Greetings again from the darkness. Alexander Payne’s 2004 hit Sideways made wine tasting and discussion a fun thing to do with friends, and U.S. wine tours exploded. In the movie, Miles (Paul Giamatti) is quite knowledgeable and opinionated on wine. However, comparing Miles to the real life characters in the Somm documentary is like comparing the boys of The Sandlot to major leaguers … it’s not even close!
Filmmaker Jason Wise follows four guys as they prepare for the nearly impossible-to-pass Master Sommelier exam. The certification has been around for 40 plus years, and less than 200 applicants have actually passed. We get to know the four who are studying so diligently by watching them interact and even talk to the camera. The competitive nature is on full display through the trash-talking and emotions that are evident through each disagreement. Mostly we witness the enormous stress that comes from working so hard for a single shot … the best comparison I can make is that of an Olympic athlete preparing for their single event.
We also meet Fred Dame, the Godfather of U.S. Master Sommelier. He trains through intimidation and seems to carry the burden of exclusivity in every interaction. Yeah, he’s kind of jerk, as are the four vying for the certification. It seems one must be self-absorbed and borderline ego-maniacal to build the knowledge and fine-tune the palate necessary to have a shot at passing.
The exam is broken into 3 parts: Blind wine tasting, Theory, and Service. The wine tasting segments are most fun to watch as we quickly learn there is a skill, a science and some luck involved. Through a sniff and a sip, they must be able to identify the type of wine, the subtle flavors, the age of the wine, the country of origin, the specific region, and even the level of winery. The theory section involves knowing wine history from all over the globe. This is accomplished through endless hours of reading and flash card drills. The Service portion gets the short straw here, but we do get a taste of the outlandish nature of a game whose sole point seems to be humiliating the participant.
To add another touch of legend, we do get some insight from Bo Barrett, the legendary California wine maker profiled in the movie Bottle Shock. Mostly though, we learn that this most prestigious designation can only be obtained through an elitist Obsessive-Compulsive approach that kills all sense of acceptable societal manner. For most of us, enjoying a glass of wine with friends is reward enough … for you others, best of luck learning the 3000 grape varietals in Italy.
watch the trailer: