Thursday, June 27, 2013

"Somm" review: The best wine documentary yet?

Thinking about "Somm," which is probably the best wine documentary yet, I tried to get outside myself. Would I like this movie if I knew nothing about wine?

The question might be moot. "Somm" is a documentary, not a dramedy like "Sideways," and in the US documentaries rarely cross over into the general market.

If you do love wine, "Somm" has all the elements of a terrific movie -- drama, humor, tension, great characters. And director Jason Wise introduces visual excitement into one of the most boring things in the world, watching other people taste, with gimmicks like wine glasses being smashed or shot to mark scene transitions.

"Somm" feels like a sports documentary; it follows the structure of a team working together to overcome an impossible opponent.

The film follows four students as they prepare to take the Master Sommelier exam, arguably the hardest exam in the world. Three of them -- Ian, Brian and Dustin -- study together, with a locker-room mentality. They're teammates, not opponents, but they're also frequently teasing, and guessing wines blind with on-the-fly tasting notes is a daring area where you leave yourself open to feeling foolish. This isn't reality TV; it's surprising that they don't bicker more often.

The first time I hear one of them describe a flavor, not an aroma, as "a freshly opened can of tennis balls," I'm reminded of the supportive environment you need to state such an impression. If I wrote that on this blog, I'd be ruthlessly mocked. MS candidates need friends, not just to show them flash cards with the names of sub-regions or approved grape varieties on the back, but to indulge them in the immersive culture of wine obsession.

Brian, Ian and Dustin try to decide if that's fresh violet, dried violet, bruised violet ...
 And obsessive they are. They read flash cards while running, while driving, while eating. They download maps of the world's wine regions and trace over them.

Worst of all, they taste and taste and taste, but never drink. Eventually this wears on me. There are a few glamour shots of vineyards and short interviews with winemakers, but this is not a movie about the beauty of wine country or the inexpressible joy of wine appreciation. They may have gotten into wine because they like it, but that's not really apparent from this film. Instead, it's a movie about work and study and obsession, about the anxious wait for success and the crushing disappointment of failure.

These are topics that most people can relate to, so even if you can't imagine the flavor of a crucial blind-tasted wine that one thinks is AlbariƱo when another says Sancerre, you can feel the anguish of their uncertainty. What if he's right? Would I fail? What if I'm right -- would he fail?

Brian makes the most poignant speech of the film, surprisingly late and delivered flatly and analytically, after you have spent more than an hour watching the three men suffer. He explains that the worst possible outcome is not that they all fail, or that two of them fail, because in those cases they would have each other for another try at the test a year later. The worst possible outcome would be if two of them pass, because the third man would be alone.

The flaw of the film is that we don't see much of them outside of their study. We meet their wives and girlfriends, who are amazingly supportive, and we sympathize with them more than with the men. But we don't see them much at their jobs, if they even still have jobs as the test nears. And we don't have any idea how they afford the bottles they are always opening to taste blind.

Fred Dame as The Riddler
Because it follows the sports-film structure, it leads up to the big game: the test itself. The tension rises until it's almost unbearable.

There are devastating missteps along the way -- who knew that a bottle of Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay could cause so much agony? There's a ruthless, taunting opponent: Fred Dame, head of the Court of Master Sommeliers, who claims in an interview he doesn't like being mean after demonstrating how much sadistic pleasure he takes in abusing these aspirants.

I won't spoil the ending, but it's surprising and emotional; a fair payoff for spending 90 minutes locked in a study hall with these guys.

"Somm" doesn't romanticize wine, and for some stretches it even takes the joy out of it, just as preparing for the Olympics must take all the joy out of swimming. That said, the flaw of most wine documentaries is their gauzy soft focus. There's a lot of wine consumed in "Somm," but it never loses its wits.

Note to commenters: No spoilers, please.

Somm is in limited theatrical release and is already available on iTunes, or you can pre-order the DVD on Amazon.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


rapopoda said...

Whilst I'm sure these folks work very hard, I have to say the elevation that we are giving sommeliers these days strikes me just plain ridiculous. That the test is arbitrarily difficult (a pointless difficulty it would seem; difficulty as competition, rather than for practical purposes, like, say medical board exams), is of virtually no interest. It reminds me of the juvenile focus on difficulty as an (incorrect!) function of quality in music

Certainly anyone who takes pride in the excellence of their work, regardless of job, deserves a degree of praise. However, we've blown this career way out of proportion, IMNSHO

Patrick Frank said...

Thanks for opening the topic Blake. 3 comments:
--I wish one of the featured people had been a woman; they were relegated to cheerleaders in this movie.
--It was very interesting to see the range of judgments about the blind flight.
--Yes it was a good wine documentary, but that's also a very low bar to cross!

Unknown said...

I saw "SOMM" at its grand opening at the Napa Valley Film Festival. Having passed the Certified Sommelier exam, and identifying many of the immense hurdles that Master Sommeliers go through to achieve that status, it is nothing less than astonishing and overwhelming.

I have met Ian and a number of the Master Sommeliers here in Northern California, and some from around the world. They are truly Masters, and this film brings that out.

As noted, I too would have liked to see a female amongst the candidates.

Overall, it brought me back to weeks of flash cards and blind tastings, meeting and working with talented friends and colleagues. It's fun, a challenge, and "SOMM" reminded me of days of joyfulness, anguish, disappointment, accomplishment, and then the prize!

Unknown said...

The hardest exam in the world???? Please give me a freakin' break. I'm sure that thousands of doctoral candidates taking their general examinations at top universities under the eyes of world class scholars in fields ranging from History to Physics would laugh at your contention that a course of study that is almost entirely rote memorization (did you not notice the extensive use of flash cards) is the hardest exam in the world.

It's not even the hardest exam in the wine world. That would be the MW exam which actually relies on critical thinking and original research. It's also why every MW that you meet has the foundation of a top university education while countless MS have little (think hospitality management from UNLV) or no proper education.

W. Blake Gray said...

Unknown: Only the uneducated would laugh at such a statement. An educated person would look up the failure rate.

Ben said...

" And we don't have any idea how they afford the bottles they are always opening to taste blind."

I want to know the answer to that question the most. That was first thing I thought about after the movie was over.

rapopoda said...

A few things
1) Failure rate does not, in and of itself, determine level of difficulty. It seems to be more of a function of difficulty relative to the intelligence of those taking the test. This is in no way to say that I think these "somms" are not intelligent. But certainly there is fairly long stretch of the cognitive continuum, along which people can be called "intelligent". To say that this exam is objectively the most difficult exam in the world, is just not a supportable argument

2) As I wrote earlier, the test seems arbitrarily difficult. That is to say, typically difficulty of an exam either a) speaks to how high the stakes are of getting to do what the exam allows you to do once passing. b) is on a subject whose core topic(s) is(are) commensurate with the test. c) if it's just pure wankery
a) The stakes aren't very high. Memorizing an absurdly large amount about wine, will neither make you a better "somm", nor does the practice of the profession require such a level of precision, that the exam needs to leave as little to chance as possible
b) Let's be real. The subject matter is not terribly complicated or difficult. The scientific bits are certainly challenging, but then these people aren't mastering those bits. They're just memorizing the basic metabolic processes and reciting back.

c) well um...

One needs to ask: what ever is the point of making a test for a non-scientific, non-wine making wine professional, so full of memorization that the pass rate is so low? Arbitrarily difficult.

W. Blake Gray said...

Rapo: I get a little testy with people named "Unknown" who come here to complain.

Something special about this test, that doesn't apply to any other test that I know of other than the MW, is the blind tasting. I'll grant you that intellectually, any number of graduate students could memorize the wine facts well enough to pass. And though I couldn't do it myself, most people could probably master the service.

But to pass the MS exam, you have to do both of those AND identify wine blind, and that's not something most people feel confident about.

MS said...

I guess I'll wade into this one.

In regards to the "hardest test in the world," that movie tagline (and remember we're talking about selling tickets here, first and foremost) concludes with the phrase "'ve never heard of."

One of the downsides of the movie as an inside look at an examination is that it does not fully explain the actual methodology of the exam, and it leaves a very large component - service - on the cutting room floor. This is in its best interest as a film, which frankly, is not aimed at wine guys, but rather at the general public.

I think that the inevitable MS vs. MW arguments are fairly pointless. Both exams are very, very difficult, and are not passed by the lion's share of their aspirants. One (the MS) is service-heavy; the other relies more on writing skill. But understand: the role of the MS is as a social creature, whereas MWs are rarely in the position of selling wine on a restaurant floor. The MS covers quite a bit broader of a spectrum of knowledge (encompassing the entire world of beverage, not just wine) whereas the MW tends to go deeper into aspects such as the global business of wine, viticulture, and things like packaging, etc. The MS often has a much broader understanding of wine producers and regions worldwide but the MW may have a deeper theoretical and scientific understanding of certain subjects within the world of wine. At any rate, I see them as complementary designations, and the wine world is richer with both of them.

"The stakes aren't very high."

I guess I would suggest that the point of the MS exam is not to memorize an absurdly large amount about wine; rather it is to develop a fairly complete understanding of the disparate styles that make up the world of wine and spirits, and to be able to compare and contrast them with ease and grace -- which is actually pretty helpful in one's career as a sommelier.

At the end of the day, I think that the perceived difficulty of this exam is relative to the skill set of the candidate. If you are a natural working under pressure and time constraints, and testing (and tasting) verbally rather than on paper, and you are a star on the floor, then the MS might be an easier experience. If not, you will struggle. Suggesting that low intelligence factors into a low pass rate would probably serve to piss off a good buddy of mine, who got his undergrad degree from Harvard but has yet to pass the exam after 4 attempts. In fact, those who are outside the sommelier field looking in would probably be quite surprised to see the number of successful people in other fields who leave them for a career in wine. I teach a course on the sommelier craft for the International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute), and I have had plastic surgeons, bankers of every stripe, super-sharp Silicon Valley guys, and smart people from just about every field enter the course because they wanted to transition into wine. And some, who were excellent critical thinkers, found critical tasting to be an insurmountably difficult skill. Heck, I even had the guy that installed Scotland Yard's first computer system take the class. To be fair: he was retired, and a bit of a hobbyist...but he wanted to try becoming a sommelier. So he learned how to take care of a table, open Champagne correctly, and passed the Court of Master Sommeliers' Certified Exam!

Whatever its level of difficulty, I firmly believe that the MS exam has led to greater awareness for the sommelier position, and it has elevated the image of wine and wine programs across the country. Criticizing it for being "arbitrary" or lambasting its candidates for having "no proper education" seems at odds with the point of education in the first place. More is never really a bad thing.

Matt Stamp MS
Education Director, Guild of Sommeliers

rapopoda said...

First, "Unknown" wasn't me. I was just inserting myself.
Anyway, the blind tasting bit is, I would say, something of a parlor trick. You can train yourself to various extents. Sure some people will have more innate ability than others, but at the end of the day, you can be trained.
The analogue I'll make, is musical dictation:
When I started out as an underrate - all those years ago- I was pretty good at listening to something, then notating it down. Not great, but decent.
Throughout school, I had to do lots of dictation (and its inverse). Profs would play something (either on recording or piano), and we'd need to get it down - either as the main point of the exercise or as adjunct to some broader discussion or analysis. Typically, in this cases you didn't have the luxury of "rewind" to get it down. So you trained hard(unless you had perfect pitch, then your training was much easier).
Now, part of the result of that training is greater aural acuity, to be sure. However, another large part is learning tricks and shortcuts. Things like "hmmn, ok, I know this is early 18th century, I can hear we've modulated to the dominant (V) key, I'm hearing a sequence, I only have these harmonic options, really, and with the shape of the melody, and relatively little chromaticism, I can rule out a these possibilities..."
Now, often you wouldn't need to do that as the example was dead easy. But often you would, especially if you just heard it, and now your trying to get it down from memory.

Over years of doing this, I got pretty damn good; others were a fair bit better; still others worse. I wasn't prodigious at it, but I was, as above, pretty damn good.
Now, I never do this, so i'm certain, I'm pretty damn shit at this point!!
I expect blind tasting is much the same: you're training not only a sense, but you're arming yourself with intellectual tools too help you out- e.g. narrow the possibilities
I'm not saying I have a masterful sense of *Flavor* (more important than taste in these cases); however, if I'm tasting a particular region a lot, I get pretty good at identifying characteristics and distinctions from other, even, similar (grape, super-region, etc) wines.

Cognitively, it "fees" (if that is possible or an accurate description) much the same as ear training to me

rapopoda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rapopoda said...

ugh. Safari's autocorrect f*cks me off sometimes

"Underrate" should be "Undergraduate"
and "fees" should be "feels"

W. Blake Gray said...

Rapo: I didn't think you were "Unknown." I was testy with the other guy. Don't think I was testy with you -- today :)

WineChef said...

Blake this is by far the most educated and fair review of the movie that I've seen. Having gone through these exams, most of the people commenting don't have a clue what it's actually like to have to study for and pass each level. Have some respect, watch the movie (or don't). And to answer your initial question, Yes, this is the best wine documentary to date.