‘Somm’ Uncorks the Agony and the Ecstasy of the Wine Expert

Nancy Lackey Shaffer


If sommeliers, or “somms,” are the new rock stars of the restaurant industry, as one chef proclaims, then Somm is their behind-the-music rockumentary. This stylish documentary follows a group of professional sommeliers based in San Francisco as they prepare to take the Master Sommelier Exam, dreaded for its level of difficulty and, therefore, prized for the rare distinction it imparts to those who pass.


Fewer than 200 Master Sommeliers have been named since the Court of Master Sommeliers was created in the United Kingdom in 1969; the three portions (Theory, Tasting, Service) are intense, and preparation for the exam happens months—and sometimes years—ahead of time. The single-minded dedication and rigor of the test candidates is not in and of itself novel; it’s the way director Jason Wise manages to build an engaging story out of something that could easily have been as dry as an Old World Sauvignon Blanc.


We meet Ian Cauble, Dustin Wilson, Brian McClintic and DLynn Proctor three weeks before they take the exam in February of 2011. It was an easy group to follow: these fellows work, play and study together, and as the day of the exam inches closer, they spend more time together than apart (or with their significant others). While they all share a deep and abiding love of wine, their backgrounds and philosophies vary widely. McClintic is a former jock who finds parallels between the worlds of the sommelier and the athlete, particularly in the spirit of fierce competition. Wilson sees wine as a way of traveling. Proctor seems strongly driven by the prestige of his profession. And then there’s young, serious Ian, obsessed with wine since he was a child, preparing for the exam with unwavering focus and compelled by a quiet yet profound confidence.


The Theory portion of the exam requires a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of wine; every grape varietal in every major region of every wine-making country in the world is fair game, along with the history, culture and technical aspects of the winemaking industry itself. Service is a lesson in composure and resourcefulness: candidates work in a mock restaurant occupied by intentionally difficult customers. The sheer amount of information candidates need to assimilate and put to practical use is daunting, to say the least.

But it’s the blind tastings that strike the greatest fear in the hearts of the somms, and from which the film generates the greatest tension. Three reds, three whites, 25 minutes to identify the region, varietal and vintage of each one. Nuances of acidity, texture, aroma and flavor that elude an inexperienced tongue tell a story to a sommelier and serve as a roadmap to identification. No two candidates shown in Somm agree completely on any one wine, begging two questions: who gets it right, and just how subjective is wine tasting, even among the industry’s best and brightest? Regardless, watching these individuals describe each wine with such subtlety is a positively spine-tingling experience.


Wine enthusiasts will drink up the ample insider knowledge provided by winemakers and Master Sommeliers (including Fred Dame, who brought the Court to the United States and the serendipitously named Emily Wines, the sole female somm interviewed; this is a heavily male-dominated industry). However, thanks to decent pacing and interesting subjects, even the casual filmgoer outside of Sonoma or Napa should be well entertained for 90 minutes. You needn’t be an oenophile to wait with bated breath to see who passes the exam, but you’ll probably want to wash Somm down with a full glass of your favorite vintage.


Author Bio:

Nancy Lackey Shaffer is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


To purchase this film, visit www.firstrunfeatures.com


Photo: Rogersm (Flickr).

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