Earning the title Master Sommelier isn't merely some puffed-up honorific -- it's kind of like passing the bar (no pun intended), as fewer than 200 candidates have aced the three-part exam in 40 years. The documentary SOMM, which hits theaters June 21st after a handful of festival and sneak preview screenings, follows a cohort of men (more on that in a bit) prepping for and taking the arduous exam. In the tradition of Spellbound and Kings of Pastry and Air Guitar Nation, SOMM has the thrill of a built-in "who will succeed amongst the obsessive?" narrative thrust that's undeniably gripping. But it's equally fascinating to consider what it reveals about the world of wine and those expert enough to serve it to us at the ritziest of places. You're not going to find a Master Sommelier breaking out his latest value play at the Fish-Meat Village down the block, let's put it that way. No, they end up with titles like United States Ambassador to Krug Champagne.
1) Even at this level blind tastings are really tricky. The crucial event in SOMM is the candidates facing down three reds and three whites and needing to describe all of them fully in 25 minutes total, generally in a patter as quick as an auctioneer's, and then try to name the grape, location, and vintage. Anyone who has attended a brown bag wine tasting and hasn't even been able to nail the bottle he or she brought knows how hard this task is. And while the hopeful candidates have no trouble rifling off descriptors like "a freshly opened can of tennis balls," there often seems to be little agreement on what the wines are. While these somms possess Balthazar bottle-sized knowledge compared to the rest of us and our puny splits at best, even they struggle. There's a lot of wine out there, and since I've typed that sentence there's even more. (More shockingly to me, as a former educator, the candidates never learn the right answers, just whether or not they pass. So much for turning testing into a teaching moment.)
2) Women end up wives and girlfriends when the wine geekery gets set on stun. Of the 133 North American Master Sommeliers, 114 are men and 19 are women, and so in the film no female shows up for a good 10 minutes, and she's one of the candidate's "study-widowed" wives. We do get one female Master Somm talking head, and one woman studying, but she's not one of the subjects of the oenophilic fraternity of four the film focuses upon. (Perhaps she wanted some privacy during what's a truly grueling study run, we do not know.) Still, just as Top Chef named only its second female winner this season, just as the July Food & Wine cover of "Best New Chefs" is a photo of 10 men and 1 woman, it seems the rarified world of haute cuisine and beverage has got a glass ceiling that would make corporate America envious.
3) Ninety-three minutes of film about wine, even with stacks of flash cards, will make you want to drink. Despite the arduous nature of their task, the minutiae they must commit to memory, and even while spitting, the intoxicating nature of their late-night study sessions/tastings, these guys clearly love wine and want to be declared the best at sharing that passion. Soon one of the featured candidates in the film, Brian McClintic (you have to see the film to learn if this good guy passes), along with Eric Railsback, will be opening La Caveau Wine Bar & Merchant in Santa Barbara's Funk Zone. So here's a southern California chance to see what a super somm can do for you.