Somm is a charming movie. The documentary, directed by Jason Wise, follows four men as they prepare to take the grueling Master Sommelier exam, a three day test that has one of the lowest passing rates in the world.
The Court of Master Sommeliers was founded in 1969. Each year, dozens of candidates take the Master Sommelier exam, and each year maybe a half dozen pass (and even that’s generous). In more than forty years, only two-hundred men and women* have become Master Sommeliers. It is the most prestigious title in the beverage industry, and the most difficult to attain. And it involves drinking an exorbitant amount of wine.
Wise focuses on Ian Cauble, Brian McClintic, DLynn Proctor, and Dustin Wilson, four accomplished sommeliers in the final weeks leading up to the exam, and it is through them that a measure of the sheer scope of the wine world is explored.
“You Have to Maybe Be a Little Bit Off.”
Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth succinctly describes what it takes to throw yourself into this thing, this obsession with becoming an authority on wine, and in doing so he aptly defines the nature of mastery. Or rather the ambition for mastery.
Which is what the movie is actually about.
Somm is at its best when Wise sets his camera in front of his subjects and lets them have at. The film takes brief asides to discuss elements of wine and the wine industry, such as the reverential stories told about the legendary and imposing Fred Dame (a titanic figure who has been almost singularly responsible for introducing the Court of Master Sommeliers to the United States), and these are both informative and entertaining. These sequences deliver the biggest laughs as Masters discuss licking rocks (do it), and how Sauvignon Blanc smells a little like cat pee. And the film is funny and engaging, with humor effectively cutting through the tension of this great looming thing, this exam that overshadows every aspect of the film and of its subjects’ lives.
But both the heart and the driving force of the narrative is best expressed when Wilson, McClintic, Cauble, and Proctor reach for the wine and let themselves go. They sit and they talk and they make fun of each other and they geek out, and even though the subject they discuss is esoteric and the language they use is the impenetrable dialect of expertise**, these scenes very much feel like a group of people up late at night and a little drunk arguing about something they love. And that’s something every one of us can relate to.
It’s a shame that DLynn Proctor disappears from a good third of the film, as his self-assured charisma (I would happily drink any wine he sets in front of me by virtue of how certain he presents himself) and rapid-fire deductions of blind wines*** are missed, but this gives the core group of Cauble, McClintic, and Wilson a chance to really gel on screen. The three of them are really pulling for each other, and it shows. Brian McClintic in particular can’t help but hide his doubts and fears, these expressed on the surface even as he flexes his casually extroverted charisma. In one memorable scene, he is admonished by none other than Fred Dame himself for his hesitation during a blind tasting exercise.
Proctor reenters the narrative as he and the others begin the exam. But with so much having been made of this test, this looming shadow over the subjects’ lives, the film’s narrative climax is weirdly truncated. I can understand the decision to dramatize the blind tasting portion (it is the most visceral aspect, after all) in such a way as to represent the totality of the exam, but the effect is a little jarring. Despite its detours and fashions, the film is structured as a conventional sports drama: Our Heroes are training for The Big Game. But by skipping over the subsequent two days of the rigorous three-day test, it feels like The Big Game is shown entirely in montage. And this lessens the impact.
Of course, this is all made up at the emotional climax of the film as the results of the exam are revealed to each of the subjects in turn. There is an uncomfortable reality gameshow feel to this scene (I swear I heard Regis Philbin’s “Is that your final answer?” at one point), but the raw emotionality on display more than makes up for any perceived affectations.
The film may paradoxically feel both meandering and oddly rushed, but that’s of no consequence. Ultimately, Somm plays like that perfect alchemy achieved only by opening another bottle of wine with old friends at two in the morning, a little tired and a little drunk but immensely enjoyable and lasting.
Somm is currently in limited theatrical release, and is streaming on Amazon and iTunes. Watch it, and have a bottle of wine handy.
*The overwhelming majority of Master Sommeliers are men. There are only twenty women in the world who hold the rank of Master. Fortunately though the number of women who take the test increases every year and the last decade alone has seen the total number of women Masters double in number.
**Think Shane Carruth’s Primer. It may be difficult to follow Carruth and David Sullivan’s highlytechnical dialogue but the immediacy of each scene is obvious.
***Let’s take a moment to talk about blind tastings. The idea here is to be presented with a glass of wine and then deduce what that wine is. I’ve said it before, but varietal correctness should be a given. It doesn’t always, but Pinot Noir should taste like Pinot Noir (looking at you, Mark West). From there, both the wine’s age and place of origin is theoretically discernible. For example, let’s say you have a glass of wine in front of you. Work your way through, trying to deduce what’s in the glass. Is it red or white (or rosé, for that matter)? If it’s white, does it smell like theater popcorn and pineapple? Does it taste like green apple and lemon and a little like vanilla? Does it feel heavy in your mouth? Does it make your mouth water? If so, you can safely assume that it’s a young Chardonnay from California (the vanilla-andbuttered-popcorn thing is from the combination of new French oak barrels and malolactic fermentation, both big in California; the tropical fruit and weight suggests Chardonnay; your mouth is watering because of the wine’s high acidity, which speaks to its youth). This is a great exercise, as it strengthens the palate, and it teaches you to focus your sense of smell and taste (which makes going to a farmer’s market a real treat). It is also a whole lot of fun. Here’s a thing. Get a group of friends together, and have everybody bring a bottle of $10 wine. Keep the bottles covered, and pour everyone a glass of each wine. Taste the wines blind, and try to figure out what they are. Prepare yourselves for the nasty hangover you’ll have in the morning. It’ll be worth it.