How much do you know about wine? That’s essentially the question that a few select candidates are asked each year at the Master Sommelier Exam. But the manner of questioning is far from straightforward, instead taking the form of a multi-day slugfest that’s aimed at tricking some of the best minds in the wine world through blind taste tests and theoretical oral examinations. Taking a look at this little-known world is writer and director Jason Wise in his new film, SOMM.
Shot over three years, with a production budget that was bootstrapped on favors and borrowed equipment, the film follows a group of close friends as they study for months on end. As much a story of friendship as it is about obsession, through SOMM Wise is able to bring out characters as he points a lens into the private lives of aspiring sommeliers. What he finds is a mix of a hyper-masculine competitiveness and sweet camaraderie, epitomized in late-night study sessions that inevitably devolve into pot shots and goading after one too many bottles have been uncorked.
While there are moments of humor—much of it fueled by the admission that fermented grape juice is at the center of the obsession—there are also great scenes of scholastic acrobatics. Candidates rattle off characteristics based on a memorized chart, cataloguing the personality of the wine until they are able to narrow it down to a continent, a country, a region and a valley. In spite of their talent, even the best can be fooled by an unassuming glass of red or white. For this reason, fewer than 200 candidates have reached the master level in the 40 years since the first title was awarded.
Visually, SOMM reads as it is: a low budget film shot in mostly unglamorous locales. However, mixed into the messy apartments and dim hotel rooms are shots of the Italian and Californian countryside where growers talk about the qualities of grapes. What pulls the film together in the end is tight, engaging editing that allows the characters to drive the story. By the end, you’ve completely bought into their obsession—even if you don’t know the first thing about wine.
Images courtesy of SOMM