Ever wonder what it takes to become a Master Sommelier? Or what that title even means? Last February, I shared a glimpse of the process for passing the Certified Sommelier exam. But now, with the release of SOMM, a film from writer/director Jason Wise, you can see just how intense things can get for the cream-of-the-crop of professional sommeliers.
SOMM is a documentary narrative that follows four Master Sommelier candidates through their journey of studying, blind tasting, and quite frankly, rabidly obsessing, about passing the highest level examination through the internationally heralded Court of Master Sommeliers. The test, which has often been referred to as one of the hardest exams in the world, has only passed about 200 candidates since its inception nearly 40 years ago. It includes three parts: an oral theory exam in which candidates must answer a flood of questions aloud from a panel of judges; a service exam in which candidates must seamlessly serve a table of current Master Sommeliers as they exhibit qualities of some of the most demanding dining customers; and finally, a blind tasting in which candidates must identify 6 wines by sight, smell and taste right down to the grape, style, region, and vintage. It’s no walk in the park, that’s for sure.
The four candidates include Brian McClintic, Dustin Wilson and Ian Cauble—all who did most of their studying together in San Francisco—and DLynn Proctor, a Texas native whose debonair fashion sense and rhythmic wine tasting style has afforded him the nickname “Señor Somm” in sommelier circles. (Though Proctor had less screen time than the other three somms, his inclusion in the mix adds a decidedly dapper dynamic to the storyline.)
SOMM shows the depth to which candidates pour over mountains of hand-made flash cards cramming every little detail of wine and grape knowledge into their heads from the names of the DOCG classifications of Italy’s Piedmont region to the various levels of Germany’s Prädikatswein categorizations. They trace and memorize viticultural maps from all over the world and taste countless bottles of wine hammering out a cascade of descriptors such as dried violet, wet chalk, lanolin, fresh cut grass, vanilla, and even “a freshly opened can of tennis balls,” to help narrow down the grape, origin and vintage of a wine they are tasting blind.
While we see the four candidates winding themselves up into a veritable mental breakdown, Wise also manages to weave a counterbalance of interview clips from an array of current Master Sommeliers including Peter Neptune, Geoff Kruth and the inimitable Fred Dame who is the only sommelier in the United States to pass the Master exam in one try. (Most candidates have to return 3,4, or more times to pass all three categories.) Clips from the current masters show the great community of mentors new candidates have to lean on in their studies while additional interviews from the supportive and loving significant others of this unbelievably intense group of gentleman help present a well-rounded perspective as well as the relief to viewers that, there really is life after the Master Sommelier exam.
To say the show is an indulgence in the world of