I expect Somm will resonate more with me than with most people who see it. In addition to covering movies, I’ve been a wine and spirits writer for nearly a decade, and the number of good movies you’ll see about the wine biz can be easily counted on one hand.
Somm is a documentary about a tiny subsegment of the wine business: A comprehensive exam geared at professional wine servers called the Master Sommelier test. This exam is famously, impossibly difficult. This year 70 people took the test. Only one passed. A total of 202 people — ever — have passed it.
Somm follows a group of San Francisco wine professionals preparing for the 2011 exam. It is given in three parts: theory (an old-school written test about the minutiae of the wine world), service (where applicants have to work in a high-stress mock serving environment), and tasting. It’s the lattermost area where things get really tough. As the applicants on display here so frequently note: the goal is to identify wines poured blind — “three whites, three reds.”
If you’ve ever tried to ID a wine without knowing anything about it, you know how tough this can be, and this is where Somm really shines. Our applicants work their way through bottle after bottle, either together in study groups or under the ministrations of a tutor who’s trying to help them pass. The thrill of their victories and the embarassingly bad agonies of their defeats (“Does it smell like Chardonnay? Does it taste like Chardonnay?”) make for the film’s funnest moments.
And that, in many ways, is the downfall here: I found myself far more interested in the wines these guys were drinking than in them as individuals. Partly I think think that’s because they are all so similar when you get down to it. Driven by the desire to pass the MS exam, they have literally no outside life aside from wine. To a one, the freely admit they ignore their loved ones and do nothing but study and taste every night, often into the wee, wee hours. The only real exception here is Ian Cauble, who always wears a blazer even when the group is sitting around a kitchen table at 2 a.m. Cauble is clearly seen by the group as the front-runner to pass the test, and his tastings are extremely confident and full of vibrant descriptors. When he fails to recognize a common California wine a week before the exam, well, that’s when things start to go a little weird. Director Jason Wise is very clever in his portrayal of Cauble, but the other fellows aren’t provided nearly as much individualism.
Still, I wish Wise had spent more time telling us exactly what these guys were tasting, so we’d know, during practice anyway, whether they were on the mark or blowing it completely.
Somm is a fun movie. My wife and I (she’s also in the wine biz) have spent days discussing it, attempting to ID wines blind in the same manner as the candidates here and, more importantly, wondering why anyone would put themselves through this test. Does an MS really open doors for those that pass it? Can you not get a job in a top restaurant without one? It’s another area where Wise, sadly, lets us down a little.
Oh well, let’s drink.