It’s no secret that wine is a beverage full of complexities and mystery. From the boldest, most tannic reds to the silkiest, sweetest whites, there are dozens of grape varietals from every corner of the globe to satisfy even the pickiest of palates.
In the film Uncorked, out on Netflix Friday, Mamoudou Athie (The Get Down, Sorry for Your Loss) plays Elijah, a young man from Memphis, Tennessee with aspirations of becoming a Master Sommelier. In the midst of pursuing the most prestigious honor earned by any wine professional, his father (Courtney B. Vance) is insistent upon him taking over the family barbecue business.
Directed by Insecure showrunner Prentice Penny, the film opens with a striking yet beautiful comparison between the worlds of barbecue–his father’s passion–and wine, illustrating that they both require time, incredible skill and extreme patience to produce a delicious final product.
It’s hard to ignore, however, how the wine industry completely lacks diversity. In Uncorked that fact is put on display as Elijah walks around a wine event alone, the only dark spot in a welcoming White room. Athie says in his own life, he knew little about the people behind the wine bottles on the store shelves.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t know much about wine, so I couldn’t assume that much about the industry,” Athie tells ESSENCE of its lack of diversity. “I like wine in a very casual sense. But when I would go into a wine store, prior to filming this movie, I would feel like a fish out of water.”
To help provide insight and expertise, Athie worked closely with sommelier DLynn Proctor and Ryan Radish, a wine director and head of Memphis restaurant group, Enjoy a Restaurant, to quickly learn everything from how to properly hold a wine glass, to being able to speak to a wine’s distinct characteristics.
“I knew I wasn’t going to get all of this information in my head within a month,” Athie says, “but I needed to understand how it’s possible for someone to be able to look, sniff and taste wine, and tell you exactly where it’s from, the year it was made, and what kind of grape varietal it is.”
Uncorked follows Elijah as he travels to Paris for a cultural exchange program to better prepare for the Master Sommelier exam, which is no joke. If you’ve ever studied for the Bar Exam to become a lawyer or the MCAT to enter the medical field, imagine that process on steroids as it features four exams over the course of three days. His opportunity in the City of Lights, at times, weighs on Elijah mentally and emotionally. From running low on cash and being a native English speaker to picking up a job while attending wine school, he feels the pressure on all sides.
Tanisha Townsend, who is a well-decorated wine expert and educator based in Paris, remembers feeling very similar to Athie’s character upon her arrival almost five years ago. She began her wine career during her graduate studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and it’s taken her all over the world.
“The main challenge for me was not being able to speak French when I first arrived. I wasn’t confident going to certain places and events, but I didn’t let that stop me,” Townsend tells ESSENCE. “I still showed up and kept showing up. I kept asking questions and having conversations with my broken French, and people started to notice me and engage.”
While it’s Elijah’s ultimate goal to become a Master Somm, Athie says Uncorked‘s main takeaway has nothing to do with wine. It’s about really committing to your goals and following through.
“There’s always going to be something that causes a minor setback or detour,” he says. “I know it sounds cliché, but always give yourself a fair chance when reaching for your dreams.”
Chasity Cooper is a Chicago-based communications specialist and wine writer. When she isn’t enjoying a glass of cabernet sauvignon, she’s creating content for her blog, #WineWithChas. You can subscribe to her weekly newsletter here.