Somm, a new film from director Jason Wise, 32, debuts at the second annual Napa Valley Film Festival, which runs Nov. 7 to 11. This documentary follows four sommeliers—Brian McClintic, Ian Cauble, Dustin Wilson and DLynn Proctor—as they study for and take the Master Sommelier exam, a title that fewer than 200 people in the world have ever earned. In Somm, Wise gives an honest and often funny look at the intensity of these candidates as they take on this challenge. Filmed in five different countries over three years, this is Wise's first feature film.
Wine Spectator: How did you come to make a film about the Master Sommelier exam?
Jason Wise: I knew I wanted to make a wine film toward the end of film school. The problem I ran into is that wine doesn't really have a focus. People don't realize this: You feel like wine is this thing that is complete. But with wine, you have a chemist and farmers and salesmen—all these different parts—and most of the people never even know each other, yet they come together in a glass of wine.
Originally, I thought it would be cool to do something on the history of Champagne, and I started putting it together. It's a lot about World War I and other cool things, but it's also kind of boring. A lot of the people involved aren't alive. Then my friend Brian McClintic, whom I've known for a long time in the restaurant business, said, "I'm going to take this test, the entry level to become a sommelier." He comes back from his first practice, and he said, "You should watch the way we practice." I went, and my jaw hit the floor. I was setting this to music in my head immediately.
Wine Spectator: How did you know this story would translate well on film?
Jason Wise: Whenever you get a bunch of really smart people together, everybody's got strong opinions, and everyone's so sure, but they don't mesh perfectly with each other. I started realizing that not only do I have something here that's about wine, but we have a real movie.
WS: Is wine treated as a subject in the movie, or is it a character?
JW: The test is certainly a character. Wine? We had to go back to the basics, and I hammer in this fact in the film that wine is literally a chemical. It is a chemical that people attach a value to. Without the history, without the story, without the people, it's just fermented grape juice.
WS: How is your film different from past wine films?
JW: A lot of wine films have over-romanticized the making of it, because if you really go and walk up to a farmer while they're picking grapes, they're muddy, and their wife's mad that they're never home at this time of the year. They're not going to look at you and go, "Yeah, the majesty of Napa or the magic of Tuscany is so beautiful." Their opinion is, "I got a job and I got to do this." Catch them five months later and they have a totally different opinion, but they always love it. … A lot of wine movies are so clean and dainty. They're either pretentious about the way wine is sold or the way wine is made. These guys in my movie are the guys you sit next to at a football game.
WS: Were you worried that filming would affect the candidates and the outcome?
JW: It may have motivated people. It certainly put more pressure on them. We filmed for three years, so everyone became very natural. A lot of documentaries are very intimate, where you see these people and live with these people, and we got that element.
WS: For most people, wine is fun, but is it fair to say this film show a darker side of wine for the candidates?
JW: Think about any person going through the bar exam, or going through a divorce, or going through anything hard that has ups and downs. … For them it was always about getting over this hump, this serious thing. I don't think people realize that there is this insane energy out there. When I found this world and looked around, I thought, "How the hell has nobody made a movie about this?"
WS: After filming these intense people, what did you learn about sommeliers in general and Master Sommeliers?
JW: I look at somms, and I think one of their major purposes is to re-find lost wines. Think about the thousands of grape varieties in Italy. And in Italy, you have thousands of producers of those varieties. But sommeliers find these gems. They taught me very quickly you don't have to spend more than $30 to taste some of the best wines in the world.
The other thing you realize is they have to learn everything. They don't have the luxury to go, "I don't like Napa wine" or "I don't like oak." They're constantly tasting. If you're a wine drinker and you love Napa Cab, or you love Burgundy, that's what you drink. But these guys have to drink stuff they don't like constantly. … [Master Sommeliers] are incredibly determined. For someone to do this, they have to be incredibly smart. I have a huge amount of respect for these guys.
WS: What conclusion about wine did you want viewers to reach?
JW: More than anything, I wanted people to realize the ambition that these guys have. The only thing I would ask from a wine angle is that people try something they've never tried. If you hate something, you should know why. I think people are so complacent. As I get older, I find people being passionate becomes rarer and rarer. It's so nice to see people live and breathe something. If you're really into wine, be really into wine. Don't just pretend to be.
WS: Was there a movie you saw that made you want to be a filmmaker?
JW: You know how long I've waited for someone to ask me that question? Alien. I watched Alien with my dad when I was about six. I think a lot of kids would have had nightmares, but to me I couldn't believe that this existed. I still think it's one of the few perfect films ever made. After that moment, I don't know if I wanted to do movies that young, but I wanted to do stories.