More than 50 glasses of wine are swirled, sniffed, sipped, spat out and analyzed in Jason Wise’s “SOMM.”
Yet unlike many wine documentaries, this one doesn’t focus on the grape-based alcohol itself. Instead, it follows the journey of four beverage industry veterans training to achieve the prestigious title of Master Sommelier, the highest level of certified expertise one can achieve in the wine industry.
In order to become a Master Sommelier, candidates must pass a three-day, three-part exam that’s proctored only once a year. A tiny percentage of people who take it succeed; only 186 international professionals have achieved this level of knowledge since the Court of Master Sommeliers was established in 1969 (Devon Broglie and Craig Collins, who passed their exams in 2011, live in Austin).
Brian McClintic, DLynn Proctor, Dustin Wilson and Ian Cauble are bound together as friends and colleagues in their quest to earn the diploma. We observe their emotional highs and lows as they compete (sometimes playfully, other times, not so much), help one another learn, and ultimately find out whether their hard work will pay off or not at the final exam in Dallas.
Faced with only three final weeks to study, as the test date approaches, the distinction between passion and obsession gradually blurs.
We’re reminded several times that wine is simply fermented grape juice, alluding to the notion that it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Then we’re simultaneously presented with the characters studying note cards for 13 hours at a time, disregarding personal relationships and seemingly all other worldly responsibilities, begging the questions: Is this goal respectable? Or insane? And what’s the ultimate payoff?
We learn at the conclusion of the film that some went on to start their own wine labels, others to work in Michelin-rated restaurants, and everyone concurs that the diploma is “valuable beyond words.” But the weight of the long-term benefits remains somewhat underexplained.
Despite this nagging flaw, it’s easy to empathize with and root for the main characters. The tension and internal conflict each endures feels tangible, and I sighed in audible relief when the first one discovered he passed. It’s a story that taps into a universal truth — everyone wants to be better, to hit that next level of achievement.
Director Wise offers a mechanically sound film with a well-paced, cohesive storyline, which is respectable considering “SOMM” is his first feature. In the press materials, he says “over two-thirds of the production happened without any budget and the cameras were borrowed with favors from friends,” yet the production value is relatively high — it rarely looks cheap, feels contrived or overly clunky like a true amateur production might (although the trite smooth jazz music decisions are cringe-worthy at times).
If you’re even remotely interested in wine, this film will teach you something new about the beverage and the people that make up its world, and at the very least, you will walk away with dozens of new ways to describe the sight, smell and taste of your favorite red, white or rosé.
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Theater: Violet Crown