SIFF Film Review – Somm
In the restaurant industry, the newest challenger to the cult of the chef is the sommelier, or “somm” for short. The sommelier helps educate the customer on the wine selection, and the skill level of someone with this title can range from an educated server to someone who has passed the Master Sommelier test. The Court of Master Sommeliers has a certificate program that takes aspirants through four levels: Introductory, Certified, Advanced, and Master. The Master Sommelier test is one of the hardest in the world, and, as of 2011, less than 200 people have been awarded the title worldwide. Somm, which played at the Seattle International Film Festival and is directed by Jason Wise, takes four hopefuls through the testing process to see if they have what it takes to attain their Master certification. They are tested on tasting, theory, and service, and it is the rare person who can pass all three the first time around.
The process by which aspirants become Master Sommeliers is extremely rigorous and not for the faint of heart. In addition to the memorization of reams of what seems to be the most trivial wine-related information, test-takers must train relentlessly to detect wine origins by taste. This is not just a matter of being able to describe wine down to its most ethereal components, but also pinpointing the specific region the grapes were grown and often being able to name the winemakers and year. It’s pretty impressive to watch, and while some seem to have an innate ability, others appear to attain mastery through sheer willpower and practice. And practice is what preparation for this test is about. The men this film follows are completely obsessed with this task and devote themselves full time towards passing; everything else in their lives is put on hold. So few pass that their services are in high demand, and they are assured of opportunities that would never otherwise come their way.
I’m just going to come out and say that this was not my movie. I found all four of the main characters—and most of the master sommeliers—to be crazy annoying. It appears that the type of person who wants to do this must be hyper-competitive, completely self-absorbed, and incredibly self-confident. I don’t think wine turns people into obsessive jackasses; I think it is the toughness of the test and the exclusiveness of the club that does it. This is a largely male profession—although there are women interviewed who are sommeliers and not just long-suffering wives and girlfriends—and it seems that macho has not died out in the wine education world. A lot of the men seem to have roots in competitive sports, and the challenge of becoming a Master Sommelier is irresistible to a certain personality type. Unfortunately, it is not a type I find appealing. In fact, I was kind of rooting for them to all fail. That the movie was unable to make me care about its protagonists is a problem. Part of the appeal of this kind of film is that the audience is supposed to become emotionally invested in the journey. But I never figured out why I should care if these guys pass the test or not.
To be fair, I got the feeling that a lot of other people in the theater were enjoying the film a lot more than I was. Some of the contestants are quite funny, although a certain amount of the humor comes from watching them be unbelievably arrogant. And while the film is a little long, it is pretty well paced, and watching the testers get their results is a nail-biting experience. Much of that comes from the obnoxious way the Master Sommeliers deliver the results. None of the testing was filmed, but cameras were allowed in the room while the results were given, and I’m not sure how much of the asinine behavior by the Master Sommeliers was them playing up to the cameras and how much was just the pervasive frat boy culture they seem to embrace. Okay, I’ve backtracked to hating this movie again.
I’m trying to be fair, because this is not a bad movie; I just hated most of the people in it. If you are interested in the world of wine or what it takes to pass an incredibly difficult test, then this may be the movie for you. It is informative if nothing else, and even if you end up hating the protagonists as much as I did, you still will have learned something new. And who knows, you may end up really enjoying it. I say if you are interested, give it a try. The worst thing that can happen is that you will want to avoid sommeliers for a long while afterward.
Final Grade: B