We are now in the penultimate month of the year. (A word which I’ve never felt comfortable saying out loud, fearing delusions of grandeur). Pumpkin spiced lattes have been replaced by winter mix cappuccinos and headache-inducing gingerbread syrup. However, if you don’t want to be solely responsible for financing your dentist’s next cruise, perhaps cake and the finest wines available to humanity would be more up your street.
Every little helps
My wine expertise extends as far as what is on offer in the supermarket that won’t inflame my eczema. (The Venn diagram usually overlaps with sparkling rosé – it’s a hard but fabulous life, darlings…) Personally, I blame an over-enthusiastic emulation of Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) for this predicament, when I was fresh out of uni. Sure, Bridge was full of many useful tips on dinner party menus and how to be a feisty singleton in the early noughties, but omitted the key fact that there really can be such a thing as too much Chardonnay.
Move ahead a few years, when social media and influencers were (literally) in their infancies, Paul Giamatti starred as a depressed teacher and wine snob in Sideways (2004), famously announcing:
If anyone orders any Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any f—king Merlot.
Two things then happened:
Firstly, people started questioning the pronunciation – Mher-LOW with a New York snarl. (Now you, with your Home Counties accent, try it the next time you go into a restaurant and see how far you get. If you’d be so gauche as to order a bottle in the first place, that is.)
The second was, people stopped drinking Merlot. It’s not the first time in history that a grumpy looking middle-aged man in a beard has influenced economic trajectories, but according to an article in Beverage Dynamics (what do you mean, you don’t subscribe?!), Giamatti’s famous quote was responsible for a fifteen-year slump in popularity of the grape. Thankfully now, the glass is looking half full again for the wine aisle staple.
When it comes to knowing about a good bouquet, the ability to detect the blackberries and cherries from the turpentine, and the social prowess not to make the perennially witty quip ‘why does no one ever say it tastes of grapes?’ (Ho, ho, ho, how we laughed. And then they kicked us out of The Bullingdon Club – which in hindsight may not actually be such a bad thing…), it might be wise to turn to the experts. And here, Chiltern Film Society is on hand to help.
A strong vintage
Their last screening of the year will be Blind Ambition (2022) on Wednesday 8th November at The Elgiva. The hope-against-all-odds documentary follows the fortunes of four Zimbabwean refugees who all independently left for South Africa, found themselves working in the hospitality industry and became highly skilled sommeliers, despite some of them never having tasted wine before. Joseph Dhafana, Marlvin Gwese, Tinashe Nyamudoka and Pardon Taguzu form Zimbabwe’s first national wine-tasting team and, with guidance from a French sommelier and a wine guru, go on to compete in the World Blind Wine Tasting Championships in Burgundy, France – the Olympics of the wine world.
One character describes Blind Ambition’s scenario as ‘…Egypt putting together a team of skiers to go and compete in the Winter Olympics.’ Yeah, I think we all know that the key words actually missing in that premise are ‘Jamaica’ and ‘bobsleigh’.
Cool Runnings (1993), incidentally, is one of my Dad’s favourite films, up there with The Sound of Music (1965) and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) (no, really). It must be something about the feel-good factor and snowy surroundings. The same can’t be said of The Thing (1982), a screening of which I recently attended as part of an unlikely family outing for my brother’s birthday. I realised during John Carpenter’s classic chill-fest, that I was not a big fan of body horror, and that the ground-breaking special effects of mutated mutilations were enough to put anyone off their spicy salsa and melted cheesy nachos. Thank goodness for the wine that was also on the table. (See, there was a link, tenuous though it may be.)
Directed by Australian duo Robert Coe and Warwick Ross, Blind Ambition is an emotional and heartwarming story about believing in your abilities in the face of adversity. It won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Sydney, Tribeca and Sonoma Film Festivals, and the Special Jury Award for Best Documentary at Mendocino.
A fictionalised account of a 1976 wine competition, this time the Judgement of Paris, can be seen in Bottle Shock (2008). This comedy drama, based on true events, tells of when chardonnay from California’s up and coming Napa Valley beat grapes from France in a blind taste test. Alan Rickman stars as a British sommelier and wine shop owner, Steven Spurrier, who is trying to introduce Parisian aficionados to fruits from the new world, and Bill Pullman and Chris Pine are cast as the American vintners. (Hans Gruber, however, would have probably preferred a nice glass of Riesling – both hit the spot at Christmas – ho ho ho.)
A peek behind the curtain
There have been several recent documentaries about the wine industry, but did you know that there was a trilogy? Somm (2013), follows the fortunes of four candidates hoping to enter the sommelier profession by studying for the Master Sommelier exam. It spawned two sequels – Somm: Into the Bottle (2015), which examines the characteristics of ten bottles of wine (gives to charity, has an affinity with puppies…), and Somm 3 (2018) where sommeliers attend tastings in Paris and New York and discuss wine and their own careers. It makes a refreshing change from all the MCU outings, and you might even learn something (if you’re not matching the subjects glass for glass that is).
For all the grandiosity and opulence connected to the wine world, there is always a counter-side. Sour Grapes (2016) is the Netflix documentary which tells the story of Rudy Kurniawan, who aspired to the lavish lifestyles of the fabulously wealthy, and achieved it by auctioning cleverly disguised plonk to the highest international bidders. It plays out a bit like The Emperor’s New Clothes and may just inspire you to stick to that bottle of 2021 Shiraz, thank you very much.
So, that’s the latest from me and the CFS tasting menu.
I hope you find Blind Ambition full bodied and aromatic, with lots to admire.
Please drink responsibly, whatever your beverage of choice, and return the empties to the bar after the screening.