Film Review: Somm

Four wine-obsessed guys prepare for the grueling Master Sommelier Exam in this highly entertaining doc, which gives a taste not just of that grape profession, but also of male bonding and the obsessive drive for perfection and success.

Like great wines but of the cinematic varietal, filmmaker Jason Wise’s debut feature Somm (slang for sommelier) is full-bodied, highly satisfying and will leave viewers with a buzz. Able to get up close and personal with his four California-based subjects as they study and drill to become Master Sommeliers, Wise is blessed with four likeable young men steeped in the ways of wine and determined to win what is described as “the highest honor” in the world of wine. To make the stakes clear and the challenge resonate, the doc proclaims that fewer than 200 candidates passed the Master Level in over 40 years of the competition’s existence.

Mimicking the countdown structure and suspense of superb, who-will-make-it? docs like the spelling bee-themed Spellbound and the ballet-themed First Position, Somm also provides driven, relatable candidates impossible not to root for and a down-to-the-last-drop denouement regarding who amongst the quartet might earn their MS stripes.

Brian McClintic is the serious-as-a-First Growth Bordeaux candidate who, paradoxically, also comes closest to the regular habitué in a friendly sports bar; DLynn Proctor is the style-minded candidate who has traveled to many vineyards worldwide and began his march to the mysterious Court of Master Sommeliers nearly a decade ago; Dustin Wilson has worked as a sommelier at some of the country’s flashiest and most important restaurants; and Ian Cauble, surely the most obsessed and determined of the quartet, prepares for the exam by spending weeks learning from flash cards and mastering the fine art of identifying the exact origin and date of a wine based on its taste and smell (meticulously tracing maps is his M.O.). And he spits out rapid-fire, detailed wine descriptions that would put a motor-mouth auctioneer to shame. Could Ian possibly be the candidate who doesn’t make it to Master Sommelier?

All the men are insanely dedicated wine enthusiasts who are uncannily knowledgeable about all aspects of the fermented miracle. And Wise demonstrates his own brand of expertise in bottling an immensely watchable documentary. His subjects aside, he also lucked out with Jason Myers as cinematographer. He beautifully captures not just the inner workings of the competitors but the provocative external world of wine (the bouquets, tastes, history, geography, etc.) and winemaking itself (even the manufacture of oak barrels). Beyond the U.S., cameras travel to photogenic vineyards and caves in places like Germany, France and Italy.

There are some gaps: In their constant chatter and consideration of wines, the subjects give short shrift to popular wine areas like Australia, Chile and Spain, and skirt issues regarding wine’s relation to food, which is the raison d'être for restaurants employing sommeliers in the first place.

Instead, Somm focuses on human factors, including how the candidates’ rigorous training and studying affect their private lives. Mainly about the men and what drives them to become Master Sommeliers, the doc amounts to a real-life tale of obsession, determination, emotional vulnerability and respect for excellence and commitment that still thrives in a vibrant world unspoiled by gadgets, digital disruptions and content not found in bottles.

Wine and spirits on film are becoming more popular subjects. Exhibitors and programmers might want to “make it a double” by showing Somm and that other boozy doc Hey Bartender on a double bill. Further down the release schedule, the also intoxicating You Will Be My Son and Red Obsession will soon be hitting theatres and platforms.