Director Jason Wise made a bold request after he learned the Napa Valley Film Festival was interested in “Somm,” his film about the exam for master sommeliers.

“I said I would like to open the festival,” Wise said by phone from Los Angeles. “I was worried we would not finish the film in time and I thought that would get them off my back.”

Wise, 32, believed there was no chance festival co-founders Brenda and Marc Lhormer would give their ambitious festival’s prized opening slot to a documentary by a first-time filmmaker.

“Last year, it opened with ‘The Descendants,’ ” Wise said of the inaugural Napa Valley Film Festival. That George Clooney movie later was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one for its screenplay.

But Napa Valley said yes, and Wise’s completed documentary will open the five-day festival Wednesday evening at the Napa Valley Opera House in Napa. The premiere is at 5:30, with a repeat showing at 8:30.

“It doesn’t have to be a Hollywood film,” Brenda Lhormer said of choosing an opening-night film. “It just has to delight.”

“Somm,” which follows four candidates studying for the master sommelier (wine steward) test, is insightful and funny, Lhormer said, and its world premiere in wine-centric Napa is “the perfect thing.”

Wise spent three years on the documentary, chronicling candidates’ arduous preparations for an exam that is offered only once a year and has a 5 percent first-time pass rate.

Wise’s interest in the subject was piqued when he watched his friend Brian McClintic practice for the exam’s blind taste test.

The taste test involves three white wines, three reds and about 41/2 minutes to spend on each. Candidates must identify the wine by grape, region and other factors during the allotted time.

“The way they break it down is one of the most oddly strange and beautiful things I have ever seen,” Wise said. “I thought, ‘How is this possible I am the first person to want to make a movie about this?’ ”

The festival is showing far more food and wine films than it did last year, Lhormer said. That wasn’t planned, she said, despite the event’s overall emphasis on wine and food as well as film.

The festival had the same emphasis last year, Lhormer said, “but we got nothing.”

Lhormer acknowledged that attention drawn to the festival’s first year (coverage included on-site reports from “Access Hollywood” anchor Billy Bush) might have alerted filmmakers to its existence and drawn more food and wine entries.

But there is no clear emphasis among the 115 films narrative and documentary, shorts and feature-length screening at this year’s festival.

“We strive to make our programming broadly appealing,” Lhormer said.

The Hollywood content for which the festival drew attention last year makes appearances this year, as well. On Thursday, the Napa Valley Film Festival will screen “Silver Linings Playbook,” a David O. Russell (“The Fighter”) film in which Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence play characters with mental health issues.

“Playbook,” showing at 5:30 p.m. at the Opera House, will be released in theaters later this month and already is generating Oscar buzz.

On Sunday, the festival closes with “Quartet,” starring Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay and Michael Gambon, and set in a home for retired musicians in England. “Quartet” marks the directing debut of 75-year-old Oscar-winning actor Dustin Hoffman.

The festival also covers a significant span of the valley, with screenings and devoted festival “villages,” complete with wine pavilions, welcome centers and hospitality lounges, in the towns of Napa, Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga.

The wide-reach approach achieved its goal last year, Lhormer said, by creating and maintaining a festival-related hum of conversation for five days throughout the valley. But there were some bumps.

“We learned that you have to have a tremendous amount of signage, because this is four distinct festivals, over a 30-mile span,” Lhormer said of directing festival-goers to venues. “Because it was the first year, people were not familiar with all the venues even (Napa Valley) residents weren’t always clued in.”

Things went smoothly, though, thanks to an operations team of just four people.

“There was a lack of manpower, and though we pulled it off, we nearly killed ourselves doing it,” Lhormer said.

This year’s team is double in size. The alternative cutting the number of towns and venues never was considered.

“The reason we built this festival the way we did was to encompass the entire valley and make it inclusive to all the towns,” Lhormer said. “Yes, it is big, but it works because we included everybody. The communities rallied behind us and came out to support us in all sorts of different ways.”

NAPA VALLEY FILM FESTIVAL

When: Wednesday-Sunday

Where: Venues in Napa, Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga

Cost: $250 to $500 for five-day passes; $50 for a single-day pass on Friday, $60 for single-day passes for Saturday and Sunday; $10 or $20 for single-event “rush” tickets available just before events. Rush tickets are cash-only and subject to availability.

Information: www.napavalleyfilmfest.org[1]

Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.[2]

References

  1. ^ www.napavalleyfilmfest.org (www.napavalleyfilmfest.org)
  2. ^ Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved. (www.sacbee.com)

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