“Somm”: The Hardest Test You’ve Never Heard Of

If you thought studying for your SATs was difficult, a new documentary by director Jason Wise called Somm will put things in perspective.  The movie title is a reference to the slang for ‘sommeliers’, or professional wine tasters, and follows four candidates as they prepare for the Master Sommelier exam which is held once a year and is notorious for having one of the lowest pass rates in the world.

Ian Cauble, Dustin Wilson, Brian MClintic, and DLynn Proctor all come from different backgrounds, but the one thing they all have in common is an unprecedented love of wine — and a dedication to passing the MS exam that borders on fanaticism.  In the 40 years since its inception, less than 200 people have passed to become Master Sommeliers, and it has always been an organization shrouded in mystery.  In the exam featured in the documentary, only 6 of the 50 candidates from across the world end up passing.

Wise takes us into the lives of all four men and there’s a certain candidness to his level of film-making as we see just how much preparation is required (from thousands of flashcards to staying up late on webcams testing each other with various trivia and wine facts).  The test is broken up into two parts.  One half is a theory portion covering everything from history, specific locations and villages, to geology and different wineries.  The other is a tasting portion where candidates are presented with three white wines and three red wines, and in roughly 4 minutes per glass required to identify each according to body, taste, acidity, alcohol content, age, and whether it comes from a warm or cool climate.

The interview is divided quite evenly between interviews with each of the candidates, their family members, and other Master Sommeliers and wine experts, and with scenes of them trying to maintain some degree of normalcy in their lives and relationships as studying takes over their lives.

Many times it’s almost difficult to watch, because you can empathize with how this preparation has completely taken over their lives and put a strain on the relationship they have with their wives and girlfriends – and that’s the beauty of this documentary, the fact that the stakes are so high for these individuals.  More than a few of them are frank and honest about the demands:  “I want to pass because I want to be a husband again” Dustin admits.  The dedication required is unprecedented and a certain degree of ego-mania definitely comes through in some of the more candid scenes, especially as the test looms ever closer.

But while it’s a drama and narrative of these four friends all striving for the same goal, it is also very much a documentary about wine and never fails to deliver in terms of illuminating on the origins and nuances of a world that revolves around ‘fermented grape juice’.  Wine has been a staple of human civilization since the third millennium BC and was even, at one point, used primarily as a way to purify water.  As a booming and archaic industry, vineyards now appear in every corner of the world from Australia to Chile to Canada (in Italy alone there are over 3000 varieties of grape – “You’d have to be a madman to memorize them all”, a grower announces at one point).

It’s a very interesting topic for a documentary, and explores the idiosyncrasies and obsession that follows one of the most elite and classiest vocations in the world — it’s also a heartbreaking and, conversely, heartwarming glimpse into the lives of people who have literally devoted their lives to wine.