Everyone’s a critic. But Burgundy vigneron Jean-Marc Roulot is particularly emphatic about giving a thumbs down to most films set in wine country. “So many are just clichés,” he explains. “The work is wrong, the way people speak about wine is wrong, the way they taste is wrong.”
With Back to Burgundy, a new film by Cédric Klapisch, Roulot had the chance to make it right. Not only was he there as a supporting actor playing the part of winery manager, he’d also been tapped to serve as script consultant and technical advisor to the writer-director, another stickler for factually-based dramas.
As a vintner-actor, Roulot is the rarest of hyphenates. He makes some of the world’s most coveted white burgundy, following in his father’s footsteps at Domaine Roulot in Meursault, a township at the foot of Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. Some would call this part of east-central France nirvana, for Burgundy is the historical and spiritual epicenter of chardonnay and pinot noir. Ever since the monks first planted vineyards here in the Middle Ages, vintners have been hyperconscious of the differences that soil and microclimate make in these parts. Oenophiles will gladly spend lifetimes (and fortunes) dissecting those differences, which range from the bracing citric minerality of a crisp Chablis to the honeyed, hazelnut notes of an opulent Meursault.
Roulot’s father made his mark pioneering single-vineyard bottlings in various legendary appellations, showcasing the particularities of each vineyard. In so doing, he effectively forecast today’s Holy Grail: terroir, or the reflection of place — the particular soil, climate, and topography — in a bottle of wine.
Despite this family heritage, at age 22 Roulot left home to act. At that point, he’d worked alongside his father for two years, but says that he “had the impression that it was just work, and nothing where I could express myself.” Three years into his studies at the Paris conservatory, his father unexpectedly died. The prodigal son eventually returned. Roulot explains: “I told my mother and sister, ‘Okay, I’ll come back… but on one condition. I’m not stopping acting.’” In the 29 years since, he’s managed to juggle the two careers, accumulating credits as a character actor in film, television, and theater, all while crafting acclaimed Burgundies that fetch $250 and up.
It was an audition in 1991 when he first met Klapisch, a feature director known for his winsome, semi-improvisational comedies, most notably 2002’s breakout hit L’Auberge Espagnole (The Spanish Apartment). Roulot didn’t get the part, but the auteur was delighted to learn that Roulot made Burgundy. The filmmaker’s father was a true Burgundy hound and had often taken the family there on field trips. Klapisch paid Domaine Roulot a visit — and became a customer for life.
In 2010, the director thought he’d like to see a harvest up close. The photographs he shot during that Burgundy excursion inspired him to embark on a year-long project. Collaborating with local photographer Michel Baudoin, Klapisch singled out two cherry trees amidst the vines and for the next year photographed them every week, shooting both stills and HD clips. When Klapisch looked at the final result, he was sure there was a film there.
Those cherry trees helped inspire Back to Burgundy, the story of a vintner family that unfolds over the course of a year and reflects on the passage of time, both in the cycles of nature and across human generations, looking at what we inherit and what we pass on. (The French title is Ce qui nous lie, or What Binds Us.)
The story centers on three siblings who inherit the family winery after their father dies. Faced with a crippling inheritance tax, they must either sell some vineyard plots, the family manor, or the whole lot. Each sibling, of course, has their own opinion, and each carries a personal burden as well: Juliette (Ana Girardot), the enologist, faces mansplaining from all quarters, compounded by her own self-doubt. Black sheep Jean (Pio Marmai) left home in his twenties and wound up in Australia with a wife, son, and small vineyard of his own. Jérémie (François Civil) married into a prestigious winery and now must contend with a father-in-law who’s as domineering as he is successful — and eager to get his hands on the siblings’ most precious vineyard parcels.
Through these characters, the script, written by Klapisch and Santiago Amigorena, touches on various hot topics in the wine world, including the hurdles women winemakers continue to face, biodynamics, the cost of land, and the damage wrought by the inheritance tax. But it was thin; just 30 to 40 pages. “I think Cédric likes to work this way. He has a kind of synopsis, then builds slowly, slowly,” Roulot observes. Klapisch planned to shoot in sequence — another break with industry norms — fleshing out characters and scenarios as he went along.
Klapisch sought the winemaker’s advice both when writing and during the nitty-gritty of production. Roulot recalls heading off one disaster: Klapisch had written a scene where the father-in-law throws a lavish garden party to celebrate the purchase of a new vineyard. “I told him, ‘No, you’re crazy! You buy a new plot in Burgundy, you say nothing,” the winemaker remarks. “You go with two or three friends to a good restaurant to celebrate, but you don’t do a big party for the whole village.’” Roulot shakes his head. “If he were celebrating the fact that he bought a vineyard, the Burgundian people would not trust the movie. Land is so expensive and it’s difficult to buy, so there are a lot of secrets.” They changed the party to a celebration of the winemaker’s 30th vintage.
In addition to offering broad-strokes advice, Roulot sometimes dug into the dialogue. At one point Klapisch knew he wanted the siblings to fight. “Cédric asked me for a subject, and I told him they should fight about harvest date, which is a big decision for a wine producer,” Roulot says. Precisely when one picks is a major factor in determining style. Riper grapes contain more sugar, which results in more alcohol, more body, more opulence. Less ripe means higher acidity and a leaner, racier style. Roulot wrote the siblings’ grape debate as a moment of truth, when they have to ask themselves: What kind of wine do they want to make, now that they’re in charge?
Roulot’s hand can also be felt during a scene at the sorting table, when Juliette is trying to exert her authority as two men give advice. They’re discussing destemming the grapes, and Juliette wants to make a change. Her father used to destem a lot; she wants to do less, in order to increase the wine’s structure. “Destemming can be 10 percent or 100 percent,” Roulot explains. “It’s a big difference, going from whole bunch to destemmed. It’s one of the main decisions she takes during the harvest regarding her father’s habits.” Playing the winery manager, Roulot is one of the men vocalizing concerns. “I’m representing the old generation, so I tell her, ‘Your father would have done it this way,’” he says. “And she doesn’t care: ‘Stop the machine! I want whole bunch.’ There were two men around her, and she decides.” Voilà: a scene that’s authentic and contains character development.
Roulot’s rolodex came out whenever Klapisch needed other kinds of advice — say, on how a discussion about the inheritance tax might go. “I know everybody in Burgundy, so I was able to connect him with the right person,” says the winemaker. In this case, a notary weighed in.
Mind you, no one would mistake Back to Burgundy for a documentary; it’s essentially a charming, crowd-pleasing, character-driven French movie. But in the filming, much was real.
Ripping out an old vineyard, for instance, was a chore Roulot needed to do anyway. The day before, he phoned the director and gave him a head’s up. Klapisch rescheduled the call sheet and got his actors there for an impromptu scene. “He was very reactive and flexible,” Roulot says admiringly.
The production used Roulot’s own cellar for two scenes, and the harvest sequences were the real deal in Domaine Roulot’s vineyards, executed by their field workers intermingled with actors (and, at one point, the director himself). Roulot’s staff shows up again in a raucous party scene that concludes the harvest. “It was nice,” he says. “The mixing of both teams was great.”
This wasn’t the first time Roulot had acted in a production set in wine country, but it was his first time he’d played a winemaker. “I was a little reluctant to play a wine producer, because people might think I’m only able to play a wine producer,” Roulot says about being approached for the film. “But when I saw the way Cédric was taking in so much information and wanted to be close to the truth, I said okay.”
Back to Burgundy premiered last year in France and had a special screening in Burgundy that filled three theaters in a multiplex. These were potentially the movie’s harshest critics: the vignerons. How did it go? “The reception was really great,” Roulot states with satisfaction. “I received a lot of letters from winemakers who loved the movie.” He remembers a pair of sisters from Burgundy’s Côte de Nuits who came up afterwards. “It happened to me,” one told him, referring to a scene where Juliette, in mourning, is driving a tractor and breaks down crying. Roulot understands, from firsthand experience. “Your father passed away, but you have to work, because the grapes are ripe,” he says. “It’s a big pressure. It’s emotional, of course, because you’ve lost your father. But you have to harvest.” Roulot keeps a photograph on his phone of that makes him smile every time — it’s the sisters flanking the actress. “It was excellent,” he reflects softly. “Tip-top.”
Back to Burgundy is playing at arthouse theaters around the country through May. Check for dates and locations here.
Patricia Thomson splits her time writing about film for American Cinematographer and about wine for Decanter, Gastronomica, World of Fine Wine, Tastes of Italia, and other magazines.
Editor: Greg Morabito
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