Wakefield Doc Fest: David Eng produces ‘vintage’ film about Quebecer in Burgundy

Pascal Marchand pours a glass of his wine in a scene from Grand Cru by David Eng.

In advance of his appearance at the Wakefield Doc Festival on Friday and Saturday, director David Eng talks to ARTSFILE about his first feature film, Grand Cru (2017), about the life and philosophy of legendary wine-maker Pascal Marchand, who left Quebec as a 22 year old and has become leading voice in the French terroir of Burgundy. Marchand is also expected to be in Wakefield. This is an edited version of that email conversation. For more information on the screening and the festival itself please see wakefielddocfest.ca.

Q. Please tell me about your background in film?

A. My background is actually originally in music, and I resuscitated those skills for this film to contribute the piano-playing for the score (my niece, nephew and his wife also performed in our ensemble). A while back I started doing some composing for film and television which gradually led to an increasing interest in all aspects of filmmaking. I’m basically self-taught – devouring as many how-to books as I could, working on sets in all departments, writing film reviews for various publications and sites, and making my own short films. In 2013, I completed the interactive web documentary Burgundy Jazz (burgundyjazz.ca) about the history of jazz in Montreal from the perspective of the black community in the Little Burgundy neighbourhood. And from Little Burgundy, I made the jump to Burgundy, France for my first documentary feature.

Q. When you approach a documentary project, what catches your eye? 

A. I like to consider all the aspects that could have visual interest and dramatic energy, and then consider how it might all weave together. It’s important that a documentary be a real visual and emotional experience, not simply a series of talking heads. I like human interest stories where there is a sense of a journey. I’m also drawn to the arts, and concerns such as politics or the environment.

Q. What came first an interest in wine, or in Pascal Marchand?

A. I’ve been a wine enthusiast since the 1990s when I began traveling to Europe. I admired the joie de vivre, how people really appreciated the good things in life and how much of that was through good food and good wine. I realized I knew nothing about it and just wanted to learn enough to order something with dinner. But as I learned more and more, I became fascinated by the vastness and beauty of that world.

David Eng on location in Burgundy.

Q. Why did you think a film about wine and Burgundy would work?

A. I’ve wanted to do a documentary about wine for a long while now. And although there are many wine documentaries already, including some really excellent ones, I still felt there was room for something new – something that could appeal to the expert and those who knew nothing about wine. I also wanted to reflect the beauty, the majesty of the vineyards and the wines. I wanted to show how much work goes into making a great, artisanal bottle of wine. And I wanted to inspire people to drink more interesting wines, and not always fall back on the inexpensive standbys that can be the wine equivalent of fast food.

I decided the way to do that would be to approach the subject from the perspective of the winemaker. I was delighted to discover that one of the world’s great vignerons, Pascal Marchand, is Canadian. The more I researched him, the more I realized that he was an ideal subject for a wine film. 

Q. The film is a loving treatment of the art of wine-making? Why?

A. It bothered me that a few years ago, there were a few videos and articles in circulation accusing the wine world of being fraudulent that were themselves fraudulent. … People can be tricked and some people think a black and blue dress looks white and gold, but that doesn’t mean all perception is useless. And I get why people think it’s a snobby activity for the wealthy but it isn’t necessarily (that), not any more than good food. There is a hedonistic yet selfless beauty about (enjoying wine) – one of the greatest joys is sharing wine with friends. Likewise, I want to share my passion for wine with others through this film, whether or not they’ll ever be able to drink the greatest, rarest bottles. It’s enough to be open to trying something new.

Q. How did you happen on Pascal Marchand?

A. It turns out that I likely met Pascal around 20 years ago when I began my interest in wine. I attended a wine tasting of Burgundies in Toronto that was hosted by British wine critic Clive Coates. I recently told Pascal about that and he said that he was there at that tasting and touring with Coates. But at that time, I was too clueless to appreciate his importance and more interested in getting Coates to sign his new book.

When I began researching possible subjects for a wine documentary, I consulted with some SAQ staff. One threw out a few names including Pascal’s and mentioned that he was a Montrealer who regularly came back to visit. I’d known about him but hadn’t realized he was local. This immediately piqued my interest, so I read up on him and felt more and more convinced that he was the right choice. I also noticed on his Facebook profile that we had a mutual friend, Isaac Delaney of the wine agency Delaney Vins & Spiritueux. Isaac happened to represent his wines and said he used to babysit his kids. So he happily passed along Pascal’s contact info.

I called and emailed Pascal and found him receptive, charming, easygoing and quite willing to pursue this project together. He is extremely likeable and generous, and we immediately got along very well. I came to understand how this is one reason why an outsider like him was able to succeed in Burgundy where they are known to be wary of outsiders. Even though he’s actually an introvert, he’s a great people-person to whom you can’t help but take a liking.

He has been lucky, as have I in being given the opportunity to make this film. You have to be good to be lucky, as they say. So when we do our best, we can make bad luck situations better and good luck situations great. He could’ve easily failed when he had the good luck of being hired at Clos des Epeneaux at age 22, or when he had a frightful vintage as in 2016. But his persistence and determination have paid off.

Q. You caught him in a very significant year? Was that just happenstance? 

A. There was no way to know how the year would unfold because weather is so unpredictable. But we did know that the climate was gradually getting hotter, with 2016 being the hottest year on record for the third year in a row, and that this was leading to more extreme weather.  We knew that the previous year had had some issues with a heatwave and the several years in a row before that had had problems with hail. I felt that we’d have an interesting documentary no matter what, that even if it was a problem-free year, we’d still be able to show the work and creative decisions that go into their process.

When things started going screwy for them, we had to adjust our approach slightly to make sure we’d be able to make sense of it all in the editing room. We questioned everyone about the various issues and filmed the effects across the region. We had to roll with the punches just as much as Pascal and his team did. We did feel a bit guilty that their suffering was adding some nice drama to our film, but had to cross our fingers that it wouldn’t be a complete disaster that would make it a downer for everyone.

Q. Marchand’s personal philosophy of wine-making is very much defined by biodynamics, organic farming practice and by his awareness of ancient practice handed down by the monks. You observed all of that what’s your take?

A. Pascal has a deep spiritual connection to the region and to the soil itself. I was quite touched to be able to witness all of that. An agent from Burgundy told me that Pascal is more Burgundian than the Burgundians because even though he’s an outsider, he has such immense knowledge and respect for ancient wisdom and traditions. He and his peers were Burgundy’s biodynamic pioneers in the 1980s, but now it’s becoming increasingly accepted by the top wineries. not only in Burgundy and France, but around the world. It may seem ‘New Agey’ and flaky, but it produces results, and conscientious winemakers are embracing it.

From a business perspective, it’s an expensive way to do things and larger industrial wineries won’t bother with it. … But top wineries like top restaurants are smaller operations that might seem overpriced but have a lot of people giving a lot of TLC to their products. Their concern is quality over quantity.

I expected that the work would be fascinating and intense. But it impressed me how Pascal and his team would consider all aspects of their decision making on an ongoing basis. They would consult the biodynamic calendar but also weather reports; use biodynamics but also regular lab testing; and they’d constantly taste everything to keep track – grapes on the vine or sorting table, wine in the vat or barrel, and bottled wine for clients and customers. I came to understand that no matter how much money is involved, Pascal, like the others, is a farmer. And yet he’s also an artist, scientist, historian, businessman, and so much more. His connections to the region are very deep.  

For me and my wife, producer Katarina Soukup, their wine proved to be indeed a magical elixir. We had been trying for years to have kids but we had given up. So when we went to Burgundy in 2015 to do our research and development, we just enjoyed ourselves and drank a whole lot – you know, research. On returning to Montreal, Katarina didn’t feel well but I assumed it was just jet lag. Sure enough, she was pregnant. And now we have a beautiful two-year-old daughter.

Q. What’s next for you?

I have a few possibilities that are in early development, so I can’t say much about those yet. But if Grand Cru does well, I’d love to do another wine project. Fingers crossed.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.