War-Torn Wine, 'Worst' Champagne Harvest: Two Gripping New Wine Documentaries Debut

Wine and War and Wine Crush (Vas-y Coupe!), out this week, feature a harrowing journey into Lebanon's winemaking amid civil war, and the travails of a cult Champagne grower

War-Torn Wine, 'Worst' Champagne Harvest: Two Gripping New Wine Documentaries Debut
Footage from Wine and War shows agricultural properties in Lebanon in the line of fire from shelling. (Courtesy of Wine and War LLC)
Oct 8, 2020

“What do you know about wine?” Serge Hochar, the legendary dean of Lebanese wine at Chateau Musar, asked filmmaker Mark Johnston in 2013. "Nothing," Johnston confessed.

Johnston didn't know much about Lebanon either, for that matter, when he arrived in the war-torn country that year to shoot a documentary with fellow filmmaker Mark Ryan. But on that day in the Musar offices, Hochar, who died in 2014, asked his winemaker to fetch a half-bottle of Musar 2003 and two glasses. Johnston told us his passion for wine was born at that moment.

"He took me deep into the earth, the sea, the mountains, the sky, and turned me into my surroundings, and coming out of all this I discovered the power of wine and the mind," Johnston recalled. The film would become an eight-year endeavor.

Bombing in Lebanon
A farm in Lebanon is bombed in footage from "Wine and War." (Courtesy of Wine and War LLC)

Johnston and Ryan's new documentary, Wine and War, was inspired by author Michael Karam's 2005 book Wines of Lebanon, and dives into one of the world's oldest and most dangerous wine regions. Over the course of eight vintages, Johnston and Ryan interviewed winemakers such as Chateau Kefraya's Yves Morard, Hochar and even vintner-priests to learn about the realities of making wine during the civil war of the 1970s and '80s and decades of ensuing conflict.

There were real risks to making such a film, especially during the filmmakers' longest stretch in 2017. Nearby shelling in Damascus and ISIS battles just miles away kept them, and the whole Lebanese crew, on their toes. There were language barriers, car breakdowns, kilometers of red tape: To film by drone in the city of Baalbek required permissions from the Ministry of Antiquity, the local police, the military police and Hezbollah, said Johnston.

"The team had to navigate a maze of government bureaucracy that is unparalleled in the world, laced with corruption, inefficiencies and antiquated policies," Philippe Massoud, the film's executive producer and owner of New York's ilili restaurant told Unfiltered via email. "Frankly, I am sure the entire team grew some white hairs just doing that."

"Vines are part of an annual cycle, and when grapes need to be picked they wait for no one, not even bombs or bullets," the author, Karam, said to Unfiltered via email. "That's what makes wine so fascinating and the winemakers modern-day war heroes."

The film will be released Oct. 9 via the Coppola family’s new distribution platform, Altavod, as well as on Laemmle Theatres' new virtual platform. For every $12 "ticket" sold through the film's website, 100 percent of proceeds will go to Cap-Ho, a charity providing medical care to children without insurance at the St. George Hospital in Beirut, which was devastated in the city's explosions in August.

Grower Champagne Maverick Anselme Selosse Faces Off with Mother Nature in 'Wine Crush (Vas-y Coup!)'

Workers smoking in the vineyard
Smoke break in the vineyards: It turns out it takes a lot of nicotine and beer to make great Champagne. (Laura Naylor)

Second-generation vigneron Anselme Selosse and his team of beer drinkers and hell-raisers make some of the world's most coveted grower Champagnes at the Jacques Selosse house, and Brooklyn-based filmmaker Laura Naylor wanted to find out how. Her resulting documentary, Wine Crush (Vas-y Coup!), is also out for virtual viewing this week.

Naylor was sipping wine at a Paris bar in 2015 when the film idea came to her. The sommelier told her about a particular Champagne producer and his particular way of harvesting grapes: Selosse prefers to harvest at the very tail end of the Champagne appellation's allowed period. Naylor decided to see for herself and was hired by the Selosse family to pick grapes during the 2016 harvest. She worked 10 hours a day and got to enjoy the house Champagne with other workers during lunch.

"Each of my documentary films is very much about people and these small micro-stories, and this falls in line with that," Naylor said. "I could not have had the vision I had for this film if I hadn't had that experience myself and built those relationships."

Naylor returned the following year with a French film crew to start shooting the harvest. Rather than posing the participants for sit-down interviews, Naylor took a "hands off" approach to let the story unfold through workers' conversations in the vineyards and following Selosse during what he calls "the worst harvest of my career."

"I think the film is more interesting to see a famed winemaker have the worst harvest of their career," Naylor said. "There was tension, there was stress, and that, cinematically, is beneficial."

Naylor also chose to focus on the workers, who mostly come from an economically depressed region of France. She captures their home lives, rough-and-tumble habits (yes, they get to drink a limited number of beers while picking) and backbreaking work ethic in a struggling yet loyal community.

The film is available today, Oct. 8, on Apple TV and Amazon Prime Video.

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