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.