A stimulating intro course on wine-appreciation gets blended with a narrowly focused contest-doc format in “Somm,” which follows the efforts of a handful of young American connoisseurs to earn the title of Master Sommelier. Only 197 candidates in 40 years have passed the almost impossibly difficult membership exam, a Herculean feat that all but requires advanced degrees in wine theory, history, geography, service and, most crucially, tasting, all of which director Jason Wise examines in crisp, quaffable if overlong fashion. Accessible subjects and sparkling execution should lend this personality-driven documentary some, ahem, legs as a VOD rental following its limited run starting June 21.
With only weeks remaining until the 2011 exam administered by the U.K.-based Court of Master Sommeliers, Wise focuses primarily on three gifted sommeliers — devoted studyholic Ian Cauble and his more laid-back buds, Brian McClintic and Dustin Wilson — as they pour each other glasses and pore over flashcards during their many exhaustive cram sessions. The levels of knowledge and memorization required are staggering — not just the names of obscure German winemaking regions and the differences between Italian grape varietals (there are more than 3,000), but also the precise smell of, say, decaying dried red rose petals.
As someone notes mid-film, “you have to be maybe a little bit off” — or, to be more precise, something of an obsessive-compulsive egomaniac — to enter into this demanding and insular world, let alone apply for its highest honor. Wise touches lightly on the requisite areas of study without quite demystifying them; the layperson is unlikely to emerge from the film knowing how to discern a wine’s acidity level or wood content, though they may be eager to learn more.
The cultivation of a palate that is not only sensitive and refined but unerringly, consistently accurate is the exam’s most daunting challenge as well as the film’s most entertaining focus. “Somm” is never more interesting — which is to say, never more of an oenophile’s geekout — than when the cameras are simply observing Cauble, McClintic and Wilson as they practice for the blind-tasting test, sampling the same reds and whites, describing their components in vivid detail, and finally hazarding an educated guess at the grape and region. Sometimes they arrive at the same answers; more often they don’t.
Inevitably, the pic turns out to be as much about its subjects’ personal relationships with one another as it is about wine, delving into the ways these men (and sommeliers are almost overwhelmingly men) rely on each other for support and occasionally get on each other’s nerves. Engaging as they are — with Cauble’s stubborn, outspoken streak lending the film its most dominant attitude — this study in male competitiveness and camaraderie would have benefited from a more judicious trim. Too much screentime is spent on having the candidates and their significant others describe the stress and strain of it all, and the prolonged exam-day climax, by now a familiar documentary convention, feels too slack for suspense.
Prominent interviewees include other Master Sommelier candidates — such as DLynn Proctor, almost Rocky-esque in his preparations for the big day — and those who have long since earned their badges, chiefly the intimidating Fred Dame, who in 1984 became the first American sommelier to pass the exam and has held industry-godfather status ever since. Jackson Myers’ scenic HD lensing (including brief stopovers in Germany, France and Italy), Francis Kmiecik’s nimble graphics, and Brian Carmody’s nicely atmospheric classical-and-jazz score round out a smooth technical package.