When you or I sip a glass of wine, we experience the aroma and the flavor as we quaff it down. When a sommelier sips wine, he or she experiences a universe captured in a moment of time. The art, the craft, the history, the geography, even the time of year are there to be discerned by the educated palate and obsessive study that comes of being a somm, and the most refined, the educated and obsessive are those who attempt the exam to become a Master Sommelier, a test that has a fail ratio of 90%. It is not for the faint of heart.
Jason Wises film, SOMM, watches as four candidates prepare for the exam. They have all been through it before. They are all exquisitely aware of what they need to do to pass. They are all terrified. In addition to being able to identify a wine by region, year, and type with a precision of flowery prose that includes descriptors such as bruised violet as distinct from fresh violet. Then there are the grueling tests of the minutiae and esoterica of the wine industry, as well as a service test that pits the potential master sommelier against his worst nightmare in a restaurant setting. Mountains of flash cards, midnight Skyping with study buddies, and practice sessions with masters meant to discover their every weakness demonstrate not only their love of the grape, but their sheer determination and mental toughness in the face of a test that can change their lives for the better. Travel, teaching, speaking engagements, and/or their pick of high-paying, prestigious jobs can be theirs if they can just deal gracefully with a diner whose preference is for something cold and pink, and nail the names of the hundreds of Italian varietals. That latter feat estimated by an Italian wine-maker as something that only a maniac could accomplish. Yet its just so much window-dressing. The real reward for each of them, and this is made clear every moment of this docs running time, is proving to themselves that they can cut it.
Three of the candidates, Ian Cauble, Brian McClintic, & Dustic Wilson are best friends and work as a group with endless tastings, endless quizzes, and the occasional needling. The fourth, DLynn PRoctor, is going it alone, though his drive is no less a marvel to behold, as he steps forth, sartorially immaculate, and oenologically fanatical.
We also get the perspective of their families and their significant others, who are supportive, though sometimes bemused, and always (and rightly) grossed-out about having to clean up the spit-buckets leftover from a night of tasting. Said bucket being the wine itself, which is not swallowed, but rather expectorated in an attempt to keep the head and palate clear. The S.O.s are not quite at the breaking point of being coupled with men who, they understand and accept, find their careers more important than their relationships at this point, but when they discuss it, what isnt said is as important as what is, particularly when coupled with a downturned lip, and a faraway stare.
The masters are just as interested in helping the talented candidates succeed, its part of their official duties, in fact, though their interest comes in the form of rigorous practices and dressing downs that are as blunt as they are unemotional. The first, Fred Dame, has even lent his name, in verb form, to a type of acing a test, and he is held in an almost apotheotic awe by even the other masters who were accredited after him. One recalls being intimidated into a deep-sea fishing trip he didnt want to take, and then being intimidated into drinking a rare and wondrous wine from a Styrofoam cup. It was, he sums up, the best glass of wine he ever had.
What is most fascinating about the process is the sheer force of will each of these four men exhibit in force-feeding themselves facts, beating themselves up over missing a wine identification, and the neglect of their significant others. Yet each also shows a formidable mental toughness, each in a different way. Cauble, called Dad by the others, with his analytical approach and forgoing of sleep is the intellectual of the group, setting the standard, but its McClintic, with a wit as dry as a fine vintage that is the heart of the group and the film. Anticipating the tasting portion of the three-day test in Dallas, he owned up to being afraid of the wines, three white and three red with four Master Sommeliers behind them judging him. He breaks the tension, the need to cry and assume the fetal position, by pointing out that if hes scared, imagine how scared the wines are. You will not get a better demonstration of grace under fire.
SOMM captures the tension, the drama, resilience of the human spirit with a fine, unfussy clarity and even a touch of whimsy. By the time the results are revealed, its hard to remember to keep breathing, and when those results are revealed, its hard not to cheer for those who passed, and weep for those who didnt. This is a film about the wonder of winemaking as alchemy, even teetotalers cant fail to be impressed by the process, and about the need for excellence so overpowering that nothing, and no one, else matters.