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Wine In Film: SOMM, The Documentary

By Erin Drain in Food on Jun 17, 2013 6:00PM

06_17_13_somm_review.jpeg First things first: the world of wine is small. Even now, in a global environment, there are far fewer sommeliers internationally than, say, surgeons. For those who join the ranks of the London-based Court of Master Sommeliers, those numbers become even more tiny: to date, only 201 people have ever been granted the title, with 133 coming from North America. Of those, only 19 are women.

That Jason Wise should want to make a film about the trek to becoming a Master Sommelier isn't surprising. One thing documentaries do really well is to bring specialized professions (obsessions?) into mainstream awareness; high-wire walkers, crossword puzzle writers, font makers, sommeliers - all of these fields are alien to most people's daily lives. The directors of SOMM have chosen four young California sommeliers, all talented and exceptionally driven, to highlight the intensity of the few weeks leading up to the Master Sommelier exam, full of flashcards, late-night blind tastings, and lots of talking-to-self in the mirror. These guys are the young guns of the wine world, and the film is designed to make the audience hold its breath, wondering which of the cohort will pass, and who will fail.

But despite all the drama, SOMM fails to truly show its viewers just how difficult—and long—the process really is. One of the more notable goofs is that the documentary neglects to give the audience a background of the entire program; the Reader's Ben Sachs calls the Master Sommelier exam "not competitive," which, if judged on this movie alone, could be true. But the fact is, sommeliers participating in this process typically take between six and seven years to complete their studies before being invited to take the Master exam. Yes, invited. In addition to the expense (at least $10,000 not including travel, as well as purchasing insanely expensive wines just for the tasting experience) and passing Introductory and Certified levels, sommeliers testing for the Court have to be invited to test for not just the Master level, but the Advanced. The Master exam is held in three parts (theory, service, and blind tasting), and if you fail one, you must return another year to retake it. Considering there is an average of a 5 percent pass rate for this level, it's expected that competitors will have to hope, year after year, of being asked to come finish their exam. Even Ian, flash card-making and map-tracing Ian, arguably the best-prepared of the four men, fails to pass the blind tasting portion of the test on the first go. Back another year. (He does eventually pass.)

Part of the problem is framing. In order to make the subject more accessible, SOMM relies on sports metaphors, citing drive, competition, skill, and that special X-factor that makes premium athletes turn into totally unlikeable nutjobs in order to attain their goals. Maybe it's just the Chicago scene, but the top sommeliers in this city come not so much from college-level sports but from the arts and academia. In fact, a better corollary for the aspiring sommelier is probably more medical student and less Notre Dame quarterback; the boring reality of the medical intern is that of flash cards, politics, and ass-kissing. Such is that of the "studying" sommelier. Wine is a trade, and there's a lengthy apprenticeship to be completed before getting that red pin on one's lapel.

One of the hosts of Saturday's screening was Rachel Driver Speckan, beverage director at City Winery (they sponsored this movie-and-wine series, and will look to do more in the future) and Certified Sommelier with the Court. An anthropologist by training, she is also actively "studying" to attain the Master certification, and likens the process to the pursuit of a PhD. After Saturday night's screening at the Music Box Theatre, she led a brief blind tasting for the audience in order to shed some light on what it is these guys were doing the whole time. As for the documentary itself, she noted that SOMM was great in the sense that it has potential to bring a very rarefied world into the mainstream, and that it "captured the anxiety, energy, and dedication" required of the few invited to take the last exam. No stranger to flashcards herself, she recognized the obsessive nature of the "studying" few, but did note that SOMM captures the spirit of a very small group of people. Chicago, for instance, is a much different wine city than San Francisco, LA, and New York. The documentary would have looked much different had it been filmed here. For one, we would have seen a lot more women as the subjects, not just the spit bucket-cleaning wives. (Side note: Dudes, ew. Clean it yourself!)

Speckan refers to the Court of Master Sommeliers as "a brotherhood, a guild." With more people now than ever trying to join the ranks, the test is becoming more competitive. One thing SOMM did really well was to cameo the old-head Masters such as Fred Dame, who notoriously passed the exam on his first try in 1984. But would he have passed the exam today, thirty years later, with Hungarian, Romanian, and other Eastern European wine regions featuring prominently in test questions? If the test keeps getting harder, what keeps the certification relevant over time? It's enough to make one's head spin, and SOMM doesn't set out to.

Catch SOMM tonight (6/17), tomorrow (6/18) or Thursday (6/20) at the Music Box Theatre, Tickets are $20 and include a sommelier-led blind tasting. Can't make it? Set up your own blind tasting at home; First Run Features will release the DVD on September 3rd.