“Somm” The Movie: When Wine Becomes Your Life
According to the new documentary Somm, “Chefs have figured it out, sommeliers have become the rock stars of the industry and now it’s a completely different level of person who wants to be a somm.”
And what kind of person takes the Master Sommelier exam, a grueling three-day test that covers all aspects of wine? As we learn in Somm, mainly people with sports backgrounds or a highly competitive nature find their way into the somm profession. In the past 40 years, only about 170 people have passed the test although thousands have tried.
Somm concentrates mainly on four men who are preparing for the Master of Wine sommelier exam. There’s the charismatic ex-jock, Brian McClintic, and the introspective Dustin Wilson of New York. DLynn Proctor from Dallas gets some camera time, but the vulnerable Ian Cauble, who is the most committed and the most stressed out, is the main character.
Popular recent documentaries- Super Size Me, Food, Inc., Earth, March of the Penguins and an Inconvenient Truth– all strive to provide the viewer with some subject knowledge to go with a captivating story. Somm makes no such effort to provide instruction about wine.
Instead, Jason Wise has produced this film mainly in the style of reality TV. The story is told entirely through the main characters without narration. In keeping with the reality genre, a camera crew follows the main characters around the country and the globe and records their private lives. The level of intimacy achieved by the filmmaker is impressive. We don’t get to actually see the master somm test, but certain scenes- like the ones where the aspiring master somms find out if they passed or failed- are riveting.
Like most reality TV, Somm has interviews with girlfriends and other ancillary characters who add little to our understanding of the main characters or the subject matter. Perhaps the wives and girlfriends were added because there are so few women in this film.
Somm gives the impression that the Court of the Master Sommeliers is mainly a boy’s club. A Chicago somm told Midwest Wine Press that several women sat for the master’s exam during the filming of Somm, but we see only one woman candidate briefly. And with the male characters talking non-stop, she can barely get a word in edgewise.
Of the 129 current master somms, only 18 are women. Madeline Triffon of Southgate, Michigan was the first woman to pass the master somm exam in 1987. Another Midwestern woman who became a master somm is Alpena Singh who went on to Chicago TV fame with “Check Please” and is now the proprietor of the Boarding House restaurant in Chicago.
Chicagoans overall have had success with the master somm exam. Six Windy City residents have passed since 2006. (The Chicago Master Sommeliers in addition to Singh are Douglas Marello, Fernando Beteta, Jesse Becker, Serafin Alvarado and Joseph Spellman.)
From Michigan, Ron Edwards and Claudia Tyagi are master somms. Doug Frost in Kansas City passed the exam in 1991 too.
One idea that the movie drives home repeatedly is that the master somm exam is hard. First, there’s the theory exam which covers international laws and wine regions in five languages. There are even questions about beer and cigars.
The service portion of the test takes place at a mock restaurant set up specially for the exam. As you might imagine, the customers at the fake restaurant are not very friendly to the aspiring masters somms.
But the wine tasting test is the most entertaining part of the exam preparation. During the tasting test, you get three whites, three reds and about four minutes per wine to describe the wine accurately. This includes where the wine is from, the alcohol level, the varietal and the age range. Then, each candidate must take a stab at exactly what each wine is.
The wine descriptors the somms use are very imaginative. To these experts, wines smell like “crushed hillside,” “a fresh can of tennis balls,” “a new rubber garden hose,” and “decaying dry red rose petals.” My favorite wine aroma description from the film was “like my grandmother’s closet.”
Somm is a film for people who are interested in wine. My wife, who is only somewhat interested in wine, found it difficult to understand why anyone would go through such torment over fermented grape juice. If you have personally endured a difficult certification exam, the angst of the somms may seem overwrought.
Personally, I wish the film would have gone into more detail about the process of becoming a Master Sommelier. Some of the characters in Somm appear to be what are called “super tasters.” To say super tasters can smell and taste is like saying bald eagles can see. According to “Somm,” one Master Sommelier, Frederick Dame, can discern both vintage year and varietal just by a wine’s aroma.
I would have liked to know how these people became such incredible tasters. How do they hone their senses so they can blind taste with such an amazing degree of accuracy? The movie alludes to a deductive reasoning process that master somms are taught, but provides few insights about “tasting on the grid.”
Being a great taster and a wine expert is only part of what it takes to pass the exam. Personality counts in this contest. Convincing the judges that you will be a good ambassador for the Master Sommelier brand is also key. Without spoiling the movie, my predictions about who would be the winners were completely wrong.
Some of the dialogue in Somm gets long-winded. (To compensate, there are more than enough wine glasses dramatically exploding and spilling in slow motion.) However, the movie does provide insight into just how hard master somms work to earn their pin and tie sets. Wine industry professionals will find Somm entertaining, heartbreaking and funny.
Somm comes out June 21 in theaters and in iTunes.
Publisher’s note: I saw Somm at The Music Box Theater in Chicago as part of a screening sponsored by City Winery Chicago. After the movie, Rachel Driver Speckan from City Winery conducted a wine tasting with the audience that dovetailed nicely with the film. Doing a similar tasting after watching Somm would be a good promotion for any winery that wants to attract more serious wine drinkers.