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stirring the lees with james molesworth

A Minority Opinion on 'Somm'

This wine movie is boring and cold
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Sep 25, 2013 3:00pm ET

I've been catching up on my wine movies lately, with both A Year In Burgundy and Tu Seras Mon Fils (You Will Be My Son) earning a thumbs-up. I realized though that I never pitched in my two cents on the most recent darling of the genre, Somm.

Directed by Jason Wise and released commercially this past summer, Somm is a documentary that covers the travails of four young hopefuls vying for the coveted Master Sommelier title, or M.S. The degree, bestowed by the Court of Master Sommeliers, is rare in the wine industry. The exact qualifications for the diploma (and the red lapel pin that comes with it) have never been fully disclosed. Alas, Somm the movie does little to shed light on this.

In fact, from a strict movie perspective, Somm is quite boring. The plot basically moves in a straight line, and monotonously so. Synopsis: There's a test, it's hard, people study (a lot); some pass, some fail. The result: The last 20 minutes of the movie is the same as the first 20 minutes. There's little suspense, even as the test approaches, and we only get brief quotes and snippets from anyone other than the four candidates the movie focuses on.

There is also little energy in the way the camera moves or covers its subjects. Everything is shot in a fairly standard, crisp, blue-tinted hi-def look that has a slightly sterile feel. The cinematic device of showing shattering glasses full of wine as jump cuts between major scenes is cliché.

By the time you're a third of the way in, you realize it's become hard to root for the lead players, who joust with egotistical banter and often act like boys in a locker room, much to the chagrin of their wives and girlfriends who are left wringing their hands on the exterior of scenes, hoping their loved one finally passes the exam so they can move on with their lives. In general, women are nearly non-existent as important players in Somm, either in the lives of the M.S. candidates or in the industry in general. We're left deciding if we want these candidates to pass the test, or learn some humility and emotional perspective.

At one point, when one candidate, Ian Cauble, is having a practice tasting with an M.S. and he guesses two white wines incorrectly (all tastings are done blind), he accuses the teacher and his assistants of pouring the wines in the wrong glasses. He's nicknamed 'Dad' by his study colleagues, yet we never see him engage in any kind of paternal, supportive or emotionally connected relationship with anyone. When the teasing at one late-night study session gets to be too much for him, he stops his tasting regimen and tells others to do it instead—he's taking his ball and going home.

We're also left to watch lots of tie-tying, shoe shining, beard trimming and lapel brushing as apparently an M.S. candidate must be one hell of a dapper dan.

In an attempt to break up the monotony, there are a few scenes with talking head winemakers (weighted to Germany and California) who give standard quotes on how much history there is in wine. The candidates then parrot that theme with a few lines on how much they respect wine history, the vine and the pursuit of the excellence in winemaking. The players come off as robotic, save for Brian McClintic, who shows clear concern and worry for himself and his colleagues, as he ruminates over whether his friends will invariably not pass or fail together, thus breaking up the study/buddy group.

There's also too much left out of the process of the exam itself. Yes, the exam standards are high. But we never really see what those standards are other than pass/fail. There's a six-wine blind tasting that must be done in 25 minutes, but you never find out who's right or wrong in the final examination. There is a discussion among the candidates after the exam, when they compare with each other how they identified the wines. One calls white No. 2 a Sancerre, the other thinks it's an Albariño–meaning at best only one might be right. The nervous twitches in their faces as they realize they're secretly hoping the other is wrong provide the one truly entertaining and suspenseful part of the movie.

In addition to the blind tasting, there's a theory part of the exam, and then there's a service part. But we only see a mock service exam where Fred Dame, the first American to pass the M.S. in the early 1980s, laughingly puts a candidate through his paces by belligerently ordering red wine ice cold. There's a secret to chilling a wine down quickly he says to the camera after the session ends with the candidate clearly taken down a peg or two, but we never find out what that secret handshake is either.

And is the Court of Master Sommeliers a group of educators? Is it a non-profit group? What exactly does it do for the wine industry as whole? Why do people aspire to the M.S. diploma? Is it just a secret club? Where the heck are the women candidates? None of this is explored or answered, leaving us to the drum beat of the exam. Remember folks: It's hard, they study a lot, because it's hard, and there's an exam coming up which, by the way, is very hard.

There's no denying the dedication and effort of those who aspire to pass the M.S. examination. There's no denying the growing importance of sommeliers in the wine industry today. There's no denying the skill and talent needed to be good at tasting, serving and talking about wine to wine consumers in a way that inspires people to drink the world's greatest beverage. And I applaud the Court of Master Sommeliers for using blind tasting as the rubric for analyzing wine as objectively as possible. There are many serious wine service professionals who carry the M.S. title and have done their fair share in the wine industry over the past generation, not the least of which is inspiring the next generation of sommeliers to strive for excellence in their profession.

But perhaps the most telling aspect of the movie is how it finally ends. After all the studying and stress and worry and hard work is over with, only one of the candidates, Dustin Wilson (the most even-keeled and grounded of the group) actually takes on a sommelier job. The others scatter to various jobs, none of which are in the service industry or carry the title of sommelier. One can't even wait to burn his apparently Sisyphean flash cards. So much for passing that knowledge on to the next candidate in line.

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1, and Instagram, at instagram.com/jmolesworth1.

Michael Twelftree
Malvern, South Australia —  September 25, 2013 4:34pm ET
James,
I could have said all that in one word 'Painful'
MT
James Molesworth
New York —  September 25, 2013 4:37pm ET
Michael: Well, they pay me by the word... ;-) Thanks for reading!
Andrea Furjak
Budapest,Hungary —  September 25, 2013 6:16pm ET
didn't enjoy that movie a bit
Michael Twelftree
Malvern, South Australia —  September 25, 2013 9:28pm ET
My problem was how they desensitized such a beautiful subject........'A year in Burgundy' and to a lesser extent 'Red Obsession' tried to enhance it.

Maybe its me just looking at it through the wrong lense…….. as I must try to gain too much pleasure from the subject matter at hand and have to many producers, the world over, that me and my cellar feel very passionate about, year in, year out.

Is Raj Parr an MS?

MT

Tim Sinniger
Bend, OR —  September 25, 2013 9:43pm ET
Well, I guess I will not being asking my public library to source this one for circulation!

Why do wine movies tend to be so boring (or poorly made)? I still think my favorite has to be "Bottle Shock" although I'm sure Warren Winiarski would probably beg to differ.

Will be looking out for A Year In Burgundy and Tu Seras Mon Fils (You Will Be My Son) instead.

Thanks James!
Douglas Trapasso
Chicago —  September 26, 2013 1:33am ET
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

First up, I do applaud Jason and the four dudes in Somm for putting themselves through the process of making this movie. Getting a film made and financed and distributed when your name isn't Scorsese or Spielberg certainly isn't easy.

James Molesworth definitely echoes my thoughts about Somm as a movie. Great attempt, strong setup, poor follow-through.

But one feeling I had during the movie that may seem like a flaw, that few reviewers picked up on, really wasn't Jason's fault. Maybe it's just me, but I've seen it twice, and honestly became quite depressed both times.

I just find it hard to believe that any of these guys can ever again simply sit back and enjoy a glass of wine, and chill with some non-industry friends and family. There is a part of me, even after almost two years participating in a study group, that is still not completely convinced that we are supposed to take God's/Mother Nature's gift to us, and treat it with such cold analysis. And that the ability to do so, for each wine, in less than four minutes, is what our customers are looking for when we greet them at their table.

Wine is not a grid. Wine is not Jeopardy! Wine is not ESPN. When you turn it into that, something indescribable but priceless is lost.
Douglas Trapasso
Chicago —  September 26, 2013 1:39am ET
@Michael Twelftree - I am sure someone will quickly correct me if I am wrong, but I'm pretty sure Raj Parr has only done Level I with the Court. Which makes it quite maddening that he does a quick soundbite, along with many other wine pros, in the movie. The missed opportunities for asking followup questions kept piling up throughout the running time of Somm.
James Molesworth
New York —  September 26, 2013 9:39am ET
Michael: No, Raj Parr is not an M.S.

Tim: I think you should still see it. Consider it tasting a wine you may not have an interest in, but still need to know about it.

Doug: Tasting wine clinically, cold, objectively is necessary at times, particularly for independent third party reviewers like Wine Spectator as well as other wine buyers, retailers etc. But not losing the ability to kick back, relax and enjoy wine is important too. You're right that the movie never really shows them enjoying wine on their down time - but I am sure they do - at least I hope so!
Tim Mc Donald
Napa, CA USA —  September 26, 2013 1:56pm ET
Brilliant & Well said James, boring, disappointing, if you are in the wine trade please watch it sometime, but don't expect much. The only positive thing about this poorly made documentary was the sound track. Cheers!
Guenter Matthews
OH —  September 27, 2013 11:33pm ET
James, would you mind telling us which wine degree you hold?
Alex Bernardo
Millbrae, CA —  September 28, 2013 3:50pm ET
sounds to me like you're yearning for another movie. but watching this I was somewhat reminded of the paper chase, and by the middle it won me for its real life real answers struggle of wine men making a living in the little known somm profession
Bruce Nichols
Naples, Florida —  September 29, 2013 1:12pm ET
It's a documentary, nothing more.

Is it "geeky", yeah. Are these guys intense - I prefer to think of them as passionate. Was there a lot of focus (too much?) on the Tasting and Theory component of earning their red pin - yes. Unfortunately their true value - service was barely covered!

I love it when I find a restaurant with a knowledgeable and passionate Somm who enhances the dining experience by offering guidance on pairing the Wine List to the Menu. The movie did little to capture or convey that.

James, I was really surprised by so many negative responses here. Okay you may have found the movie boring although you did attempt to bestow some praise for the test, the institution, and maybe even the individuals, but the column sure elicited way too much Somm bashing for my taste.
James Molesworth
New York —  September 30, 2013 10:04am ET
Bruce: Nice to hear from you. As I'm sure you realize, the column is not somm bashing, but a critique of a movie that documents some 'somms'. I did make it clear that I consider sommeliers an important part of the wine chain...

I agree that a sommelier can enhance the dining experience and lead people to new wines or wine and food matches they may not otherwise have come across.

But the bottom line is the movie is not good - it basically serves as a feature length ad for the Court of Master Sommeliers, using subjects who for the most part, when all is said done, don't even become sommeliers. It's a head scratcher for me...
Robert Duncan
Sunnyvale, CA —  September 30, 2013 10:10pm ET
James,

While I agree with your assessment as a professional in the industry, I disagree with it as a referendum for the viewing public.

Though unfortunate, three movies comprise the domestic public’s perception of the wine industry. Sideways, though brimming with brilliant acting was flat at times due to a wandering script and is most often remembered for one line. Bottle shock, which details the most defining and controversial event in wine history fell victim to unnecessary and over produced Hollywood plots, which leaves Somm.

Many of your criticisms appear to be a byproduct of a very modest budget and equally modest premise, criticism of which is akin to blaming Casablanca for poor lighting or the original Star Trek series for poor special effects. Somm succeeds by using a comic book character and sequel obsessed, movie industry to get people taking about wine and that is a good thing.

What would make for riveting entertainment is a modern movie about wine critics. The disagreements with other editors over wine of the year, wines you scored highly and now hate and vice versa, what critics at Spectator, Parker & Tanzer all think of each other, what you think of aggressive wine wannabees who won’t let you enjoy a meal in public or those who try to impress you on wine blogs. That is a movie I would watch.

Come to think of it, if you’ll grant me an interview, I’ll get started making it!
Mark Horowitz
New York, NY —  October 2, 2013 4:04pm ET
Tu Seras Mon Fils is fabulous. Niels Arestrup is one of cinema's most powerful actors (see "A Prophet" for more proof).

I sat through Somm recently and felt no empathy for the subjects of the film. In fact, they seemed to not derive any joy from the experience of wine.
Austin Beeman
Maumee, Ohio —  October 6, 2013 8:38pm ET
I enjoyed the film and understand the audience to which it was directed - i.e. people who need realize that there really can be wine expertise.

My problem with the film was that I felt no real access to the Court of MS in the film. I would have liked to see the actual tasting and hear how the MS candidates were graded from those doing the grading.

But I will recommend the film - with minimal reservations to the average wine drinking public.
Mark Romero
San Pedro, CA USA —  November 11, 2013 10:34pm ET
Hello James. I disagree. I found it awesomely entertaining. To me, this movie is simply a window to peek through offering a rare glimpse into what these candidates endure on their journey to becoming a M.S. It's clearly presented more in a documentary style that is not beholden to the structure of a typical Hollywood blockbuster.

I do agree that the female have of our species was conspicuously almost extinct.

Write on, James!

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