The wine movie is not exactly known for a bouquet of tasting notes. From "Wine Country" to "Bottle Shock," they are usually light, amiable movies that amble through sunny fields of vines. "Sideways," of course, is the choice vintage, but most come and go about as quickly and breezily as a bottle of pinot.
"Uncorked," the directorial debut of veteran TV writer Prentice Penny, also has a relaxed vibe but it brings some new elements to the table. For starters, it's not about white people. That alone makes "Uncorked," which debuts Friday (3/27) on Netflix, a rare varietal. Mamoudou Athie stars as Elijah, a young black man in Memphis who doesn't want to take over his father's barbecue restaurant. He wants to be a sommelier.
This is far from an expected career path. When Elijah announces his intentions at dinner, one family member hears "Somalia" and wonders why he wants to get involved with pirates. But his ambition is earnest, even if his father, Louis (Courtney B. Vance), is skeptical.
Elijah's passion attracts others. For a young woman (Sasha Compere) shopping for a bottle, he supplies a hip-hop analogy, comparing chardonnay to Jay-Z, pinot grigio to Kanye West and riesling to Drake. (It remains unclear where Ol' Dirty Bastard would fit on this spectrum.) They begin dating just as Elijah starts prepping for the master sommelier test (which, in reality, is so impossibly hard that virtually no one passes) with a study group of new friends.
Elijah stands out in this world but "Uncorked" doesn't overemphasize it. Instead of going for a broad fish-out-of-water tale, Penny grounds the movie on the relationship between Elijah and his father. The actors help considerably. Both veteran Vance and Athie, a talented newcomer, imbue the film with a vivid emotional honesty. And the family scenes are warmly intimate, including those between Louis and his wife, Sylvia (Niecy Nash).
Penny, the showrunner for the exceptional HBO series "Insecure," has — true to the genre — penned an easy-pouring tale that won't overwhelm anyone by its dramatics. But the pleasures of "Uncorked" are in how it gently eludes stereotype and brings a rich sense of texture to even its smaller moments.
There are other movies about the finest pours — like Ken Loach's "The Angel's Share," about poor young Scots and high-priced whisky — that revolve around the high and low of taste. "Uncorked" goes a different direction, taking time to savor not just its cabernets but its Memphis barbecue. There's little difference between the craft of the wine in "Uncorked" and the art with which Louis, who's seen shopping for just the right wood for his smoker, fires his meats.
All of which is to say, in these quarantined times, be sure you have a decent bottle left in the cupboard or a good rack of ribs in the freezer before pressing play on "Uncorked."
"Uncorked," a Netflix release, is not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 104 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.