“Foreign invaders have always sought to conquer this land,” reads an epigraph at the beginning of Emily Railsback’s documentary “Our Blood Is Wine.” “They would first cut down the vineyards and prohibit song.” That tension between tradition and disruption has been a historical constant for the Republic of Georgia, most recently in its 70-year period under Soviet rule, before the country regained its independence in 1991. With iPhone in hand, Railsback and Jeremy Quinn, a Chicago sommelier, explore the 8,000-year-old roots of Georgian winemaking and celebrate its resilience under a host of outside threats. Oenophiles may swoon over the delicious native varietals that tease Quinn’s palate, but Railsback’s thin and disorganized documentary doesn’t go down so smoothly. Music Box Films is looking to satisfy the insatiable food-and-wine doc niche, but other samplers may lurch for the spittoon.
The doc begins with what Quinn jokes is a child’s question: Where does wine come from? The answer takes him and Railsback to Georgia, where the winemaking process is so old that an archeologist points to Neolithic ceramics from 6,000 B.C. For all the upheaval that’s taken place throughout the country’s history, the one constant is the “qvevri,” a giant clay pot that’s used for fermentation. With a small base and a wide middle, these massive hand-crafted creations take five to seven days to finish in the kiln, which is likened here to the amount of time it took God to make the Earth. The qvevris are then buried in a cellar for the six months between harvest and the spring, and the results can be ladled straight into the glass, with bright, clean flavors that are rendered more gold than white.
The pride Georgian winemakers have in their work is as evident as the radiant quality of the product itself, and other ancient traditions are carried over, too, like the prayer rituals that accompany the qvevri’s burial or the songs that are passed along from one generation to the next. But the documentary is careful to note that only 1% of the wine that comes out of Georgia is produced through qvevris and that its bottled exports are much more uniform in nature, with a “rich and inky” taste that’s far from the light-bodied and acidic wines that Quinn and Railsback emphasize here. The simple reason is that qvevri wines — and the wild vineyards that produce their grapes — are not suited for mass production. The more complicated and related reason is that the Soviet Union seized control of the land and brought the vineyards in line with the more familiar forms of global winemaking, with neat rows of vines that can be harvested entirely by machines.
Railsback and Quinn tour through various regions, sampling varietals while getting up-close-and-personal with the winemakers still committed to this way of life. But the doc lacks a strong point of view: Quinn’s experience as a sommelier should make him a natural tour guide, but he often hovers around the edges of the frame, graciously affirming the value of these wines but rarely asserting himself more forcefully. Though Railsback will occasionally raise her voice off camera, she doesn’t approach the subject with the rhetorical fire of a film like Jonathan Nossiter’s “Mondovino,” which used similar concerns about mass-scale winemaking as a platform to rail against cultural homogeneity. On matters of wine and culture, she is more appreciator than provocateur.
That approach would work better if “Our Blood Is Wine” delivered on the intimacy it promises. Using an iPhone instead of a digital camera gives Railsback the opportunity to engage with her subjects’ lives as unobtrusively as possible, and she knows enough of the language to develop a rapport with them. Yet her documentary isn’t rigorous enough to be considered observational; it’s more of a patchwork of history, interviews, vineyard tours and glimpses into longstanding techniques and rituals. If the film’s identity were only a fraction as strong as qvevri winemakers, it might have been more compelling.