<em>Somm</em> is a 2013 documentary starring four men who are studying to be master sommeliers, or expert wine connoisseurs. The film covers three weeks of preparation for the exam and subsequent consequences of the results. </p>
I heard about this documentary around two years ago. I think I was listening to the radio, or maybe a podcast. Either way, I distinctly remember someone talking about four guys trying to decipher wine by smell and taste alone. It sounded really interesting at the time, but I completely forgot about it until reading week when I was watching Chef’s Table (a very well done food documentary) and Somm was suggested.
The documentary introduces the four main somms (short for sommeliers) and how they came to love wine. There’s Ian, the serious-neurotic one; Brian and Dustin, a more relaxed duo; and DLynn, the obnoxious one. The test to be a master sommelier is held once a year and consists of three parts: theory, service, and taste.
Theory is exactly what it sounds like. Service is a mock dinner service where the somm must perfectly serve a restaurant customer. Taste is where the somm must accurately identify six random wines, and is probably the most difficult portion.
Throughout the first two acts of the movie, the filmmakers make it very obvious how impossible it is to be completely prepared for the test. Between the exam preparation, the documentry cuts to master sommeliers and wine makers explaining the history of wine and the insanity of the test. A running joke of the movie is flashcards and how the guys have piles and piles of flashcards that they use for studying. A common line is “When I pass, I’m going to burn all my flashcards.”
Somm, despite being about four 30-something year-old men dedicating their lives to wine, hits surprisingly close to home as a student. The day before the theory portion of the test, the film shows the somms cramming. According to the documentary, the master sommelier testers can ask the most obscure of obscure questions so any test-taker needs to know basically everything there is to know about wine. History, types of wine, bacteria associated, regions of vineyards, and even diseases. By the sounds of it, one year is not enough to prep for this test. According to Wikipedia, the master sommelier test has the lowest pass-rate in the world. Since the origin of the test in 1969, only 230 people (as of 2015) have passed. Talk about insanity.
To put it in perspective, imagine the cumulative knowledge of an undergraduate degree tested on one day in two oral exams and one real-world simulation, and you have a 12 per cent chance of passing. Just thinking about it makes me ridiculously anxious, which is what this movie will make you feel: anxious.
Because the film builds the characters and their struggles, I felt so nervous for the guys as the test gets closer and closer. One scene in the middle of the film shows Ian, Brian, and Dustin having separate mock taste tests over the same six wines. The guys rarely have unanimous consensus on results, so both you and they question how they can possibly pass the MS exam if a mock test is giving them so much trouble.
At the end of the third act, when the test results were given to our four somms, I was dying. These guys and everyone around them were suffering because of this passion. Passing the test was akin to returning to a normal life — or in Brian’s case to being a proper husband again. As a student and having to go through exams, I could only empathize so much because for these somms, their lives were on the line. I felt a lot of emotions at the end of the film — mostly anger and frustration, but ultimately satisfaction.
I really like documentaries that are both entertaining and educational about a niche topic. Somms was really good on both fronts. I’m not even a big wine drinker and I loved this film.
Final recommendation: Check it out.