Somm: Film Review

Somm One Sheet - P 1969
Engaging doc isn't just for wine nerds.

Jason Wise reveals the astonishing level of qualification required to enter the top ranks of sommeliers.

SEATTLE — Even those who view high-end oenophilia as an elitist waste of money will have to marvel at the dedication of the four wine freaks in Somm, men intent on entering an exclusive club of sommeliers that to date has only admitted around 200 experts to its ranks. Jason Wise's doc is reminiscent of 2009's Kings of Pastry, which focused on a similar test for pastry chefs; but this film has broader commercial appeal, and should attract its share of gourmet viewers at the arthouse.

Having heard of the Court of Master Sommeliers -- an international guild setting standards for wine professionals -- from his friend Brian McClintic, Wise grew fascinated enough to join McClintic and three others as they prepared to take the exam for the group's top rank, Master Sommelier. The four men we meet are distinct enough for viewers to choose favorites: McClintic, a former jock who cracks the film's best jokes (surprisingly, we hear that many somms are former athletes); Dustin Wilson, who views studying the history and climate of wine regions as a way of traveling the world; DLynn Proctor, a dapper self-starter who sees the sommelier as a model of hospitality-industry professionalism and has decided to become that ideal.

And then there's Ian Cauble, for whom wine is a lifelong love: A home video shows him evaluating a dinner party's wine at the age of nine. Mockingly called "Dad" by his peers, Ian has an obsessiveness and self-seriousness about the subject that makes him seem the most likely to pass.

The amount of rote learning required by the test is staggering -- the boys go on all-night benders with thousands of flash cards covering every detail of wine production and enjoyment -- though the longer we hear how hard the exam's written component is, the more we wish for a survivor of law or med school to offer some perspective.

More engaging is the test's blind-tasting section, in which each candidate will sample three reds and three whites and be expected to name the winery that produced each. The phrases used here to describe a wine's sensory qualities go far beyond the familiar vocabulary, with tasters claiming to smell "pool toy," "granny's purse" and "freshly opened can of tennis balls" in the vintages before them. Many viewers will be pleased to note how often even experts can't agree -- not just on the winery or region, but on the continent where a wine was produced.

Observing roughly the last three weeks of study, the doc generates the expected "who'll pass?" tension while squeezing in a good deal of color about wine history and the status a sommelier has come to have in the world of fine dining. Photography is inconsistent, with some scenes suffering choppy video motion, but generally fine, especially in scenes ranging outside the candidates' study rooms to rolling vineyards and cobwebby cellars.

Production Company: Forgotten Man Films

Director: Jason Wise

Producers: Jason Wise, Christina Wise, Jackson Myers

Executive producer: William Fowler

Director of photography: Jackson Myers

Music: Brian Carmody

Editors: Jason Wise, Jackson Myers, Bryan Carr

No rating, 93 minutes