Armenians brave danger to create wine at the oldest winemaking site in the world — including first vintage from Iran since its 1979 revolution
By Jim Flint for Ashland.news
In a twist of fate, what started out as a quest to make a sweeping documentary about the origins of winemaking and its influences on civilization turned into an unexpected adventure and, at times, a dangerous one.
The resulting film, “SOMM: Cup of Salvation,” produced and edited by former Ashland resident Jackson Myers, who also was the film’s cinematographer, will be screened at 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 20, at Grizzly Peak Winery, 1600 E. Nevada St., Ashland.
“Cup of Salvation,” which has been touring nationally, follows a father and daughter as they set out to revive the ancient grapes of their homeland in Armenia and the forbidden vineyards of Iran. It is also filmed in other locations around the world.
The original idea for the film came from director Jason Wise and his wife and producing partner, Christina Wise, a couple with whom Myers has collaborated on films for more than 15 years.
Ancient winemaking site
They learned that the oldest known winemaking “facility” is located deep in a cave in modern-day Armenia, dating to more than 6,000 years ago. In late 2019, the team set off to film in the early Bronze Age site of the Areni-1 cave, planning to interview the archeologist who was overseeing the excavation.
On the first day of filming on location, one of the co-producers of the film, Armen Khachaturian, insisted they have lunch with a local father-daughter winemaking team, Vahe and Aimee Keushquerian, who were integral in revitalizing the wine industry in Armenia.
“At that lunch, after listening to their stories and tasting their wines, Jason turned to me and we realized we had found our protagonists,” Myers said. “They would help us tell the human story that we were in search of to weave history into present day”
During the early days of making the documentary, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and a war in Armenia escalated, complicating the telling of the story.
But to the winemaker, it was less a complication and more an opportunity.
“At some point, Vahe mentioned to Jason that he had been wanting to make wine from Iranian grapes for quite a while, and now was the time he was going to do it,” Myers said.
“So, we found a way to film the process remotely, and that mission ended up impacting the film to a great degree.”
There were more than 300 wineries in Iran before the 1979 revolution. But alcohol has been banned since the revolution.
Warfare complicates filmmaking
It was in 2020 that conflict broke out between Artsakh, an autonomous region of Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
“We didn’t set out to make a wine film with a war as a major storyline, but the conflict escalated during the production,” Myers said. “And the vineyard our protagonists used to make wine happened to be very close to the border.”
It was a dangerous situation for the winemakers. Koushguerian and his daughter even wore bulletproof vests as they worked quickly along with other harvesters and then trucked the grapes across the border from Iran to Armenia.
The Iranian winemaking project is only part of the film’s story, but it captures the struggles and perseverance of the winemakers at a difficult time.
For the filmmakers, the project required a unique approach, with lots of extra planning, improvising and adapting to elements beyond their control — more so than on most documentaries.
Myers says the film helps illustrate that history, geography, politics and agriculture are all intertwined.
“Hopefully, viewers will leave thinking about how connected we are,” he said, “even if separated by oceans and languages. And hopefully they’ll leave wanting a glass of wine and to hear the story behind it.”
Myers says screening the film in the town where he grew up is “very special.”
“Agriculture and specifically winemaking are important in the Rogue Valley,” he said. “I hope this story resonates because of that.”
Ashland High graduate
Myers, 39, graduated from Ashland High School in 2002 and now lives in Los Angeles. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Occidental College in L.A. with an emphasis in film production.
Watching countless films at Ashland’s Varsity Theatre with his family from a very young age made him realize he wanted to learn more about the magic of making movies. His best friend’s father, Howard Schreiber, encouraged him by giving Myers access to his cameras and editing tools.
To purchase tickets to Saturday’s local premier of the film, go to grizzlypeakwinery.com. The ticket price of $25 includes a glass of wine and a meet-and-greet with Myers.
Reach writer Jim Flint at firstname.lastname@example.org.