Thursday, September 11, 2014

Film Review: SOMM

Four sommeliers attempt to pass the prestigious Master Sommelier exam, a test with one of the lowest pass rates in the world.

I had been hearing good reviews of SOMM for a couple of years and finally got around to watching it this past weekend.  The film tells the story of 4 men who are studying to pass the extremely difficult exam to earn the title of Master Sommelier.  (Click here for an overview of wine certifications.)  The exam has 3 sections:  theory, service, and blind tasting.

The film follows the Master Sommelier candidates as they study together, taste (and spit) late into the evenings, and make thousands of flash cards.  What could have become monotonous scenes of guys talking and tasting are made compelling because, whether or not you’re interested in wine, it’s fun to watch passionate people who are experts in a field doing what they do best. The talking/tasting scenes are also intercut with footage of the wine-making process and animated maps of wine regions.  The transitional shots of wine glasses exploding in slow-motion were pretty cool too.  I will never take this wine exam, but as a wine student who’s taken 6 other exams so far, I sympathize with these guys and their obsessive studying.  (In fact, this is exactly why I started making wine cheat sheets.) 

The guys are also sympathetic because the odds are against them:  this exam has a pass rate of 10%.  We see the sacrifices they’ve made to study and prepare, we see what this dream has required of them, and the impact it’s had on their relationships and families, and we want them to get through it and succeed.  Some might say they’re crazy and should quit, but I think most of us have a soft spot for someone fully committed to a big dream who’s willing to work extremely hard (possibly to a crazy degree) to make it happen.

I like that the film shows the analytical and deductive tasting process, and emphasizes that it’s about training, not talent.  I also like that they made fun of some of the sillier tasting terms that don’t mean anything – like “my grandmother’s closet.”  (In my International Sommelier Guild class we were taught to use aroma/flavor descriptors that will mean something to another person.  If the point is to communicate how the wine smells/tastes, then you have to be comprehensible to someone other than yourself.)

Mixed in with all the stress and studying, SOMM conveys one of my favorite things about wine:  the way it can only be fully understood when you learn the history, geology, geography, and culture of where the grapes are grown and the wine is made.  At the same time, you have to consider the modern technology involved and the global business aspects of the industry.  It’s incredibly complex, and there’s a lot to know, and that’s why the test is so hard.

I think it’s worth mentioning my husband’s viewpoint.  He’s not a wine aficionado, other than what he’s picked up from living with me, but he IS a certified film snob who has made his own independent films and written a lot of film criticism.  Film Snob Husband gave SOMM ***1/2 stars out of ****, and appreciates that it doesn’t skimp on the “shop talk.”  So many reality shows and documentaries gloss over the actual work being done, in favor of trying to create drama by focusing on the personalities, relationships, or competition involved.  Film Snob Husband and I both prefer the style of SOMM, where we’re a fly on the wall in a world we’d otherwise never get to see.

Here's the trailer:

(SOMM:  Not Rated, 2012, 93 minutes, Directed by Jason Wise, Starring Brian McLintic, Dustin Wilson, Ian Cauble)

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