A poignant story just begging to be remade, in which a world-famous sommelier must reconnect with the grape after losing his sense of smell, “The Ways of Wine” is presented in peculiar mock-doc style. Argentine director Nicolas Carreras collaborated with real-life subject Charlie Arturaola on the broad outline, then followed him through a hands-on tour of Mendoza vineyards, where actual vintners play themselves as the character tries every strategy imaginable to awaken his uncooperative palate. While oenophiles could make “Way” an arthouse sleeper in its current form, a scripted version with real stars would draw far broader appeal.
In the current reality-TV environment, auds are so accustomed to having their non-fiction footage manipulated that some may even take “The Way of Wine” at face value, which could excuse some of the more ragged aspects of the production. For example, a high-energy prologue introduces Uruguayan-born Arturaola as one of the world’s leading sommeliers, showing a flashy but semi-suspect montage of the lovable cad living it up on the wine competition circuit.
In the wine world, Arturaola’s a star, arranging elaborate tasting events around the globe. While in Mendoza, he starts to notice something amiss: Arturaola’s nose is acting up, though he’s conversant enough in the wine critic’s vocabulary that he’s able to bluff his way around for a while. Eventually, he’s forced to cancel his high-society engagements, turning to trusted wine experts for advice.
Of all the suggestions he receives, Arturaola seizes on the most far-fetched: If only he can find the region’s best wine, it will get him past his stress-induced psychological block. As Arturaola begins meeting with the region’s top growers, demanding to taste their best wines, it quickly becomes clear that his profession is awfully far-removed from the craft in which he considers himself an expert. He may have nice words for the end result, but he’s completely cut off from the art form himself, and so he agrees to get his hands dirty by helping with the harvest.
Although amiable enough, Arturaola isn’t much of an actor — as demonstrated in one particularly wooden encounter, when a vineyard president catches him sampling a 75-year-old bottle. Editing and a lively tango-tinged score help supply much of the emotion lacking in his performance, but the pic’s virtual-verite style works against the techniques foodie movies use to evoke life’s sensory pleasures.
Two-camera setups and too-good-to-be-true developments — including the genuinely affecting finale, in which Artuaola reconnects with his estranged Uruguayan family — belie the project’s fictional roots, but don’t make the pic’s cumulative emotional impact any less powerful. Much of the project’s purpose is philosophical in nature anyway, revealing the complaints a genuine oenophile has toward the industry: The fact that the underlying art form has been co-opted by commerce (wife Pandora Anwyl scolds him via Skype for puttering around when she needs his help identifying local brands for import) underscores how far the character has drifted from the once-pure reasons that launched his love affair with wine. Helmer Carreras aims to bring auds back to that same place with his film.