Forty-one years ago, the unthinkable happened. In two elite blind tasting wine competitions in Paris, France, California wines beat out their French competitors. It simply couldn’t be. France, the country synonymous with wine, the makers and shapers of wine culture, had been beaten out by Americans. But despite French denial, outcries of unfairness, and claims of contest tampering, the writing was on the wall: the French no longer had unquestioned supremacy in the world of wine. Now referred to as the “Judgment of Paris,” the gastronomical upset signaled the official renaissance of American wine production after its decimation during Prohibition. Central to this American resurgence was California’s Napa Valley. Despite only producing 3-4% of California wine, the Valley has become synonymous with California wine-making thanks to its anomalous volcanic geography that creates a specifically Mediterranean climate perfect for grape production. What’s more, a whopping 95% of the Valley’s wineries are family-owned businesses.
Nicholas Kovacic II’s documentary Decanted (stylized as decanted.) follows one such business—the Italics Winery operated by winemaker Steve Reynolds and his Managing Partner Andy Wilcox—as they begin a new grape harvest and reminisce on the challenges and rewards of the industry. We see their midnight harvests, their meticulous fermenting, and even an extended montage of them hand-labeling their bottles. It’s easy to get lost in the beauty and romance of the whole process, mostly because Kovacic seems to care little for anything but the aesthetic and emotional elements of wine-making. For a documentary that barely cracks 70 minutes, a good fourth of it seems comprised of little more than high-definition footage of raindrops cascading on vineyards, fields and fields of vibrantly blue grapes, fermenting juice slowly pouring into barrels and bottles, and bird’s-eye views of the Valley. Consider an early sequence showing the first steps of the wine-making process as ripe grapes are sorted and placed in giant vats for fermentation—the entire thing feels like it’s on fast-forward, the narration sprinting through the process so quickly that we barely comprehend what’s going on. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the few truly informative segments of the film.
Most of Decanted’s runtime is devoted to a succession of industry talking heads recounting their involvement in wine-making. Some of them are genuinely interesting, such as Julien Fayard of Fayard Wines. The man approaches the industry with a near religious zeal, superstitiously refusing to leave the Valley during a harvest. But most of the figures are featured so briefly that they barely leave any impact. After a time the mind loses focus and fails to keep track of who’s who. It was only after finishing the film and checking the press notes that I discovered that Steve Reynolds and Andy Wilcox were the “main characters.”
California winemaking is a topic ripe (pun intended) for documentary filmmaking. But Decanted doesn’t satisfy as it should. The film tries to be too many things at once. Is it food porn? A portrait of obsessive craftspeople? A instructional on how to make wine? A history lesson on Napa Valley and American wine? In truth it tries to be a little of all these things. Whatever the case, this admittedly well-meaning and beautiful film feels like it was served before its time.