Written and directed by Jason Wise. Starring Bo Barrett, Shayn Bjornholm, Dave Cauble, and Ian Cauble.
Bottom line: Somm is a stellar documentary about the fascinating world of sommeliers.
A sommelier is an expert of wine. Sommeliers assist restaurants in wine selections and wine pairings. There are several levels of official sommeliers with the highest rank being the Master. In the decades that the test has been around, only a couple hundred people have passed around the world. Somm is a documentary that follows a group of guys as they complete their year of preparation for the exam to become Master Sommeliers.
Somm does a wonderful job of balancing the magnitude of the test (by establishing its difficulty and significance) as well as the emotional impact of the test. We come to feel (not just understand) how hard people study for the test and the stress it creates. Each of the students are presented in such a way that you root for them all. Initially, I thought Ian came across as abrasive and obnoxious but by the end, I was rooting for him just as much as I was rooting for everyone else.
The test itself is broken into three sections: a theory test, a serving test, and a blind tasting. You can’t focus on all three sections, so which one do you choose? Before watching this movie, that’s a question that never would’ve occurred to me but I think Somm nails it. I read a comment somewhere that the film doesn’t really emphasize the importance of the serving portion. I agree but I have a potential idea as to why.
The Theory portion requires an extensive knowledge of wine. One must know the names of countless wineries and regions, historical details, and details about the creation of wine. It is however, a test. Everyone knows what tests are like and nobody likes ‘em. The rigorous study for this part is the main vehicle for coming to relate to the characters, but the theory element itself isn’t emphasized.
Unless you’ve worked in the service or food industry, the Service portion of the exam probably won’t mean much to you. We do get to see one practice test where a couple master sommeliers pose as difficult customers. “We want something between a red and a white that goes with our fish,” orders the customer, “but we want it cold. Ice cold.” The hopeful trainee gives a selection suggestion, must handle the realization that he doesn’t have that particular wine, then must quickly chill the wine. This one scene is sufficient to capture the name of the service portion of the test.
In the Tasting portion, the examinees are given three reds and three whites. They have to smell and taste each and name-say everything there is to be said about them: the alcohol level, the sweetness, the fruits and flavors incorporated into the wine, the region if not the winery, and a potential year.
The Tasting portion is a major point of interest in the film and it’s a brilliant decision. We all know wine. Many of us, I think it’s fair to say, enjoy wine. The image of a person who can taste a wine and provide incite into the elixir is one of character and class.
I can tell you a red from a white. As a slight aside, we got a bottle of five-dollar wine one night instead of the normal Three-Buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s. We decided that Three-Buck Chuck is just bad (but you know, you’ll have that for three dollars) and the five-dollar wine was still bad but at least it tasted like wine. It gave us the feeling that somewhere out there exists wine that actually tastes good. I’m practically a sommelier!
Anyway, with this basis, the film is able to build from a subject to which we can all (in varying levels) relate.
There was one point, however, where the film slipped a bit. During a practice tasting, the one person said a Chardonnay was some other type of white wine. The point of the scene was emphasis how he was cracking under pressure but the simplicity of his error almost undermined the difficulty of the test.
If he said a wine from Nepal was from California or a region with completely different style of wine, it would be accomplishing the same task. It would show that he was cracking while maintaining the difficulty of the test. How can this guy be an expert if can’t tell a Chardonnay from a categorically different wine?
That said it was a very brief scene that didn’t detract from the film all that much. Somm manages to navigate an esoteric subject in a compelling way. It is a beautifully crafted documentary that I highly recommend.
Please let me know what you think of my assessment and/or Somm in a comment below! Do you have a favorite wine? I think mine is Vodka…alright maybe I’m not a sommelier. Thanks for reading!