so clean and they're public. In Europe, they're not public. You're not supposed to see these things. They're private places where you make wine. And this fungus that grows there is just so beautiful and strange, and I decided that I have to put this in a movie, and that was the impetus for starting this monster.
In the intro you discuss how there's so much bullshit in the wine industry. As a filmmaker, how do you cut through that?
Wine is opinion-driven. And as long as you know that walking in — you're not talking about cars on a race track, where you can at least measure speed or acceleration. There are no things like that in wine. And any time you think you can measure something like that, it becomes apparent how suggestive this is. A lot of people who drink wine for a long time hate point scores, and they like the wines that are rated lower because they are more interesting. Because after a while you don't just want to drink stuff that everyone thinks is good. You want to drink stuff that's interesting.
It really is so subjective. As a filmmaker, you try to show all sides and hopefully show why they are all right. It's tough to make a film as an outsider. I was able to make SOMM as an outsider. And if I ever make another wine film, I won't be able to do it as an outsider. I'm officially unfortunately inside now.
What shocked you the most?
How humble the greatest winemakers are. And I mean this from a financial standpoint. Like, for instance, Jean-Louis Chave, his Hermitage, or Aubert de Villaine, of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, his bottles sell for $5,000. Seriously. And this guy is wearing a simple jacket, old, old tennis shoes, and he doesn't live like he has any money whatsoever. He's just a farmer out there. To see the people who are the Michael Jordans of the wine industry not driving a nice car and eating simple sandwiches for lunch and drinking cheap wine — it's an outstanding revelation, because in a lot of places in the world, wine is a status stick.
What intimidates so many people from learning about wine is the belief that it's an expensive, exclusive hobby.
Which is totally untrue. I mean, totally, totally untrue. All the people who Instagram all these great wines, they're not paying for them. Most people who buy wine — the reason sommeliers are great, or at least the ones that are worth anything, is that they know how to get a great bottle of $18 wine. And that's why you should be friends with sommeliers, if you can put up with them.
What do you hope that viewers take away from the film?
I'm hoping that they're a little overwhelmed. The history is important. I feel like a lot of people jump on trends, and they are so into whatever is the cool thing — really dry Champagne, natural wine, orange wine, it doesn't matter — whatever the thing of the moment is. It drives me crazy because nobody has an idea of how these trends came about or where they are from.
My hope is that people see how actually big wine is, and then they take everything I just said, throw it out the window, and buy a $5 bottle of wine and just drink — you know? Because the whole point at the end of the film is all of this shit you've learned in the past hour and half means nothing. It's completely irrelevant, because if that bottle of wine sitting on a table doesn't get you laid or doesn't make the person laugh at the table or doesn't stop the argument you're having with your wife or your husband — if it doesn't punctuate whatever you're doing, make the food better — then who gives a crap? It doesn't matter how much it costs. The purpose is that it's supposed to just be drank between people — that's it. And that's why I go so far into all the history, the food pairings, the sommeliers, the critics, the everything, so at the end I can say, "By the way, none of that bullshit matters."