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 wine geeks is an understatement— something that would be worth a Christopher Guest mockumentary a la “Best In Show,” “This is Spinal Tap,” and “Waiting for Guffman.” But wine geek or not, you can’t help but get wrapped up in all the wine-study frenzy. Especially when you see the intensity that pursues during exam week, which just happens to be held at the Four Seasons Dallas at Las Colinas during the film.
“We approached SOMM from the perspective that wine is not a secret, it is something worth working hard to understand,” says writer/director Jason Wise. “The thing we truly hope people walk away from the film with is two-fold; the feeling of enjoying a movie about something they didn’t understand when it started, and the need to immediately have a glass of wine when it finishes.”
For someone who has completed two of the four levels in the journey to becoming a Master Sommelier, I can say the film is an exhilarating experience. It’s funny, eye-opening and emotional all at once. And if you’ve ever spent endless hours, blood, sweat and/or tears to accomplish anything, you’ll probably agree.
But there are a few other Texas Master Somms who have achieved this hard fought certification and can share a similar sentiment in what a film like SOMM means to them.
“My good friend, Doug Frost, who is a Master Sommelier as well as a Master of Wine suggested I take the exam. I wanted to see what it was about and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The process is grueling and requires an incredible amount of study. SOMM gives a realistic view of what it takes to go for the diploma. Not everyone understands the different elements and skills required. It’s not just opening and serving wine. It takes years of study and preparation before sitting the Advanced and Master Level and then it may take several attempts. I should know, it took me a few times!”
– Guy Stout, Master Sommelier, Glazer’s (Houston)
“I pursued the Master Sommelier Diploma because of my passion for wine and desire to learn everything I could about it. SOMM does a very good job of depicting the level of commitment and intensity that goes into this very specialized craft and helps me explain to the general public what exactly I have accomplished.”
– Craig Collins, Master Sommelier, Dalla Terra Winery Direct (Austin)
“Pursuing the Master level certification is one of those things that has helped me keep my mind sharp in my career in wine. And yes, it is REALLY that hard. Watching SOMM put me through that emotional roller coaster again. There were so many instances where I went through the same things staying up all night going through cards, experiencing the disappointment of not passing a part of the test, and eventually the thrill of finally becoming a Master. It’s great that my friends and family can see truly what its about and what get a glimpse at what we go through!”
– Melissa Monosoff, Master Sommelier, Pioneer Wine Company (Dallas)
“I love wine (and other beverages) and serving people through the hospitality profession. I have a culinary degree so arrived at wine from the perspective of food. Each of these allows me to meet people and take a journey together. Food and beverage encompass so many aspects of life from social interaction to history, arts, science, and even politics.
“The test is grueling. In the service portion, one must demonstrate grace, hospitality, and adaptability under pressure. The blind tasting portion tests the ability to know wines, but also to know oneself: What is your tasting style? What are your strengths and weaknesses? How do you deal with anxiety? How confident are you in your abilities? Can you get beyond “the static”? All of these questions come to light during tasting. And finally, theory knowledge underlies most aspects of the exam. Hence, the astounding collections of questions and notes that many sommeliers assemble. Sommeliers keep the index card industry in business!
“I am glad that Jason Wise was able to capture both the romance of the process and the reality of the exam. There are many myths about the exam, which is seen as testing arcane and esoteric knowledge by some. The reality is that the path to Master Sommelier is a journey, perhaps even a quest, and that the important knowledge and experience is gained before ever attempting the exam. The exam is just a culmination of the process.”
– James Tidwell, Master Sommelier, Four Seasons Las Colinas (Dallas)
In truth, you don’t have to be a sommelier to appreciate this film. Wine enthusiasts and even the wine curious can easily appreciate what this story has to reveal. If you’ve ever had to work hard at something you absolutely love, you’ll find SOMM both touching and inspiring.
Last week Dallas locals had the chance to view a limited screening of the film at the Angelika Film Centers in Dallas and Plano and this week, the film comes to Austin’s Violet Crown Cinema beginning June 28 through the first week of July. (A special SOMM premiere event will take place Thursday, June 27 at 7pm with one of Austin’s own Master Sommeliers, Devon Broglie of Whole Foods Market who will host a special wine tasting reception prior to the screening. http://violetcrowncinema.com/movie.php?slug=somm-premiere)
The film has had very limited screening throughout the country. But is you can’t make the Austin shows, the film was just released on iTunes https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/somm/id658623737 a few days ago allowing curious parties to enjoy the great grape game from the comfort of their own home.