The Netflix Queue: Somm (2012)
A good documentary gets you involved with the characters lives and stories just as well as a scripted narrative, and sometimes, even more. If the characters care, so will you. And that’s what makes Jason Wise’s intriguing and surprisingly intense feature, Somm, so worthwhile.
Four Advanced Sommeliers attempt to pass the prestigious Master Sommelier program, one of the most difficult exams in the world. To give some context, there have only been about 200 certified Master Sommeliers since the title’s inception in 1969. With odds as insurmountable as this, drama and emotion are inherent and assured.
Still, one might think a film showing various young men (there are some women sommeliers, but they are generally relegated to the periphery) drinking wine, rattling off each glass’s qualities and bro-ing out as the big day approaches, would be the antithesis of vital cinema, but you’d be wrong. Somm is intense, personal and very human.
Producer-Director Jason Wise does a phenomenal job of taking a fairly un-cinematic subject and injecting visuals that not only help tell the story, but bring a style and energy to what could be a dry version of The Paper Chase. Wine production, sexy bottle pours, glasses exploding, wine specific maps and creative recreations and visualizations make the subject all the more fragrant, earthy and full-bodied, much like the wine itself. (Of course, as “punny” as my adjectives are, some of the best humor comes from the “Somms” listing the many ways wine can be described, from a “freshly opened can of tennis balls” to “cat pee.”)
Our four obsessive “somms,” Ian Cauble, Brian McClintic, Dustin Wilson and Dlynn Proctor, cram for the exam like law students on crack. They hold “blind tastings” for one another, spitting out similes and metaphors (and wine) at a machine gun rate. They poke fun at one another, but there is a deep, abiding love among these guys, and as the story progresses and we get ever closer to the day of the exam, this becomes obvious. And it’s moving. Like, really moving – more than you would think.
It’s painful to realize how much the four have sacrificed work, relationships and, basically, a life – for the pursuit of wine excellence. At one point, McClintic goes on an extended stream of consciousness rant, discussing how painful it would be if one of the core three – him, Cauble and Wilson, do not make it. And you realize these guys are more like military “brothers in arms” than attorneys struggling to pass the bar.
We are also treated to insight from current Master Sommeliers, who not only coach the four, but are the ones who end up testing them. Their reflections on the trials and tribulations and the odds stacked against these “young turks,” is essential to understand how intense this rite of passage is.
The one downside is that the filmmakers were obviously barred from being in the room when the candidates are being tested, so we miss that essential element of seeing how they do “on the battlefield.” Director Wise does an admirable job with his “creative recreations,” that offer up a more visceral example of what the four would experience, and even has scenes where the guys all try and check their “blind tasting” guesses with one another afterwards. This ends up being a maddening exercise in utter futility; none of them think they did well. We are there, however, for the final “reveal,” and suffice it to say things do not turn out as expected, which delivers an even more dramatic punch than imaginable.
Ultimately, Somm is one of those rare breed of documentaries that gives the viewer incredible insight into a world barely imagined or known about and proves that any subject, when handled right, can create for invigorating, compelling filmmaking.