Passion and Representation Take Center Stage in Netflix’s ‘Uncorked’

Uncorked wine film
Photo by Nina Robinson

Wine lovers who look to Netflix and chill while social distancing are in luck: the streaming service has a new movie just for them.

Uncorked, written and directed by Prentice Penny, premieres today and tells the story of a young man named Elijah (played by Mamoudou Athie) who aspires to become a master sommelier. Standing in his way, however, is the family business, a barbecue restaurant, started by his grandfather and now run by his father (Courtney B. Vance).

The film starts with the two men at odds, but hints at the similarities between the worlds of wine and barbecue as it follows the father and son’s journeys toward better understanding one another.

Alongside the dramatic story line, picturesque chateaus and geeky wine facts sprinkled throughout, what makes the movie particularly noteworthy is that it features a predominantly Black cast. In doing so, the film gives a new generation of prospective wine lovers the chance to see themselves reflected on screen.

“When you see someone who looks like you, engaging in something that you never thought was for you, it’s a game changer,” says sommelier and winemaker André Mack.

Representation is vital in altering consumer demographics and growing the wine industry, adds Mack. “When I first started, there weren’t really any Black wine professionals—spotting one was like seeing a unicorn. Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars quickly became a person that I gravitated to.”

Another long-standing member of the Black wine community, DLynn Proctor, was one of four sommeliers who appeared in Netflix’s 2012 documentary Somm. Proctor, an associate producer of Uncorked, also makes a cameo in the film as a wine instructor.

Father son barbecue
Elijah (played by Mamoudou Athie) and his father (Courtney B. Vance) explore their different passions in the film / Photo by Nina Robinson

“Low-key, not a lot of Black folks in my school,” Elijah, the protagonist of Uncorked, tells his cousin in one scene. Writer-director Penny didn’t intend to create a movie explicitly about race; in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Penny says he simply wanted to be true to the realities of the wine business.

Unfortunately, there are few published statistics about the racial demographics of the wine industry. In a 2019 Eater article, sommelier Victoria James shared her own research pertaining to the demographics of New York City’s fine dining restaurants. The results were staggering. Of the buyers at NYC’s 75 Michelin-starred restaurants with wine programs, 83% were male and 71% were white. Zero were Black.

“We are now aware of and have access to our Black peers in this community,” says Krista Scruggs of Zafa Wines, and Wine Enthusiast 40 Under 40 honoree. She didn’t see anyone who looked like her when she started out. Now, she says, there’s a vast community of Black wine professionals to highlight.

“People like Julia Coney, André Mack, Ashtin Berry, Cha McCoy, Janine Copeland, Brenae Royal, Femi Oyediran, Derrick Westbrook, Felicia Colbert, Bianca Sanon, and Robin and Andréa McBride. I list and say all these names because that’s what representation can do… I wasn’t able to list all those names when I first entered the industry ten years ago,” says Scruggs. “It doesn’t mean they weren’t there, it just means they weren’t seen.”

Fortunately, things are changing for the better. “There’s a lot more people of color, younger people, and women,” Mack says. “I’d like to believe all of that has brought this new approachability and swagger to wine.”

This concept is explored in Uncorked. In one scene, Elijah teaches a customer about grape varieties by likening them to rappers. Chardonnay is the Jay-Z of wine because it’s “versatile, smooth, and can kind of go with anything,” he says. Pinot Grigio is akin to Kanye West as it has a little bit of spice and is likely to surprise you. And Riesling is best represented by Drake for being “crisp, clean, [and] usually kind of sweet.”

It’s a powerful moment, demonstrating the size and breadth of wine’s potential. A new generation of wine professionals of all shades and stripes is working to make wine more inclusive and accessible, and this film aims to inspire the next crop.

“I think Uncorked will be a beautiful reminder that we are out there,” says Scruggs. She hopes it will “inspire Black folks that are aspiring, curious, and/or currently working their asses off in this industry…to keep on going.”

Mack agrees. “I’m super excited to see what the long tail brings.”

Published on March 27, 2020
Topics: Wine and Film