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Sommeliers on Film

Somm, a documentary following four Master Sommelier candidates, debuted this week at the Napa Valley Film Festival

MaryAnn Worobiec
Posted: November 9, 2012

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/.

More on the film 'Somm':

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  November 9, 2012 5:11pm ET
In the real world, women are assuming the roles of sommeliers. Seems out of touch for a documentary to ignore that sea change.
Geoff Kruth
California —  November 9, 2012 9:12pm ET
Regarding the comment on women as sommeliers, I saw the film at the premiere and it follows four real-life friends - one of whom happens to be African-American

There is some wonderful commentary by fellow female Masters candidates and Master Sommelier Emily Wines.

I don't think the film is trying to represent the entire industry; it is the story of four good friends pursuing the same goal.
Idaho —  November 10, 2012 1:23am ET
Exactly Geoff! How about watching the movie first before you comment Harvey!
Yuki Saito
San Francisco, CA, USA —  November 11, 2012 1:33pm ET
I was fortunate enough to see the movie on 7th which was exactly what I expected. Intense, funny and heart-breaking!

As for limited exposure of women in the trade, I understand the sentiment/resentment (I am one of the minorities. And yet I thought the movie honestly reflected the current industry of sommeliers (predominantly male though women are breaking in for sure).

The movie is a documentary and it should reflect the reality unless the theme is about "equal opportunity of gender" etc.

On the other hand, I would love to see a movie "sommeliere (lady sommelier)" which, I am sure, will expose a different type of struggle in addition to the usual ones. Anyone interested?

David Crowther
Tuscaloosa, AL USA —  November 12, 2012 11:04am ET
No offense but I'm a little tired of people over analyzing the political correctness of everything. Maybe the only people available to the director were men.
I very much would like to see the film.
Marlene Rossman
Newport Beach California —  November 12, 2012 8:02pm ET
I have not seen the film so I have no horse in this race. However, as a sommeliere (1999-2002) in one of the most difficult markets-New York, I must admit I had my challenges. Suffice it to say that there were patrons who insisted that a woman can't possibly be a somm and asked for the "guy." Others male patrons were delighted to have a female somm and I suspect they felt they did not have to "show" their wine knowledge.

When I left New York and became a somm in Laguna Beach (2003-2006) it was very different. Different more progressive coast/ more recent time frame both had to do with the easy acceptance I found here.

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