American Wine Story is a documentary that gives us more than just the aerial shots of perfectly manicured vineyards set to contemplative audio tracks that we crave. It gives us a film about wine that’s distinctly American.
As David Baker — writer, director, and narrator — puts it: wine in America is about the “absence of rules and the freedom to imagine.” It is this pioneering spirit that drives American Wine Story.
The documentary has a long list of characters, each with a story, but centers on the Brooks family, of the Brooks Winery in the Willamette Valley (see our interview with Brooks’ winemaker, Chris Williams).
When Jimi Brooks, founder of the winery, passed away at age 38, he left his eight-year-old son, Pascal, with a vineyard ready to be harvested, and a winery just starting to come of age. It fell to Jimi’s sister, Janie, to decide if the winery would survive.
Janie and Pascal were not alone, however, because the local Willamette Valley winemakers — friends and colleagues of Jimi, so touched by him before his passing — were willing to help.
Although the primary narrative thread is the Brooks story, the film jumps around to other interesting men and women in the American wine industry and their stories. There are some particularly intriguing characters on the film’s roster, including Drew Bledsoe (former quarterback of the New England Patriots, who now owns Doubleback in the Walla Walla Valley); Al and Cindy Schornberg (owners of Keswick Vineyards in Virginia, who turned to winemaking after a near-fatal plane malfunction); and Jim Day (whose Panache Cellars is housed in a 598 square foot garage in Oregon).
Baker’s choice of settings, too, is loyal to the spirit of pioneering and breaking new ground. There is minimal attention paid to the California wine industry, and more given to the Pacific Northwest and burgeoning wine regions like Arizona and Virginia.
American Wine Story does fall short in one aspect. On the one hand, its theme of going “all-in” is presented in a cautionary manner. But it fails to show what happens to those many wineries that don’t succeed. Never do we see an ex-winemaker working the drive-thru window or retreating in defeat to the corporate world from which she once fled. Perhaps, for some, talk of excessive debt and break-even points is warning enough. But, of course, the goal of the documentary is not to scare away potential winemakers, but rather to present, in a realistic way, the potential fruits of following one’s passion.
A narrative field blend, American Wine Story is a collection of uniquely American wine tales, each of a different flavor, which marry beautifully in the commonality of an underlying ethos: that (in the words of David Baker, narrator), “If there’s a recipe for making wine in America, there are two key ingredients: the capacity to dream and the courage to act upon it.”
When the well for your next Netflix documentary binge runs dry, seek out American Wine Story. Information about the film, including screenings, can be found here.