If you have friends who fancy themselves wine experts, certain names roll off their tongue with admiration or are subject to vigerous debate, just like with people fascinated with movies, politics or sports. Wine geeks (many actually like the phrase!) can extoll the virtues of superstar winemakers Cathy Corison or Randall Grahm, or argue whether Jancis Robinson or Robert Parker has the superior palate.
And they follow the career paths of Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers; those who have reached the pinacle of academic knowledge about wine, and have demonstrated that knowledge over a series of increasingly stressful exams.
The movie Somm introduces us to four men, all I am guessing, in their late twenties or early thirties, as they approach the fourth and final exam in their pursuit to become a Master Sommelier. Only 201 people have passed this exam, and multiple attempts at it are almost looked upon as a badge of honor within the wine community.
The exam involves an oral quiz about miscellaneous wine minutiae, a Wine Service demonstration, and a blind tasting of six wines; three red, three white.
We watch them at their study sessions, where they pour unknown wines and analyze them according to the official “grid” which offers various categories of descriptors, such as fruit, acid, tannin, and complexity. The idea is to describe the wines with as much detail as possible, eliminate all but three possible grapes and then offer a final conclusion on the grape’s identity, along with the country of origin and vintage date.
Somm begins very strong, by quickly introducing the four contestants (and their innocent bystanders, aka wives/girlfriends in their respective lives). Once we understand the gauntlet that’s been thrown in front of them, the film gives us close-up detail as they try to memorize and internalize all the information that may get asked at the exam. Somm gives us lots of “how” (the score, by Brian Carmody, helps build the tension scene by scene). If you’re interested in process, and watching seemingly ordinary people pursue a special goal and the pressure that hard work takes on them and their families, Somm will entertain and perhaps inspire you.
But if you work in the wine or restaurant industry, or dream of joining Ian Cauble, Brian McClintic, DLynn Proctor and Dustin Wilson at a Masters exam at some point in your career, you are bound to walk out of Somm wishing you could have been wielding the camera, asking the questions that director Jason Wise avoided or at least didn’t make this cut (we can always hope for more footage on the DVD).
We never see the four guys at work (you know, at their jobs that enable them to afford the $995 exam fee, not to mention airfare to Dallas and five days in a hotel). There’s only brief footage of their respective managers, who I am guessing, must be comparing the upside of having their protegees passing this exam versus having them on the clock doing Sommelier stuff. The words “customer” and “guest” are rarely spoken by anyone in this movie.
And there is no context provided, very little explanation of why the world needs Master Sommeliers to begin with, or how anyone on Planet Earth produced, tasted and enjoyed wine prior to 1969, when the program was created.
Somm’s most intriguing figure is not one of the main characters, or their female companions, but the fatherly Fred Dame, who earned his MS title in 1984, only the third American to pass the exam. Mr. Dame is seen coaching these candidates in the arcane skill known as blind tasting, and there is one rather creepy scene where he role plays the part of an obnoxious restaurant customer with an oh-so-smooth student in order to demonstrate what might get demanded of him during the Service part of the three-part exam.
There’s a touching scene (which I wish could have played out longer) where Mr. Dame expresses a certain sadness at all the talented sommeliers he has been forced to fail over the years when he is called upon to serve as a judge at one of these exams.
But in his role as a mentor and role model to the four men in Somm, you wonder if Mr. Dame enjoys the power he has to watch his charges suffer, all in the name of . . . what?
It’s the “what” and “why” questions that are missing in Somm. In most fiction movies, you need heroes and villains (or at least adversaries). Somm has the heroes, but the adversary is this exam, which, let’s remember, is written and administered twice a year by actual people.
And that’s a major missing piece (call it the mid-palate) in this movie. We hear from several Master Sommeliers, in quick sound bites, but no one sits down with director Jason Wise, to give us the official lowdown from the Court itself. How exactly is this test written and what separates the four people who passed most recently (May 2013), from the fifty-nine who attempted it but failed. What exactly does the Court want?
Like many “New World” wines which start strong but don’t endure over the course of a long meal (or movie), Somm doesn’t follow through and develop its protagonists or explore the consequences of their hard work on behalf of the overall industry they represent.