SOMM, reviewed by Eve Bushman
The film SOMM, the correct spelling and abbreviation for the title sommelier, follows four candidates as they prepare to take the Court of Master Sommelier exams and obtain the title Master Sommelier. There are less than 200 that have the Master Sommelier (MS) distinction worldwide.
We follow four men, their other halves, their wine glasses and their ever-present ever-large personal set of flash cards up through the day of the test and the results. The candidates are Ian Cauble, Dustin Wilson, Brian McClintic and DLynn Proctor.
Quotes Tell the Story
Beginning with the question,“Are you ready to put your sanity at risk?”, we begin.
Candidate Ian Cauble begins by asking, “How often do we smell and breathe and appreciate what’s there…” in a reference to wine and life that I totally agree with! His girlfriend said that for Ian “wine comes before family…her.”
Candidate Dustin Wilson works alongside Ian. He’s married and has the experience of having had worked in a restaurant.
Candidate Brian McClintic is also married and has worked in a restaurant, and admits not to be “as entrenched in it to begin with” as the others are.
Candidate DLynn Proctor is already rumored to be the best new somm in America. Wants to be the best in a restaurant, and is therefore he’s after his MS. He takes great detail in his wardrobe as he prepares for work.
The film begins as the opening credits are pictured over the usual suspects: harvest, a cooperage, riddling, bottling, and a song where the words, “vintage is rare”, are part of the lyrics.
Several influential wine people comment during the film, including Chef Michael Mina, winemaker Bo Barrett, Master Sommeliers Rajat Parr, Michael Jordan and Peter Neptune and Reggie Narito.
The film gives a brief lesson in Vitis Vinifera, aka the main source of wine grapes, and explains that wine is part of the bible, the sacrament. Wine was healthier to drink than water, in fact, it was used to purify water.
Then we learn that it is a three-day test, given once a year and covers just about everything. 1969 was the year of the first exam, and MS Fred Dame was first American to pass. “Hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life” Dame said, a sentiment that seems to be echoed by all of the masters.
You have to be an “incredible taster” and use “blind tasting (to) increase your perception.” Each candidate goes through a litany of incoming thoughts before they describe color, clarity, aromas, taste, AND then guess the wine.
Some of the funnier descriptors the candidates came up with: “Granny’s closet”, “freshly opened can of tennis balls” and “cut green garden hose.”
The guys “motivate each other”, “feed off each other”, “push each other” and “give each other a hard time.”
They may say that’s a “ballsy call” and “put your balls on the table,” to one another as they taste wines, and one girlfriend compares them to “guys in a locker room.”
The other candidates often refer to Ian as “Dad” for taking things seriously at every practice tasting. He wants “focus” and gets irritated with the others.
“There is spit” in the bucket left over for the girlfriends/wives to clean up in the morning.
One married candidate said, “The happiest person when you pass is your spouse” because of the months of study – and abandonment of family and life moments.
The theory exam is oral and given by a panel of MS “asking obscure questions about wine.” Germany seems to be hard for people; the varietals and the winery names. Italian grapes are 3000 strong – and nearly impossible to learn every grape varietal. Hours and hours of study, flash cards – its like having another job.
The candidates Skype each other to quiz on flash cards, the time on the computer: 2:23 A.M.
They must also practice for the service portion of the exam. MS Dame plays the part of a customer that wants cold pink wine. And Proctor gives it to them. But it takes a few minutes, so he offers free drinks, while Dame keeps pestering him, and Proctor withstands it; never showing any emotion.
Fred Dame set up a practice tasting, but he is the most intimidating of “the court” for his perfect reputation. ”Dame-ing it” means he just smells wine – no tasting required – and he’ll know the wine and the vintage year. Dame gives them six wines and 25 minutes to do the same. During one lesson, he slapped one of the candidates on the head and criticized him. The candidate eventually responded by saying, “This sucks.”
Test Day Approaches
Three parts make up the test: Theory includes wine laws, regions, wine world, cigars, and five languages. Service refers to perfect service in a restaurant. Then there is a Tasting of three whites and three reds, timed on each, to describe the correct varietal, age, area…
They were told to do relaxation techniques suggested before exam. Good luck with that.
The candidates do more timed tastings to prepare. Each one is alone for the tasting and only we can hear how they have some of the same descriptors, maybe even give the same location and year. But not all. One candidate starts to feel helpless and loses his confidence. Another believes the wines were switched and never agrees that his palate was that off.
The wives and girlfriends are all at home waiting out the five days to pass – the test is in Dallas. In the last days before the exam Ian commented, “I was dreaming about my cards…6 hours today, 10 hours tomorrow to study them.”
Now at the exam you are “crapping bricks” as you see four MSs sitting across the six wines you have to taste, “and they ask you how you feel.” The timer goes off, set at 25 minutes, just as you touch first wine. It’s just “surreal.”
One candidate said, “Wines are more nervous…trembling…waiting for me to devour them.”
Take Home Messages
“Go to farmers market to keep palate alive, keep on doing it,” so you can recall that smell.
“Lick rocks” to be able to describe minerality.
It is “incomprehensible” to study alone.
Which would you do the day before the test: Go to an MD to clear a nostril? Go for a run on a treadmill – with index cards? Shave off a beard? Leave your study partner behind and work with another? Iron the tie you plan to wear, carbo load, prep your palate with wine and polish your shoes?
“Pass or fail they will never tell you what the wine were.”
“Today it is possible I become a master sommelier.”
If you want to know who passed watch the film, I’m not that kind of reviewer. Six of the total 60 that took the exam passed. Some “brilliant people” take the exam five to seven times before passing. It sounds like the state bar exam.
Now, if you have the MS you have to be a MS at all times.
But the film sure makes me want to read more, learn more, taste more, do everything more. Where to go next?
93 minutes, color, 2012
A film by Jason Wise
Special features: The Making of Somm: Glasses, Guns, and Cops • The Making of Somm: Music • Alternate Ending: Judgment of Top | Somm • Sommeliers’ Commentary Track • Official Trailer
Somm takes the viewer on a humorous, emotional and illuminating look into the mysterious world of the Court of Master Sommeliers and their massively intimidating Master Sommelier Exam.
The Court of Master Sommeliers is one of the world’s most prestigious and exclusive organizations. Since its inception, fewer than 200 candidates have reached the exalted Master level. The exam covers literally every nuance of the world of wine. Those who have passed have put their sanity at risk to pull it off. Shrouded in secrecy, access to the Court has always been strictly regulated, and cameras have never been allowed anywhere near the exam, until now. How much do you think you know about wine?
Director Jason Wise says about making the film: “The idea for the film came about just after I graduated from film school at Chapman University in Southern California. I was bartending to pay rent and trying to make a film about Champagne during World War 1. A friend of mine named Brian McClintic who was working as a server at Morton’s steak house told me he was going to start taking the first level of tests to become a sommelier. Brian told me I had to come and see the way they practice for the test, I was blown away. I watched him practice Blind Tasting, where one has to determine what wines are inside glasses in front of them using only smell and taste. They could be anything in the world. It was one of the most insane and beautiful things I had ever seen in my life, I knew we had to set it to music and that it would be my first film.”
“Engaging! Reveals the astonishing level of qualification required to enter the top ranks of sommeliers.” - The Hollywood Reporter
“If you dream of becoming a sommelier, or just have a love of wine, this movie is a must-see.” – The Huffington Post
“Fascinating and often funny. Somm makes it clear that Master Sommeliers are more than just dedicated to their profession. They are obsessed.” – Wine Spectator
“Engrossing and well-made. Deserves to be seen by anyone who has ever enjoyed a glass of wine.” – Napa Valley Register
“A delicious tipple. Amusing and suspenseful… entertaining and enlightening.”- New York Post
“A must-watch.”- Serious Eats
UPC: 7-20229-91566-3 | Catalog #: FRF 915663D | SRP: $24.95 | Street Date: September 3 Packaged in 100% Certified Green Forestry Eco-Pack
A Samuel Goldwyn Release