By Mike Dub
Of the many different subgenres of documentary that have surged over the last few years, one of the most popular has been the “subculture travelogue.” These films tend to study quirky people in small groups that are somewhat marginalized, even people who may seem ripe for satire: high-stakes Scrabble competitors (Words Wars), children overwhelmed in an absurd contest (Spellbound), or middle-aged men who obsess over arcade video games (King of Kong). These documentaries expose and humanize their subjects, often while exploiting readymade suspense that leads to an inevitable climax. Jason Wise’s Somm, released in 2012, may not be the most nuanced example of the genre, but it is a worthy addition to the pack.
The film follows four brilliant sommeliers in the months leading up to their Master Sommelier exam, a test that has a frighteningly low pass rate. If they pass, they will join an incredibly exclusive club – there have been less than 150 Masters in the world, ever. Unprecedented opportunities, the film tells us, await those who pass, but the cost of success seems to be an obsessive, single-minded dedication. Wives and girlfriends are ignored, outside pleasures evaporate, and there is no such thing as free time.
Like other films of its genre, Somm does its best to legitimize the importance of its subject, as though there is some special essence of wine that we interlopers wouldn’t know about. Some experts predictably reference Biblical stories about wine, while others manufacture romantic elegies about nature and perfection. Only the most grounded student of the group points out, “When you think about it, it’s just grape juice.”
To be fair, Somm works through that hazard relatively quickly, shifting the focus to the four men and their practice sessions. The most interesting and exciting moments in the movie occur during practice tastings, when the four men blindly sip wine and, at a miraculous speed, run through a gamut of categories in order to eventually identify the type, region, year, and label of the drink. With a jarring incongruity, they taste wine and spew out their conclusions with machine-like precision, less like James Bond sipping sherry than Rain Man counting toothpicks.
As the test draws near, the film easily lulls us into tacit cheerleaders, for there is no shortage of footage of these young men unraveling. They are tutored by Master Sommeliers who delight in intimidating their students, throwing nearly impossible curveballs (so much so that one student insists that his test wine was mislabeled). They even begin to annoy each other, and an interesting competitive/helpful dynamic develops among some of them. The students are determined to pass, but like soldiers, they do their best to leave no one behind. As one tester candidly explains, “The worst case scenario would be that everyone passes except one of us.”
Somm and other films like it work so well because it is simply awe-inspiring to watch people who are so good at what they do. It is sort of wondrous to see these men decipher the wine they are blindly drinking, and marvelous to understand just how much they know about wine. It reminds me of something Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) says in The Hustler: “Anything can be great… bricklaying can be great, if a guy knows – if he knows what he’s doing and why and if he can make it come off.” Somm is an airy, easy film to watch, and it’s the better for it. Sitting down and watching it with a nice glass of wine may make it better still.