SOMM, A Wine Film

Posted by | Posted in Commentary | Posted on 06-20-2013

The wine world has been softly buzzing about the upcoming release of SOMM, an independent film that is written and directed by Jason Wise. The film provides an insider’s look at the extreme dedication and passion associated with the Master Sommelier Exam, one of the most grueling wine certifications. Only 201 people in the world have ever passed the exam (usually after repeated attempts), and SOMM chronicles the lives of four sommeliers who are in the final few weeks before their test date.

Dustin Wilson (MS) pours at the SOMM premiere while I wait my turn

New York got its first glimpse of SOMM during the premiere this past Monday at Christie’s. Dustin Wilson, one of the film’s main characters and current Wine Director at Eleven Madison Park, was there to provide commentary and answer questions. The screening was followed by a blind tasting of 12 red wines and 12 whites curated by 12 of New York’s top sommeliers, a tasting that was particularly humbling after watching the film. The after-party also featured one of Dustin’s own wines, Vallin, a lower alcohol Rhone-inspired white from Santa Barbara. The event was a lot of fun, but more importantly, the film was a worthwhile and engaging watch with appeal beyond the wine geek community.

SOMM debuts tomorrow, Friday, June 21, on iTunes and in theaters. Check it out. And you can find my own personal likes and critiques below the fold.

Likes

  • Funny. The film is laced with both deliberate and accidental humor. Deliberate: while studying one night together, the somms poke fun at their ridiculous descriptions of wine. Accidental: Peter Neptune gets so insanely intense (perspiring, eyes bulging) when he’s talking that you kind of have to laugh.
  • Solid interviews with solid wine people. I loved all the personalities and interviews in the film, especially the scenes with Bo Barrett and Frank Dame. Great stuff.
  • Real appreciation for how hard these guys worked. You can’t help but get wound up in their journey. For people who haven’t studied wine before, the film gives you an appreciation for how much information there is to know and how much concentration is required for tasting. By the end of the film, you desperately want all four men to all succeed.
  • Fabulous scenic shots. The film shoots some absolutely stunning wine regions. It feels like a tourism commercial. The commercial was quite effective; I want to visit all of them.
  • Insider scenes and moments. It’s part documentary, part reality TV. You’re in the hotel room with these guys while they’re studying the night before the test. You’re with them in the jail-cell like room when they are hearing the results of their exam for the first time. Parts of it are quite personal and I liked that.

Critiques (I’m no movie critic, so some of these are responses to other critiques I’ve read)

  • No female candidates. This is the most obvious jab to make at the movie. However, it didn’t bother me, especially given  that only ~10% of Master Sommeliers are currently women. I’m sure there will be more females who pass the exam in the future. And I didn’t get the sense that this was a deliberate statement on the director’s part.
  • You could feel the characters feel the camera. I agree with another critique that the people being filmed were generally aware of the camera. Sometimes this relationship worked; sometimes it seemed contrived.
  • Unnecessary artsy effects and time lapses. This got distracting. I don’t need to see another vineyard dizzyingly go from day to night or see fake maps appear in front of someone’s hands. Additionally, the segues between scenes of a glass of wine imploding tended to take me out of the moment vs. bring me in. Maybe this is just me?
  • Lots of background info. For wine nerds that are familiar with this exam, it will be a lot of background before you get into understanding the characters. I think this was the right decision, but parts of the movie dragged.

In conclusion, I like the way my non-wine-obsessed friend summarized the film (much more eloquently than I’ve done, by the way), saying:

“Even for the complete wine amateur, who always forgets which pinot is red and which pinot is white, SOMM finds a way to tell a relatable story about four young men who are suffering through the epic battle that is the Master Sommelier Exam. With a medium to medium plus blend of humor and hints of bromance, SOMM is actually a movie about dedication and human relationships, as much as it is about wine.”

Go see it. And feel free to share your own thoughts here. In the meantime, a couple more photos from the event are below!

 

Checking out Vallin, a wine made by Dustin Wilson, who is featured in SOMM

Wines selected by NYC's top Somms (to be blind tasted)

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