Somm - Dustin Smelling Wine

Somm, directed by Jason Wise, is a documentary feature that follows four sommeliers en route to taking their Master Sommelier (M.S.) exams.  Advertised as the hardest exam in the world, it might be close to true – with under 200 M.S.s in its almost 40 years of existence it doesn’t have a friendly pass rate.  The four candidates the film follows are Ian Cauble, Dustin Wilson, Brian McClintic, and DLynn Proctor. These four guys are excellent young somms, and the film begins by introducing them in the midst of their studying.

Wise does an excellent job introducing the viewer to the four candidates, the world of wine and being a sommelier, and the exam.  I never heard of this exam before and could hardly believe what a Master Sommelier is expected to know.

Each candidate must pass each of three parts to the test: theory, service, and tasting (where they literally have to say what the vintage, maker, and wine is simply by tasting). 25 minutes to deduce 6 wines, blindly and as they go through their descriptions that gear them towards naming the wine, they all start to sound like Rain Man – spouting out flavor, aroma, body, region faster than I can type the words here (and I’m a fast typist).

Somm captivated and entertained.  Its pacing was perfect – a little fast in such a way that it kept moving smoothly throughout the full 93 minutes.  The intro is especially beautiful and feels like an ode to the world of wine and viticulture: it’s a gorgeously shot montage, following the grape from the vine to harvest, to crush, to bottle, all in front of a romantic, lyrical song with an older vibe from a crooning, sexy-voiced songstress.

The music coupled with the montage really prepares you for what’s to come – a labor of love for the filmmaker and for the sommeliers on the screen.

In fact, the music really helps guide the film’s moods, making the viewer feel relaxed when our protagonists are loving life and drinking wine, tense and nervous before the men take their exams, or upbeat when other wine-experts are explaining the different facets of their wine world.

Wise excelled at showing how complex this exam really is and how deep a Master Sommelier’s knowledge must go – he introduces several experts in the food world (Michael Mina, Rajat Parr, for example), other M.S.s (Fred Dame, Jay Fletcher), winery owners from Germany, France, and Italy, friends and family of the would-be M.S.s, and even brings in Bo Barrett (winemaker at Chateau Montelana and portrayed by Chris Pine in Bottle Shock).

It’s through these interviews with parents, co-workers, current M.S.s, wives and girlfriend, and the M.S. candidates themselves that the viewer sees just how stressful and difficult this test is.  But what Wise decides to show in the interviews really shines – he invites the viewer into this super-exclusive world and lets us laugh at the stories they share and gawk at the complexity of what this test will be like for each new candidate.

After watching the movie, it’s hard not to feel personally connected with the guys on the screen: after all, the filming takes place in incredibly personal settings, such as bedrooms, workplaces, and hotel rooms of the men.

Even more, watching the movie feels like going through the process with these guys.  While they are waiting for their results, I’m sure my heart rate increased to a steady gallop.

There’s one great scene where the guys are at a dinner table, practicing their tasting, and going through the tasting grid to blindly decipher exactly what they are drinking.  This scene captured what these gentlemen are really like (even if slightly inebriated) and allowed everyone (viewer of film and people in film) to relax, let loose, and laugh.

Somm - Dustin, Brian, Ian

Somm held my attention 100% of the time.  This was partially because of the content and story and partially because of the way the film was strung together.  The juxtaposition between the image track and the sound track (both music and dialogue) is what really keeps the film moving.

The kinds of shots constantly change: from static interview shot to chronicling the guys in their everyday actions and exam-preparations in bedrooms; from dolly shots in Tuscany to time-lapse shots in Burgundy; from vineyards and grapes to shots of wine glasses filled with wine and spilling/breaking – almost like a study of how a wine glass can break.

SOMM - Vineyard

Interestingly, as the film creeps closer to the exams the wine glasses are destroyed in progressively more aggressive actions – first it’s just spilled on the table, then it breaks, then it shatters, then it explodes!  It’s a fun way to build tension as the candidates get closer to their exam and pending results.

In the end, it’s a relief to see the relief in the candidates – the hardest exam of their lives has ended… and I won’t give away the results, but it’s a nail-biter.  Somm is a fabulously fun and entertaining film about wine lovers and what it takes to achieve a goal.   It’s made well and is filled with heart and wine-stained smiles.