I love movies that let you peek inside a subculture that you might not be able to access otherwise: Word Wars, which follows competitive Scrabble players, and Spellbound, which featured the kids vying to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, are two that come to mind. I'd say that SOMM, which opens in theaters in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, LA, and Seattle over the next week, and will be available on iTunes on June 21st, has more in common with these movies than wine documentaries like Mondovino or flicks like Sideways.
SOMM follows four sommeliers as they prepare for the highest exam offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers, an exam that only around 200 people have passed worldwide. It's a buddy movie of sorts: there's the funny jock, Brian McClintic, and the serious Dustin Wilson (whose gleaming head you might have spotted at Eleven Madison Park in NYC, where he's wine director). There's fearless DLynn Proctor, and intense Ian Cauble, whose obsessive studying is enough to make anyone nervous. These close friends are going through something intense together, and you get to know (and like) them as they try to ascend to the top of their field. In SOMM, you get to see these experts at their toughest and also their most vulnerable.
SOMM is sharply filmed and produced—it balances funny moments with serious ones as the group prepares for the big exam, and the soundtrack is more like the music from a movie about sports competitors than wine drinkers. (There's nothing worse than a cheesy wine movie soundtrack, I gotta say.) This isn't the kind of wine movie that lingers on dew drops in the vineyards, and you won't be watching drinkers wax poetic about terroir. Instead, the pressure builds as our four protagonists study and sacrifice, worrying and teasing each other as they approach the day of reckoning. They trace maps to try to tie bits of trivia to a location, and they collect towers of flashcards, testing each other over Skype after work each night...beginning at midnight. There's no question that Brian, DLynn, Dustin, and Ian are committed, but as you watch the film, you may wonder why.
If there's one weakness to SOMM, it's that, for an outsider, it might not be clear why taking the Master Sommelier exam is worth all of the hours, the training, and the sacrifice. Perhaps if it were a movie about four guys obsessively training to hike Mt. Everest, you might not look for motivation. They climb the mountain because it is there. But while the film spends a brief moment discussing job opportunities that arise for the few who pass this excruciating exam, the principals don't really discuss what got them on the path to the wine, why they chose to pursue each level of sommelier certification with the Court, and how they think they're benefiting from the knowledge they gain at the highest level. Does the exam truly make them better sommeliers? Does knowing every village in every region—and the wine laws in every village and every region—help share a love of wine with customers?
While those questions remain somewhat unanswered, the film does get us wrapped up in the people it portrays. It's easy to feel their stress—and their relief when the process is over. SOMM isn't a film that will teach you about wine, and it doesn't want to be. It won't stop to explain what tannin is, or how the somms go about figuring out what an unidentified wine is based on its color, scent, or structure. The pace of the scenes may move too swiftly for anyone who isn't pretty comfortable with wine vocabulary, but on the other hand, the point is these competitors are moving swiftly, memorizing huge catalogs of data, and working precisely, deductively, and speedily in timed wine-identification tests.
Who is SOMM for? If, like me, you're interested in subcultures in general, you might enjoy this film. You might relate to it if you went to medical school or took oral exams for a masters degree, but you're most likely to love it if you're a passionate wine drinker, interested in the study of wine, or a member of the restaurant or wine industry. If you're considering sommelier certification at any level, it's a must-watch. Curious? Check out the trailer below.
DVD release September 3rd from First Run Features.