The 2012 documentary Somm chronicles the plight of 4 advanced Sommeliers as they attempt to take what sounds like essentially the hardest test you can possibly take. I knew that wine tasting and the world of wine was complicated and detailed, but I had no idea exactly how crazy and almost impossible the industry is. This film started with the introductions of all the sommeliers being followed and moved on to explain the test itself, intricacies of the industry and the wine world and while doing so weaved in personal stories, anecdotes, and words of wisdom from the four sommeliers who had been studying their butts off to try to pass an essentially impossible test.
To add some context, the Master Sommelier exam is made up of three parts.
3. Blind Tasting
Theory is a sit down test where the candidates are rigorously tested on their knowledge of wine regions and districts, wine making process, and particulars of wine history. That alone sounds impossible. And each candidate had stacks on stacks of notecards full of information that they could be tested on. I mean they had to know which 8 wineries reside in a particular valley of the Ukraine. And it wasn’t just those wineries. They had to be familiar with every winery on the planet and what kinds of wine they produced and from what kind of grapes. And then along with this they had to be able to identify why certain years were better than others in terms of harvest and be able to identify geographic influence in the winemaking industry. This alone is truly incredible.
The service portion is a mock up of what a Master Sommelier would be doing as a career after finally passing this crazy test. They are put into a restaurant situation and have to in action recommend a wine for a customer based on customer preference and food choice. The documentary didn’t really focus on this too much and I got the feeling that this part of the test is the “easiest”? I suppose after the rest of the things you have to learn this part comes naturally and involves more correct social skills than strict knowledge.
The final (and I think hardest) portion of the exam is the blind tasting. The sommelier candidate is given 6 wines, 3 red and 3 white, and they must identify from what region, district, and valley the grapes comes from and ultimately what kind of wine it is and what year it was made. They do so by describing the hints and notes in the wine that they taste and smell. Things like crushed grapefruit and apple smoked bacon. Things people who aren’t overanalyzing their beverage would never notice, but I have to admit this part of the test was especially intriguing to me. Not because of the outrageous smells the sommelier candidates were sensing (one of them smelled freshly opened tennis ball can?), but because the sommeliers had to find ways to describe smell through words. They had to unpack and explore a wine made of taste and smell and explain it in plain English. It reminded me of reading a poem and trying to explain the meaning to someone who doesn’t understand the same language.
I think the documentary did a fine job of capturing the obsession and passion that a person has to have in order to even think about trying to pass this exam. It also presented a “Why would you even do this” towards the end of the film. It nicely wrapped up the documentary when as a viewer you’re sitting here wondering the whole 90 minutes while on earth someone would torture themselves like this when there are only a little under 200 certified Master Sommeliers in the ENTIRE WORLD, when this test has been in existence since the 1960s. Although this also begs the question, who decided to try and make people figure out what wine they’re drinking right down to the year it was made and where the grapes grew? The film offered the idea that after one has passed the Master Sommelier exam, offers come flooding in from all over the world to work at top tier restaurants or with top tier wine/beverage corporations as an expert in all things wine. Apparently being an MS really opens doors for people in the restaurant and beverage industry.
The documentary has no voiceover from an outside or third party narrator. All of the speaking comes from the candidates or previous Master Sommeliers that are advising the current applicants. I think this allows the viewer the opportunity to digest the content as they see fit and ask their own questions about it. Though I found that the documentary often flowed into the questions I had in mind. Maybe an indication that the producers positioned the content just so as to direct the audiences mind and keep the narrative and the information structured. And despite the overbearing nature of the content and the huge emphasis on just how impossible this test is, the documentary never feels defeatist. It is inspiring to watch four men study for days on end, and literally all through the night because they are so driven to be crowned the best of the best. The book mentions, in reference to My Winnipeg, the “struggle against documentary as prosaic, narrow, drab and ultimately pessimistic and restricting” being the motivation to make an interesting documentary to capture an otherwise seemingly bland subject. I think this documentary does this well. It is light filled and visually interesting with obviously a lot of play on liquid and glass as a kind of B roll.
And I think this film did well to capture the wine industry and the wine world along with the type of people who so enjoy and admire a subject that they strive to be the best at it simply for the sake of being the best, only for their own satisfaction.
In all, I was very intrigued, and not just because I enjoy wine tasting. It was an interesting world to be introduced to and very moving to watch so many people struggle against almost impossible odds all to receive a title of greatness. I can’t imagine ever having the intense motivation to dive so fully into the wine world, but I like to think that maybe some day now that I’ve gotten a taste (haha) I too will notice the hints of freshly opened tennis ball can and fresh cut garden hose in my next glass of Pinot Grigio.