It’s not easy to make a film or a video around the subject of wine. I should know, I produced the TV show In Wine Country on NBC for nine seasons. Wine on the big or little screen gets super boring. Our challenge was always ‘how do we make wine interesting? How do we make it less intimidating?’
One way to do it is to tell stories about the people and not focus on the wine. And that’s what SOMM, a documentary film directed by Jason Wise does. SOMM opened the 2nd annual Napa Valley Film Festival Wednesday night to a packed house and standing ovation. While I’d venture to say our crowd was very wine savvy, SOMM does something that makes it worth seeing. SOMM takes you into the world of The Court of Master Sommeliers, an organization that is notoriously secretive. That they let Jason’s camera capture what it is like to prepare for an exam that only 200 or so people have ever passed is extraordinary.
The Court of Master Sommeliers is an organization that certifies wine professionals, based on a series of exams where candidates demonstrate a depth and breadth of knowledge about everything wine. That means being able to blind taste wines and not only describe them but also call the correct varietal, country and region of origin and vintage. That alone is no easy feat. Candidates also have to demonstrate proper service in a restaurant setting and they are also tested on their knowledge of wine throughout the world.
There are four levels of certification that lead to the Master Sommelier diploma: Introductory, Certified Sommelier, Advanced Sommelier and Master Sommelier (MS). You must pass each level before moving on to the next. Of course the exams get harder and longer at each level. It can take years to earn the MS, if at all.
SOMM tells the story of four master somm candidates, Brian, Ian, Dustin and D’Lynn. We see them studying with each other and also with mentors who are Master Sommeliers. You might think it would be fun to get together with friends and taste lots of wine every night, but it becomes a chore that the guys have to be up for. Having a camera around doesn’t help. We see how little sleep they get and how relationships with their significant others come second to wine. As Ian put it in after the movie, “You have to become a little obsessed and if you’re not, you’re probably not going to pass.”
I recently passed the Certified Sommelier exam, which was a challenging and harrowing experience. Watching SOMM brought all of that home to me. I can relate to Ian reading flash cards while driving or on the treadmill at the gym, because I did that too. There’s a scene where two of the guys are skyping at 2 am, holding flash cards up to the computer screen. Opened half full bottles are all over their apartments. The spouses/girlfriends complain about the spit buckets left out after tasting sessions that they have to clean up. “They’re disgusting.”
There are many funny moments in the film. We feel the pressure. We also see the struggles. During one of Ian’s tasting sessions, he doesn’t believe the wine he tasted is what is really in his glass. He challenges the MS mentor, and just can’t let it go. The wine? Not a fancy French wine, but an inexpensive California Chardonnay. He thinks he’s been duped.
Then there is the “grid.” The grid is the template, a list for tasting wine and being able to describe it accurately. I know the grid, but I have to wonder how many folks will understand it because the guys talk a mile a minute and it’s hard to pick up on what they say. And we wonder why wine can still be so intimidating?
Spoiler alert: You will not see an actual exam session in action. We see the candidates go behind closed doors. So the Court still keeps some secrets. However we do see the guys get their final results. I’ll just say that before I took the certified somm exam, I didn’t understand why people were crying if they passed. Well, that’s exactly what I did when my name was called out to get my certificate and lapel pin. SOMM captures the moment and the emotions very well. You’ll have to see the movie to find out how the guys did.
Jason Wise says this movie, which is his first film, took three years to make. “I don’t know which was harder, finding money or getting permission from the Court of or keeping my marriage together.” He was friends with Brian McClintic who decided to go for the master somm title. He invited Jason to watch a practice tasting session. “Naively I thought well that’s cool I can make a movie about it,” Jason says. “It just floored me. I’d never seen anything like this in my life.” So it became, in his words, “a fusion of somebody who dared to take the test to somebody who was stupid enough to make a movie about it.” We’re glad he did make the film.
The photography is very good, and the custom score for the movie enhances the experience on the screen. Chapter breaks are shots of wine glasses full of wine exploding, which I thought was clever. I wonder how many glasses of wine were sacrificed for each take? I noticed there was a credit for pyrotechnics at the end of the movie.
That being said, 100 minutes for the movie is, in my opinion, too long. There were a lot of tasting sessions, and they kind of dragged on. Instead I would have loved to have seen more about practicing for the service portion of the exam, which for me in the certified somm exam was the most difficult part of the test.
Preparing the Master Sommelier exam is not an inexpensive undertaking. I would have liked to have seen how much it cost the guys – the exam fees, how much they spent on wine. I would have also liked to have seen one woman in the study group. I think the film itself tried not to be too insider baseball, but at times falls short. Again, this audience was very wine savvy, but I wonder how it will play for people not in the wine industry.
Bravo to the Court for being willing to let us all take a peek into the organization and see how they train wine professionals. Now maybe you can understand why somms tend to be geeky. When the guys were asked about advice for aspiring sommeliers they said “trade stamps.” SOMM is funny, sad and inspirational. If you dream of becoming a sommelier, just have a love of wine, or are curious about what’s deemed the toughest exam in the world, this movie is a must see.