It opens, as many wine movies do, with a harvest sequence: Ungloved hands shearing grapes off the vine, nimble fingers picking at the sorting table, Chardonnay juice flowing into tanks and bottles. But over the real-life rhythm of September in Chablis, specifically at Albert Bichot's Domaine Long-Depaquit, thumps the Yo Gotti track "Juice": "I got that juice," Gotti raps. "D-R-I-P-P-I-N-G." In the new Netflix film Uncorked, we're in for a story of contrasts—and the conflicts they ferment. But the movie is also the first mainstream narrative film to wade into the world of wine wonkery as deeply as it does in a long time.
Prentice Penny, showrunner of HBO's Insecure and veteran writer for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Scrubs and Happy Endings, is debuting his first feature as a director on March 27 after years of conception and production. Mamoudou Athie stars as Elijah, a Memphis kid who dreams of becoming a sommelier, opposite Courtney B. Vance as his father, Louis, who is adamant his son follow him into the barbecue business instead and take over the family joint.
"Obviously this is a story about fathers and sons," Penny explained to Unfiltered, and not so different from his own story, in which the barbecue spot was a Los Angeles furniture store.
Training: Prep Work
But Penny and the cast studied as hard to make it a movie wine lovers would appreciate as Elijah studies for his Master Sommelier(-style) exam. As Elijah moves through the wine world, he picks up or shouts out Antica Terra Chardonnay, Casanova di Neri Brunello, Domaine de Bonserine Côte-Rôtie and Dry Creek Vineyard Chenin Blanc, among many, many others. Penny even brought on sommeliers DLynn Proctor of Fantesca Estate in Napa and Ryan Radish of Memphis' A/M Restaurant Group as consultants to ensure vinous verisimilitude. The latter began putting the cast through the paces before cameras even started rolling.
"Before we were making the movie, he had actors that hadn’t worked in that world, and he would break down how to hold the glass, how to smell it, what you're smelling for, what the things on the grid mean, what this level [of sommelier certification] means, what this wine is. Just like literally five or six hours a day going through wine, introducing them to it as quickly as possible and making them believable."
“To me it was like, ‘Oh, this is like becoming a doctor,’” Athie told Unfiltered about his crash course on wine. “I learned a lot about what I liked because I wasn’t as adventurous as I am now, and I have the movie to thank for that.”
That prep work glimmers throughout the movie, from when we first meet Elijah, as a wine-shop clerk who already has a wine vocabulary, if not the sort they test for. He diagrams wine for his future love interest, neophyte Tanya (Sasha Compère): Chardonnay is the Jay Z of white wine ("the granddaddy of wine; it's versatile, smooth"), Pinot Grigio is like Kanye West and Riesling, well, is Drake: "Crisp, clean, usually kind of sweet." (While Penny stands by it, he expanded with a laugh: "There’s dry Riesling too, just like Drake gives you a little something of everything.")
As Elijah navigates the chilled relationship with his father, the more harmonious pairing with his mother (Niecy Nash) and the ever-intensifying sommelier degree training regimen with his study-group friends (varying shades of wine-snobby and wine-nebbishy), certain wines serve as punctuation marks in the plot, and they were chosen deliberately. Elijah gifts a La Briccolina Barolo 2012 to his father before leaving on a study-abroad trip to Paris; the father-son team who owned the vineyard bottled only that vintage together before the elder died. "There was a real story behind that," explained Penny. Later, we see Louis and Elijah at a sports bar, companions in a trying time. Elijah orders the Penfolds Bin 389; the choice of the so-called "Baby Grange" "highlights his growing and evolution," said Penny. "They weren’t haphazard bottles of wine."
Penny's wine inspiration was kindled when he first visited Paris years ago, for a cousin's wedding. "I was like, 'If I’m ever gonna like wine, it’s gonna happen here in Paris.'" He did, and the taste came back to him once he'd decided to set his film in the food world. Wine would be both a culinary and generational counterpoint to traditional 'cue, but also a "natural pairing."
In a happy coincidence, the brother of one producer is Proctor, who was one of the subjects of the Somm documentaries, and who signed on as a producer in 2016. "I spent a lot of time with Prentice and his script, and his several rewrites of it," Proctor recalled. "We really wanted Elijah to learn the world of wine as Prentice was learning the world of wine.
"[Athie] needed to own service and hospitality with the same confidence of a sommelier who had worked the floor for years, but it was also important for Elijah to not be too perfect with wine descriptors, because he was in fact learning a new craft ... There is also a certain type of ‘wine speak’ I wanted the actors to understand. Phrases we say for certain wines, like ’nervy’ for Chablis and Chenin."
Assemblage: A Cast Forms
Vance, known for his acclaimed performance as Johnnie Cochran in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and his work on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, was intrigued when Penny approached him. He saw in Elijah’s passion for wine a calling of his own youth his family couldn't quite grasp: When he told them he wanted to become an actor, in the 1980s, he got confused looks rather than understanding nods. Although Vance doesn’t drink wine, he loved Penny’s collaborative nature and the story itself.
For Athie, it was a dream to get to work with Vance (fun fact: they both attended the Yale School of Drama). “He’s one of those actors I've been looking up to since I got into acting,” Athie said. “We shared a lot more barbecue [than wine] … and learned how to cut and handle the meat.”
Nash, whose previous credits include When They See Us and Reno 911!, hopped on board without having read the project, since Penny wrote the role for her and the pair had a longstanding relationship of mutual admiration. “Prentice was very prepared,” Nash told Unfiltered. “Also, when you write a project and you’re directing it, there isn’t a split in the vision; it’s very cohesive.” As a bonus, although it was a dry set, Nash said that cast dinners were a great opportunity to expand her wine knowledge.
(For anyone jotting down recommendations for refreshments, Niecy said she likes "Chardonnay that is very buttery. I like it oaky and heavy!” Athie's pour du jour is the Margerum M5 Rhône blend from Santa Barbara. Penny reaches for Syrahs and Cabs "that are really bold and have a lot of tannins": the Austin Hope lineup from Paso Robles, the Andrew Murray Brazen Syrah from Santa Barbara, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars' Fay.)
“Just like the world of law, the world of music, the world of sports, the world of wine is a thing,” Vance summed up his initial attraction to the project. “To see an African-American young man enter into that world and master it … that’s what is exciting to me about the project.”
Penny was keen to capture a diversity he felt is sometimes unacknowledged in wine. "I wanted it to feel like there were lots of people of color in the world of wine, because there obviously are," he said. "So that was a big thing to debunk, this idea that it’s just all white people. Because that’s not true." He cited black-owned businesses like Brown Estate in Napa, the McBride Sisters California-based venture and the wine projects of Ayesha Curry and Dwyane Wade. "Along the way, a lot of black people that work in the world of wine hit me up being so thankful that, yeah, they get to see themselves on the screen."
Fining and Filtering: Getting the Shots
Production was not without challenges, both logistic and artistic. "You're trying to tell a narrative, dramatic story, and you want to do that where people are really just sitting around drinking," said Penny. "Well how do you make that visually interesting?"
One answer arrived in the form of a rare robust snowfall in Chablis. Penny had chosen to film Elijah and his peers' Paris sojourn on location, at the Musée d'Orsay and the storied dining pilgrimage site (and Wine Spectator Grand Award winner) Le Taillevent. Chablis, and Domaine Long-Depaquit particularly, made sense to Penny as the destination of the vineyard jaunt essential to any wine flick. It's just 90 minutes from Paris, fronted by an 18th-century château that drips with motion-picture-perfect Old-Worldliness, and besides, Penny was taken by the La Moutonne Chardonnay monopole the domaine makes.
Penny and his team visited twice, for three days each. The opening montage was filmed during the 2018 harvest, barely: The winery slow-walked the picking of its last parcel to allow the production team time to capture the process. On that visit, Penny familiarized himself with the winemaking process, and tasted barrel samples and vintage bottles with winemaker Cécilia Trimaille. This was the fun part. "You could say quote-unquote 'education,'" he laughed. When Penny returned with the cast later in the winter, Athie also stocked up on as many bottles as the flight home would allow.
"They took time to film all the different parts of the pressing process, of the harvest process and also of the beginning of the fermentation," recalled Trimaille, who also led the 20-odd production team through a makeshift Chablis 101. "The Netflix team for this movie really wanted to know everything. They filmed everything!"
Penny said of his ambition, "Coming out of the movie I just hope it can help further men being more vulnerable and open and honest, especially fathers and sons. That it prompts conversation about different paths." Penny's path to creating the rare credible glimpse at wine in the movies, however, is complete.
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