Filmmaker Emily Railsback lets her subject breathe.
Everyone of a certain age has an opinion on wine, even if that opinion is “I don’t see the appeal.” But for many people who do see the appeal, especially the committed connoisseurs and especially those who make their livelihoods as growers and producers, wine is not just a beverage but a way of life. If you’re more plebeian in matters of wine, Georgia is probably not one of the first countries that comes to mind when thinking of wine culture, but after seeing the documentary Our Blood is Wine, that will certainly change.
There are scenes in the film, and some of these are among its strongest moments, that just follow Georgian winemakers or potters making the large, earthenware vessels crucial for the fermentation and storage of traditional Georgian wine known as qvevri as they go about their business. There is a luxurious quality to the languid pacing of the film that actually suits it quite well. Whether or not you buy into the concept of letting wine “breathe,” filmmaker Emily Railsback takes a comparable approach to Georgian wine as a subject matter, and it generally pays off.
American sommelier Jeremy Quinn’s quest into the history of wine gives the documentary the slightest hint of a framework, but he, too, ultimately favors a spacious, restrained approach, generally letting the Georgian winemakers narrate the practices and their thousands of years of history themselves, which is very much for the best.
The official summary from Music Box Films highlights Railsback’s use of “unobtrusive iPhone technology,” and indeed, “unobtrusive” is an apt word with which to sum up the style of Our Blood Is Wine. In addition to letting the winemakers describe their processes and the traditions passed down by their ancestors, large swathes of the film are far heavier on showing than they are on telling, relying on viewers being sufficiently entranced with the images on screen to not require a constant flow of information. This works at least some of the time, and when it doesn’t, it’s not really a fault of the pace being too slow so much as the film lacking a sense of direction, often touching on one point briefly, moving to something else, and then later returning to the previous point, making the film’s structure overly convoluted and the content unnecessarily repetitive.
Ironically, for a documentary with a decidedly leisurely pace, there is a certain way in which Our Blood is Wine moves too fast, often barely introducing a family of winemakers before jumping to another one. Time and time again the film returns to similar shots of people picking grapes and crushing grapes and bottling wine and tasting wine — only the specific people and grapes and wine are always changing. And while the end product is, of course, important, there are several occasions throughout the film where it would have been nice to get to know the people involved in making it a little bit better.
The documentary is both densely populated and loosely structured, with personal accounts from numerous winemakers interspersed with the occasional historical detour or aside. “Giorgi began construction on his terrace project,” an intertitle informs at one point, inspiring me to take a minute to try to remember who and what Giorgi and his terrace were, only to realize that the film had proceeded to move on in the meantime to another familiar face whose name I could not remember. A viewer singularly skilled with names and faces might be able to follow along, but for the rest of us the only real options are to struggle against the current or just go along with it, taking the stream of scenes and interludes at face value without trying to unknot the tangled connecting threads woven between them.
Our Blood is Wine is a documentary with far more on its mind than fermented grape juice, though it sometimes seems at a loss for what to say and when to say it. In spite of its total lack of narrative organization, the film is worthwhile viewing for lovers of wine—and, indeed, history—for its mesmerizing depictions of ancient winemaking traditions that are so nearly lost to time.