A Delightful Conversation With Courtney B. Vance About Wine And Barbecue

In the last couple of weeks, Netflix has gone from the streaming behemoth trying to disrupt the traditional way movies are distributed to, now, one of the very few sources of new releases. This past Friday was supposed to see the release of A Quiet Place Part II. This week was supposed to be Mulan. Now, because everything has changed so drastically, the big release this Friday is a not-at-all-big-budget film about wine and barbecue called Uncorked. (Which was supposed to have made its debut at South by Southwest before the festival was canceled.)

Directed by Prentice Penny, Uncorked is a story about Elijah (Mamoudou Athie) who is studying to be a sommelier, while simultaneously dealing with his father (Courtney B. Vance) who would rather him take over their barbecue restaurant, and his mother (Niecy Nash) who is dealing with some health problems. But, maybe more importantly right now, it’s a movie that lets us escape into both the worlds of Memphis barbecue and people who know a lot about wine. (I don’t know a better way to write “wine snob.”)

Yeah, it’s a little weird to do interviews these days, as we all kind of adjust to this unrepresented new world we live in. But, on the other hand, it’s always nice to hear the reassuring voice of Courtney B. Vance.

How are you doing, all things considered?

I’m doing pretty good, all things considered. No complaints from me.

Last time I spoke to you was for Isle of Dogs. I think of that interview fondly because we were in direct human contact with each other, which is something we can’t do now and I miss it.

Amen. Thank you, sir. I miss it, too.

Uncorked did get my mind off things for a little bit, which is important right now, I think.

I appreciate what you’re saying. I think, as performers, a lot of times that’s our role: to get people, for a brief period of time, to be able to go somewhere else. This is definitely one of those films that speaks to a family that is going through, unbeknownst to them, they’re going through some heavy, heavy stuff. And the fabric stretches, but it doesn’t tear, and we end up on the other side of that 200-pound gorilla. Our way back to happy. Isn’t that what life is about? Trying to find our way back to happy?

Obviously this is a movie where some pretty dramatic things happen. I didn’t want to make it sound like it’s just all smiles in this movie. But there’s also a lot of barbecue and wine, so that’s pretty good.

Yes. And I took your comment in the spirit in which it was given. I get it. I understood it and I appreciate it. Barbecue and wine is a great combination. I’m so glad that Prentice [Penny] chose those two worlds to bring together, because they’re not commonly done in chocolate, as they say. But this wine world is a world that, traditionally, African-American folks don’t know because it is a very specific and a very civic world that is very scientific. The science of it is incredible. That’s what Mamoudou’s character is dealing with and letting folks know about this: that they don’t know anything about it and because they don’t know anything about it, they don’t appreciate it and they’re going to try to get him to not do it.

I know almost nothing about wine, but for some reason I really like movies about wine. I love Sideways. I love watching movies where people talk about it.

Because you get a chance to learn about it. I know nothing because I don’t drink it at all either. My wife and I used to go to Napa Valley for long weekends and hang out and go to different vineyards and see different things. It’s so much fun. You learn about the world. And most people don’t get the opportunity to get inside. You can go up to Napa Valley or Sonoma Valley and go on wine tours and go to these different venues and learn about the differences in the different vineyards and different kinds of wine. I still get emails from venues that we visited 15 or 16 years ago.

It sounds like you know a little bit if you’ve been on wine tours. I would guess or when people talk about the certain taste, I assume you have a sense of what that means.

I know the basics. I know some of the basic terms: varietals and things like that. I don’t know what it means. Then because I don’t drink, I have an appreciation. What I do know is I appreciate smooth red Merlot. That’s what I appreciate. I’m a cheap date at this. Two sips and I’m done.

Paul Giamatti is not a fan of Merlot in Sideways.

Anything smooth, I’m a fan of. I’ll take a sip of my wife a glass and, ooooooh, that’s nice. And then I give it back. Here, take it back.

Now where are you at on barbecue?

I love to barbecue. I love the Q, but I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, a connoisseur. I don’t really know what I’m doing, but coming down to Memphis and sitting with these Qer’s, they, whew. It’s a science. I spoke to a good number of them. They took me in and let me go out with them early in the morning on their run: getting there at three in the morning, turning the oven on and getting it ready and hot. When I can get there with the meat, we can get started so we can have some product by the time lunchtime comes around, we’re good to go. It’s an every day thing. They may get off Sunday, but on Sunday night, they’re back and getting ready for Monday.

I grew up in Kansas City. I don’t know how to make barbecue. I don’t know anything about it, but I know how to eat it and I know when it tastes really good.

Okay. You did in Kansas City! Oh boy. That’s the other capitol.

See, that’s why this movie hit me because it reminded me of home. I know it’s set in Memphis, but I’m in a Manhattan apartment right now and it reminded me of eating Kansas City barbecue.

Oh, that’s wonderful. We touched a couple of nerves and I think you won’t be alone in that. It’s a very, very pointed piece. Very well done. Hats off to Prentice.

Under the situation we’re in, this went from, “Oh this new Netflix movie, check it out,” to being a big thing for a lot of people stuck at home. It takes on a new role. I don’t know if you agree with that…

I agree with it in that everybody’s home now. We have a captive audience, and before we had to share because there was people all over the place and doing all different kinds of things. Now, for the first time in recent memory, folks are all home and they’re forced to be home. I know they’re going to be on Netflix watching something. Ours will be at the top of the list for them to watch.

Anyway, it was comforting to watch you in a new movie. I hope that makes sense.

Amen. I appreciate that.

‘Uncorked’ begins streaming this weekend on Netflix. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.