Filmmaker Jason Wise hadn’t heard of the Master Sommelier test until his friend, Brian McClintic, began studying for it. After following McClintic and a trio of other hopefuls for two years as they sought to pass the exam, he is currently finishing up SOMM, a documentary set to premiere Nov. 7 at, fittingly, the Napa Valley Film Festival.
Wise decided the exam, whose pass rate is only 10 percent, was worthy of feature-length consideration after watching McClintic prepare for it by immersing himself in intense blind taste tests for practice. “It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he says, noting that it involves breaking down everything about half a dozen glasses of wine (split evenly between reds and whites sourced from around the world) in 25 minutes, from vintage and region to chemical composition. “They have to know, when I say everything about wine and the history of it, literally everything, down to chemistry levels. It is absolutely absurd.”
The blind tasting is just one of three parts of the test, which costs $900 to take and also includes oral theory and service components. “I was one of those people before this started that thought they knew about wine,” says Wise. “I realized I don't know a goddamn thing about wine at all.”
The first successful exam -- it’s administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers, headquartered in Devon, England -- was completed in 1966. Since then, only 197 people have passed it internationally. During the course of the film, Wise interviewed Fred Dame, a Master Sommelier who founded the American chapter of the Court. “I said, ‘Well, why not make the test easier?’ He goes, ‘Why would I do that? I already passed it!’”
Of the film’s four subjects, who studied from home in San Francisco and Dallas, the director notes: “They run their personal lives, their minds, everything ragged in the process.” But why? These people don’t have to become Masters to work as sommeliers in high-end restaurants. “They decide, ‘I’m going to climb Everest and they just keep climbing until they either die or pass.”
Wise chose not to be in the room to film the final exam. “There's nothing that happens in a room with a few people taking a test that could be as dramatic as the build-up,” he says. “The process, the journey, is much scarier than what happens in the room.”
Although tight-lipped about the exact end result, he admits the dénouement was tragic for some. (With the statistics of the test, it is safe to assume that not all of the students he followed were going to pass.) “That was very hard, becoming friends with these guys and remaining autonomous to what they were doing,” says Wise. “I was expecting failure. I was expecting to pitch people a film where no one passes.”