Wine Doc Is Really a “Geopolitical Thriller” – The Hollywood Reporter
When Jason Wise set out to make the fourth documentary in his Somm series it was intended to be a history and religion-centric film — “the Planet Earth of wine” — but after meeting a winemaker named Vahe Keushguerian in Armenia those plans changed.
Somm: Cup of Salvation centers on Keushguerian and his daughter Aimee, now a winemaker in her own right, and their efforts to put Armenian wine on the map.
During the course of filming, Vahe went on a quest to Iran to find out what happened to vineyards of Rasheh grapes after the country banned alcohol in 1979. Without spoiling too much, the Argo-esque mission was, ahem, fruitful — and they’ve made the first wine from Iranian grapes in nearly 50 years under their Molana label.
Wise has become known for his wine docs — he has directed three previous Somm films and launched Somm TV, a subscription streaming platform dedicated to food and wine — but he wouldn’t necessarily classify Cup of Salvation as one. Yes, the film is about wine, but Wise really sees it as a “geopolitical thriller” and father-daughter story. The complex narrative — and the risk involved — has made it a challenge to promote.
“You have to figure out how you’re going to position it,” explains Wise, adding that the typical tendency is to highlight the most dramatic or outlandish element of a story to attract attention. Here, they’re trying to balance encouraging people to see the film while not coming off like they’re bragging about pulling one over on the Iranian government. “Normally, if you’re doing a horror film, you’d show the scariest, most gruesome thing. You push it as far as you can. When you’re doing this type of a movie, these are real people and their lives are impacted by how this film is received. It’s both the dream and the scariest thing you can have for a filmmaker. The excitement for Vahe’s and Aimee’s wines being known to the world outweighs the concern, or else I wouldn’t have made this.”
The film, which Wise is self-distributing, began a limited theatrical run in October. It’s showing at the Angelika in New York Dec. 7-10 and in L.A. later this month. (More info here.)
Wise spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about how his film took a dramatic narrative turn — and why he’s still a little nervous about Vahe’s “harrowing” trip to Iran.
Let’s back up a little bit. What got you interested in wine in the first place?
The real answer is I was in film school and I fell in love with a girl and her father collected wine. I was bartending at a very nice restaurant then, but I didn’t know much about it. Right about the same time I got a job directing a PBS travel show, and so we were all over France and Italy and I got pretty immersed. [I thought] if I learned about wine, I can impress this girl’s father. I ended up marrying this woman. She’s the producer and co-writer on this film. Her name is Christina. Then, I started making Somm by accident. I was trying to make a different film following those guys, and it has been just off to the races since then.
You started out making a different movie this time too. Can you walk me through what you intended to do and how it made this pivot?
I’m fairly obsessed with history. I love it. I was putting together a project that had to do with the history of religion and wine. I [got] permission to film in the Vatican Secret Archive. We filmed in the Dominican Republic, Chile, all over South America, Portugal, Burgundy. We closed airspace over Mount Vesuvius and filmed in Pompeii. We did insane things in this movie. It’s like the most beautiful thing. It’s supposed to be the Planet Earth of wine.
While we were in Armenia, which was supposed to just be the beginning of this film, we got caught in a war. A lot of things happened with this film where we had to focus it and narrow it down into this father-daughter story. That’s essentially is what I think it is, but it’s also a geopolitical story of a country rising from the ashes and trying to reclaim the past. I think [deciding to change the scope] comes from a bit of maturity, knowing you should follow the river instead of trying to build a dam. This was by far my most personal project I’ve ever done.
How did you find Vahe and Aimee Kushguerian?
Someone who was helping us said to me, “You need to meet this guy Vahe. He might turn out to be the Robert Mondavi of this whole country.” We had lunch with him, and I think we drank seven bottles of wine. This guy is fascinating. I looked at my cinematographer, and he goes, “Don’t even say it. I know you’re changing the whole movie.” So, we did. I met Vahe with no pre-production. I’d never spoken to him until I got on the ground to film in Armenia, and I turned the whole thing toward him and his daughter. I think Aimee’s the most fascinating character in the movie, honestly.
How did the trip to Iran to harvest grapes happen?
In the middle of an interview, Vahe asked me, “Do you know you’re right by the Iranian border?” It blew my mind. For thousands and thousands of years, that was the center of the grape growing world. In 1978, the French were putting hundreds of millions of dollars into wineries in Iran. I mean, there were 500 wineries there. [Alcohol was banned in Iran in 1979 following the revolution.] So, I asked him, “What happened to all the grapes?” He said, “I don’t know. I’d love to find out.”
Later, when the war ended badly for Armenia, he called me up and he said, “I need something beautiful in my life. What if we were to do what we talked about and go into Iran?” Armenians can travel into Iran as tourists. It’s the only country that can do that. I told him, “You have to go in. We have to find this out, and all you’re doing is getting fruit.”
It was sort of him and I egging each other on. Vahe masterfully pulled connections so quickly. We were able to find an amateur camera crew in Tehran. I was able to remote direct via WhatsApp video. It was a very odd process. We did tons of planning, tons of storyboarding. In a lot of cases, Vahe had to go off on his own and there’d be no reception. We were doing check-ins every single day, and I was so nervous. I was so afraid for him. I still kind of am.
Did the local crew think they were making something else?
Yes. We just didn’t tell them everything. Obviously, they’re not in the credits, and we blurred faces. I don’t want some farmer to get in trouble because of us. We basically said, “We are making a travel show, and this is going to focus on the history of fruit.”
It was in this period during COVID where there wasn’t much happening in the country. For whoever the board was that permits filming, it was kind of like who cares about this little thing? So, they were able to get drone permits. We were able to get this stuff because we didn’t make a big deal out of it. It was a very lucky happenstance type of situation. I think if COVID wasn’t happening there is no chance we would’ve been able to do this.
What were you most concerned about?
Without a question Vahe, and also for Aimee. The concern that you see on her face during this film is real. I think she was realizing, in real time, what are going to be the repercussions of this? The grapes were not fermented in Iran, but the Iranian government does not want to be duped. That is a very dangerous thing to be caught doing. So, my biggest concern was getting Vahe back to Armenia safely, which was a challenge. It was very nerve-wracking. I don’t think I slept at all for about six or seven days while this whole process was going on.
He flew out of Tehran into Moscow, and that was another big concern. He holds several different passports. He’s technically born in Syria and then ended up in Lebanon, but it doesn’t look good when you have four passports and arrive in Moscow. He had all the memory cards with him, the only footage that existed from what we did. They detained him and they searched it, and it was a whole thing. Of course, what did they see? Grapes and harvest and farming, and it didn’t look like anything to them. He was able to get it all out of the country. It was harrowing, to say the least. It was like every single time we thought, okay, we’re in the clear, something else would happen.
At what point did you stop feeling like should we have done this?
I’ll let you know when that happens.
What happened from that point on?
The problem with wine documentaries is you have to wait a year and a half, or more sometimes, for the wine to go to bottle. That was a long, long, long wait for that cut. In the waiting process, it was basically sitting with a secret. There were a lot of moments where I felt that we made a bad decision doing this. When that young woman was killed in Iran and all the protests happened, which happened to be the region where we filmed. It was a very scary situation because I didn’t want people to be in danger because of what we did. I remember speaking with a lot of people on our team going, is this the right decision? Should we have done this? I had to sit with that for a year and a half, almost two, because of the process of making a film about something that takes so long to finish.
I want this to be a film that does something good. It’s this kind of geopolitical stunt, but in reality it’s allowing a culture to re-experience something that was part of them for so many years. It’s not the alcohol that people miss with the wine. For all the Iranians that live in the United States and Canada and Europe who can’t go back, my hope is that this film gives them a glimmer of hope or at least makes them realize that that culture is not gone. There’s this line at the end of the film. Moe Momtazi, a Persian [winemaker] who tastes it with his daughter and gets emotional, says, “Water separates people, but wine brings them together.” The more I think about that line, it’s this very fascinating thing that’s very true.
How would you describe this film to people who aren’t necessarily interested in wine?
It’s funny. I am going to steal something from somebody. There’s a friend of mine here in L.A. He’s a writer and he was one of the first people I sent it to. He said, “The first Somm movie is not a wine film, it’s a sports film. And this is not a wine film, this is a geopolitical thriller.” It stuck with me when he said that, and I would say he’s right. Obviously, there’s a big historical element, but a lot of that is set up for what’s to come. So, it is definitely a film that is about geopolitics, but from an angle that I have never seen done.
It also is a film that sort of unfolds in real time, which is an uncommon thing. Before I would say it’s a wine film, I would say this is a geopolitical thriller about the Middle East and a region that’s been at war for a very long time and is centered around wine. That’s the best answer I can give you. Now that I’ve watched it a billion times, to me it’s a father-daughter story.
The other documentary that you initially started, where are you in production on that one?
It’s called Life of Wine. We’re in post. We’re editing it right now and we’re doing something crazy with music in it. I’ve never seen something like this done. It should be ready to go in the end of March, beginning of April, maybe sooner.
Last question: Did it work? Does your father-in-law like you?
He does, yes. Oftentimes much more than my wife. He is one of my favorite humans on the planet, and we drink wine probably too often together. Yeah, it did work.