The canon of wine movies is depressingly bleak. (See: “Wine Country,” “Bottle Shock.”) Which is why “Uncorked,” which is streaming on Netflix, couldn’t come at a better time for any wine lovers who are sheltering in place right now.
The story follows Elijah (Mamoudou Athie), poised to take over the Memphis barbecue stand that his father Louis (Courtney B. Vance) has inherited from his own father. But Elijah has other plans. He wants to become a master sommelier, a distinction achieved by fewer than 300 people in the world — ever. But that dream hinges on a notoriously difficult test with a pass rate that fluctuates between 3% and 10%. (Another Netflix film, “Somm,” documents the grueling nature of the examination.)
In addition to the fact that the film is consistently funny — there’s the running joke of Elijah’s family mishearing “sommelier” as “Somalia” and asking why he’s getting involved with pirates, for example — and that it’s the rare wine film with a mostly black cast, it’s one of the most accessible wine movies for non-wine geeks, not an easy achievement for such an esoteric and exclusive subject.
Throughout the film, barbecue and wine wage a proxy conflict for the clash between Louis and Elijah. Initially, the two seem irreconcilable: blue collar versus white collar. Yet by the end of “Uncorked,” they resolve, and the viewer begins to see pulled pork and Pomerol as more similar than they are different.
In a scene around the dinner table, Elijah notes some of the similarities between the two crafts. “It actually kind of helps when I think of wine like barbecue,” he announces to his family as he passes around a bottle of Chateau Abelyce. “Certain places just do certain things good, like Memphis and ribs or Texas and brisket. It’s kind of like Argentina and Malbec or Provence and rosé.”
That’s the extent of the preaching, but in subtler ways the movie hints at wine and barbecue’s shared foundations. Louis has multiple scenes at a woodyard, carefully choosing the types of wood he’ll buy for his smoker — a clear analog to oak barrels. He examines pigs hanging to dry, critiquing the level of fat on the ribs, with an eye to detail no different from a winemaker’s on a cluster of grapes.
What inspired writer-director Prentice Penny to make a film about these two great sensory pleasures?
“I knew that I wanted to write a movie based on my relationship with my own father,” he says.
In Penny’s life, the barbecue stand was the family furniture store, and the master sommelier examination was Penny’s dream of becoming a writer. “But no one wants to watch a movie about someone who wants to write,” he says, laughing.
Still, he needed to conjure a similar contrast. As a stand-in for writing, Penny wanted “something elevated, just a little bit airy-fairy.” And what’s more airy-fairy than Cote-Rotie and Champagne? The film emphasizes the chasm, lingering on the sommeliers’ fancy suits and the grand French chateaux, and setting that luxury against the down-home mis en place of the barbecue stand.
Penny’s interest in wine was ignited on a trip to Paris for a cousin’s wedding, where he took an introductory wine course. One of the first wines he paid attention to was from Albert Bichot, a producer in Chablis, the northernmost area of France’s Burgundy region. He makes his love for the Bichot wines abundantly clear throughout the film: Multiple scenes were filmed at the winery, and Elijah recommends its Moutonne bottling to his cousin as a great pairing “with white meat.” (Wine geeks will delight in the thrill of recognition at hearing shout-outs to many wines in the movie, including Oregon’s Antica Terra — “insane,” in Elijah’s estimation — Australia’s Leeuwin Estate Art Series Cabernet and Napa Valley’s Staglin Estate Chardonnay.)
The wine universe of “Uncorked” is semi-fictional, not meant to be a faithful representation of the Court of Master Sommeliers, the test’s administering body. In real life, an aspiring MS must pass three lower-level tests before sitting for the top tier, whereas in the film Elijah and his classmates just go straight for the top. For the characters, it’s MS or bust.
“It’s like when a movie makes a fake basketball team,” Penny says.
But Penny still wanted an actual sommelier to advise on the film. Luckily, one of the producers, Datari Turner, had a brother who fit the bill perfectly: DLynn Proctor, a longtime sommelier and one of the stars of “Somm,” who now works as the director of Napa Valley’s Fantesca Estate.
Proctor has a cameo in the film himself, and Fantesca’s 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon gets a quick mention. While filming in Memphis, sommelier Ryan Radish, wine director of the city’s EnjoyAM Restaurant Group, also helped advise.
The two sommeliers worked with the cast and crew to help them learn some of the nuances of the craft, starting with how to properly hold a wineglass.
“The most important thing for me,” Athie says of his preparation for the role, “was I just needed to understand how this job was possible. How do you sip a wine and then get the date, region, producer?”
Proctor says he was careful to impress upon the cast that being a somm isn’t just about pulling out blind-tasting parlor tricks. “I really wanted to explain to Prentice that all somms are servers, server assistants and bussers,” he says. Somms might be able to rattle off regions and styles — as the master sommelier examination requires them to — but the day-to-day work of serving wine in a restaurant is something very different.
“I wanted that to come through in the script,” Proctor says, “and come through with how Mamoudou exuded the confidence of someone who had been in restaurants since he was a teenager.”
The confidence shows. When Elijah is selling wine to Tanya (Sasha Compère), who later becomes his girlfriend, he compares the personalities of white wines to different rappers: Chardonnay is Jay-Z (because it’s classic), Riesling is Drake (because it’s sweet) and Pinot Grigio is Kanye West (because it’s … spicy?)
“Uncorked” is a movie made by black artists, starring black actors, about a black character who is pursuing a career in a field that is, for the most part, homogeneously white. But don’t go into the movie expecting it to be a treatise on racial representation in the wine industry.
Penny was careful not to make the wine world look unrealistically diverse, but he also didn’t want to make race the focal point of the movie. “I said, ‘Let’s be true to how it looks,’ ” Penny says, populating the sommelier classrooms with mostly, but not entirely, white students and mostly, but not entirely, men. “But we weren’t going to make a PSA about it.”
Explicitly, there’s just one acknowledgment of the wine world’s lack of diversity. When describing his sommelier course, Elijah tells his cousin: “Low-key, not a lot of black folks in my school.”
Race “just isn’t what this movie was about,” Athie adds. “It’s about a character who’s going after his dreams and his family doesn’t totally understand it.”
Nevertheless, Proctor hopes that “Uncorked” can help people of color feel seen by the world of wine. “Culturally, (wine is) not something I grew up with, and I’m certain most blacks and minorities in the U.S. didn’t either,” he says. “So I want viewers to take away from the film that wine should be as normal in their lives as breathing is.”
As for his own conflict with his father, he says it’s eased — just like Elijah and Louis’. Penny kept to his writing. He didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps. And the family’s two furniture stores closed, one in the late ’80s and one in the late ’90s.
And his father? “Yeah,” Penny says, “now he’s proud that I became a writer.”
Esther Mobley is The San Francisco Chronicle’s wine critic. [email protected] Twitter: @Esther_mobley
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