The new documentary Somm makes it clear that Master Sommeliers are more than just dedicated to their profession. They are obsessed.
Somm, which premiered as the 2nd Annual Napa Valley Film Festival's opening screening Nov. 7, follows four sommeliers as they study for and take the M.S. exam, then learn the results. Director Jason Wise focuses on the chemistry between the four friends—the overtly funny Brian McClintic, the subtly funny Dustin Wilson, the confident and stylish DLynn Proctor and the driven Ian Cauble, nicknamed “Dad"—as they go through the grueling exam preparation together.
Fewer than 200 people in the world have ever earned the title Master Sommelier, which requires passing a final exam with three parts: wine service, theory and blind tasting. The focus of the movie is on test preparation, up to and including game day, but cameras were not permitted inside during the actual test. We watch as the candidates trace maps, attempt to memorize obscure grapes and regions and participate in blind tasting after blind tasting to sharpen their skills. In this all-consuming pursuit, there are late nights, neglected wives and girlfriends, multitasking by studying note cards while on a treadmill, and spit buckets everywhere.
Humor isn't lost in the observation of the group's obsessive pursuit. At one point, a mentor suggests to the candidates just a few days before the exam that they should relax—go see a movie, or get a massage. From the horrified looks on their faces, it's apparent that they will do no such thing. Another candidate consults a doctor, requesting a steroid to make certain his nose is clear for the blind tasting. In another funny sequence, some of the more obscure wine descriptors are discussed, from cat pee to a can of freshly opened tennis balls.
The sommeliers' blind tasting methodology is fascinating—they rattle off dozens of descriptors for a wine before most of us would have finished our first sip—but Wise lingers perhaps too long on tasting and rote memorization. Only an all-too-brief single scene features the service aspect of the test, despite that for most viewers, restaurant service is the primary form of interaction with a sommelier. (Also, in selecting four male candidates as his subjects, Wise limits women to the role of significant others, though there are 18 American female Master Sommeliers and about a quarter of current MS candidates are women.)
With its universal themes of camaraderie and dedication, the movie holds appeal even for those who aren't wine lovers. At moments, the candidates speak with a fervor usually reserved for politics or sports, not whether a wine's structure and flavor profile are more typical of an Albariño or an Alsatian white.
For more information about the Napa Valley Film Festival, or to purchase passes to see additional screenings of Somm, go to http://napavalleyfilmfest.org/.