Jason Wise, director of the new documentary Somm: Into the Bottle spent years learning about iconic wines. Here, he reveals what bottle he opens when he’s editing a film and what his father-in-law taught him about staying normal.
Your movie Somm was about three candidates struggling to pass the test for the Master Sommelier degree. What’s Somm: Into the Bottle about?
I take 10 of the world’s most iconic, story-worthy bottles—legendary vintages of wines like Trimbach’s Clos Ste. Hune Riesling and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s Échezeaux—and then I open them up on camera. For each one, we cover a huge range of topics: from how wine ages to sommeliers and their opinions to how much it costs; point scores and collectors; and history from ancient times to now. The film opens with the 2014 Napa earthquake and ends with the wine Leon Panetta and some of the CIA guys drank to celebrate killing Bin Laden.
What on earth would a person open to celebrate removing a terrorist threat?
An 1870 Lafite Rothschild. Fred Dame, a Master Sommelier, opened it for them. I have it all on film, but I’m not allowed to say where the location actually was.
You mentioned shooting right after the Napa quake—what wine did you open then?
The 2013 Matthiasson white blend. I was with Steve Matthiasson. He didn’t know if his house was going to be condemned, he’d been up all night, and he was just wrecked. It was an emotionally complicated segment. We also filmed in France and have Jean-Louis Chave opening up a 1969 Chave Hermitage. We wanted to do his birth year, 1968, but outside of World War II and the year Napoleon destroyed all the buildings on the river in Hermitage, 1968 is the only year that his family hasn’t made a wine. Rain wiped out the entire crop. And their history in the Rhône goes back to 1481. Kind of a disastrous omen if you’re the winemaker-to-be!
Has making these two movies—opening all these great bottles, hanging out with Master Sommeliers—changed your own wine tastes?
Definitely. But I don’t spend a lot of money on wine because I don’t have any money. Nothing will make you more broke than making a movie. Also, I don’t believe you have to spend a lot of money on wine. For every Jamet Côte-Rôtie, there are seven guys in the Jura making wine that’s crazy good and costs 20 bucks. Look at Aubert de Villaine [the co-owner of Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée-Conti]. You film him in his cellar, and he’s just this sweet old guy in a $30 jacket. And you think, How are you not in some giant château somewhere, kicking back and having somebody cook foie gras for you all day? But I asked him what he drinks, and he said, “Oh, I mostly drink Aligoté. Five-, ten-year-old bottles of Aligoté.” Inexpensive white wine. That just staggered me.
After doing two movies about wine, are you a little burned out on it?
Not at all. The greatest moments of my life have involved wine. I proposed to my wife in New Orleans with a glass of Château Simone rosé, out on the street, in the same place Louis Armstrong proposed to his wife. We drank Krug in the hospital when my daughter was born. I love the stuff!
Was there much wine drinking on set?
Not by me—there’s too much going on. But I always drink rosé while I edit—most recently, it’s been a lot of Pax Mahle’s 2014 Wind Gap rosé. Or Riesling. People in the wine business go on about Riesling all the time, and I understand why. The variety it offers literally seems endless to me.
Would you ever want to become a Master Sommelier yourself?
Absolutely not. No way in hell. Never. And I say that with all the love and admiration and respect possible for the people who do. You can’t come back from the process of trying to be a Master Sommelier and be normal again when it comes to wine.
Who’s had the most influence on you when it comes to wine?
Surprisingly, my father-in-law. He was the first person who introduced me to a constant flow of good French wine. And when I made Somm,he looked at me and said, “Do not let this film ruin you! If you lose the ability to drink normal wine, you’re going to lose everything that’s going to make this movie good.” Now when I tell him, “I’d like to drink some of this weird, old white Rioja with this meal,” he’ll say to me, “It’s happening. You’re getting ruined!” And I’m like, “No, no, no, I’m not. I swear.”
7 Wines to Try Now
NV Emilio Lustau Los Arcos Amontillado Sherry ($16)
“I remember as a bartender making fun of sherry—it was a joke to me. But now I have tons of it in my wine fridge. This dry, nutty version from Lustau is one I buy all the time.”
River Village Chardonnay ($21)
“My father-in-law has flown over this part of New Zealand a million times as a helicopter pilot. He brought some of this wine back right after I first met him—it’s sort of the wine we bonded over. Winemaker Michael Brajkovich is renowned for his Chardonnays.”
2014 Matthiasson Rosé ($28)
“I really love Steve Matthiasson’s rosé. It’s bigger than most, so it holds up to all kinds of food. Plus I admire Steve. He works incredibly hard; he’s the kind of guy whose hands are never clean. If he wasn’t a winemaker, I think he’d probably be building levees in New Orleans.”
2012 Produttori Del Barbaresco Barbaresco ($37)
“Standards in Barbaresco are all over the place at this price, but Produttori is always good—it’s a co-op, but their attention to detail in the cellar is off the charts.”
2001 R. López De Heredia Viña Tondonia Reserva White ($51)
“When I was just out of film school, almost everything I drank was from Napa. Then a co-worker poured me this white Rioja, and it showed me how complicated and fascinating wine was. López ages all its wines for years before selling them, which just adds to their complexity. The Gravonia white López also makes, which costs about $33, is great, too.”
2012 J.L. Chave Saint-Joseph ($60)
“This was the red of choice while we were making Into the Bottle. And unlike Jean-Louis Chave’s Hermitage, which needs time, you can drink his Saint-Joseph now— it’s incredible. Jean-Louis is also in the movie, and he definitely didn’t need to be—he certainly doesn’t need any help selling his wine from some jackass American filmmaker!”
2009 Trimbach Cuvée Frédéric Emile Riesling ($80)
“The 1962 Trimbach Clos Ste. Hune we opened in the film was hands-down the greatest white wine I’ve had in my life, but the Trimbachs only have 12 bottles left. As an alternative, I’d choose the Frédéric Emile, which I love, and which can probably age as long.”