Those with an urgent voice in the back of their minds urging them to follow their dreams, especially a dream having something to do with wine, will find renewed vigor through the viewing of “American Wine Story,” a documentary about those who have had such dreams and followed them, by hook or by crook.
Screened in June at the Mendocino Wine Festival, the story opens with melancholy flashbacks of a gregariously charismatic hulk of a man named Jimi Brooks, the founder of Brooks Winery in Amity, Ore .
Through interviews with friends and family, most poignantly his now college-age son, Pascal, the picture is drawn of a live-for-the-moment personality who fell in love with wine, old-vine riesling in particular, and who found his eventual calling in the wilds of Oregon to grow and make riesling under his own name.
That alone makes for a great story about the American penchant for entrepreneurship and passion.
But what gives the film lasting resonance is the eventual sad revelation that Brooks died at age 38 of a sudden heart attack when his son was only 8 years old. It then details the travails of his younger sister, sewn from much more conservative and sensible cloth, who steps in to save the winery, growing it for Pascal to one day take over, should he so choose.
With the underlying message that life is short so make it count, the documentary interweaves interviews and stories from a wealth of winemakers all over the world, who without the threat of death nonetheless give up comfort and security to make wine.
“Don’t listen to other people,” says Mike Officer of Carlisle Winery in Santa Rosa during the film, about becoming a winemaker. “Follow your heart and do it and just keep at it. I’m fortunate to do what I love every day.”
Officer and his wife, Kendall, offer their insights throughout “American Wine Story,” about giving up jobs, taking on debt, cashing in 401(k)s, maxing out credit cards, forgoing sleep and risking all semblance of security to own their own winery.
Officer was a successful software developer who chronicles his professional crisis, when he looked up from his computer screen and realized one day he might be 65 years old still staring at it if he didn’t take a stand.
“I became a home winemaker and figured I needed to make more wine,” he recalled. “It was time to fish or cut bait. But making that step from a comfortable, well-paying job to doing something on your own was frightening.”
“We made it work,” Kendall recalls about the early days. “Mike never got tired of making wine; I couldn’t help but support that passion.”
The movie is written, directed and narrated by filmmaker and home winemaker David Baker of Oregon-based Three Crows Productions. It’s his directorial debut and he waxes lyrically about how “opening a bottle of wine is a magical act,” representing a year’s worth of weather and a century or more of geology.
“This project has its roots in curiosity,” said Baker. “After hundreds of visits to wineries and a few stints in vineyards, I was starting to understand that people who live by the seasons are amazing storytellers.”
He assembled a team of filmmakers and hit the road over four years, traveling though four winemaking states and conducting 70 interviews before finding the heart of the movie’s story in Brooks Winery.
“Behind the bottle, there’s often the tale of the other life,” Baker added. “The career left behind. So many people in the business, especially in newer and emerging wine regions, came from somewhere else before discovering wine, and that became the common thread of our story.”
At the beginning, Baker speaks to a range of people in the wine industry about their “epiphany” wine, a common subject around oenophiles who love to think back to that one bottle that prompted an interest in and love of wine.
Jay Selman of Grape Radio recalls his as a 1991 Flora Springs Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Former NFL quarterback Drew Bledsoe, today a vintner in Walla Walla, Wash., remembers his as a Napa cabernet from Viader Vineyards. For Kendall Officer, it was a 1979 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon.
Selman goes on to say that once one falls in love with wine, there’s no turning back.
“It’s the American pioneering spirit,” he said. “Once you get bitten by the bug, you have to do it. But you risk everything, risk being on the street, risk failing.”
Those bitten include Alan Baker and Serena Lourie of Cartograph Wines in Healdsburg. At age 41, Baker not only quit his successful job in radio, but also left his home state of Minnesota, assorted friends and family to come west for a life in grapes.
“Wine is about dreams,” Baker said, “about the unknowable future.”
“American Wine Story” will screen next at Healdsburg’s Raven Theater on Sept. 13. For more information and future screening dates, visit americanwinestory.vhx.tv.
Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @vboone.