Capturing Sommelier Test Angst On Film

2010 Blankiet 'Prince of Hearts' Cabernet is texturally like a red velvet cupcake | Photo from Roberto Viernes

All the stress, angst, intensity, pressure as well as elation, exhilaration, relief and humility came flowing over me in waves as I watched the screen.

I just saw the movie SOMM, which follows four men’s journey and quest for the title of Master Sommelier. The movie made me relive many of the sleepless nights, challenges as well as triumphs that unique individuals will endure to become a Master Sommelier.

I was very impressed with the film. I was apprehensive before watching it, about how it would portray the maniacal and obsessive behavior that every Master’s candidate exhibits as the date of the exam comes hurtling toward us. I thought that it could very easily become a bit comical or absurd, in a sense, how someone could study so much about “simply fermented grape juice,” as one of the candidates in the film describes it. However, the film does a great job showing just how difficult the examination is, and why there are only 133 Master Sommeliers in North America and just 201 in the whole world.

The film introduces many of the current Master Sommeliers as well as the first ever, Fred Dame, the man, myth and legend, but really focuses on the amount of studying and tasting that each candidate must go through to achieve the highest accreditation in the wine industry.

SOMM also explains the three portions to the Master Sommelier’s exam.

First, there is the tasting. There are three whites and three reds that must be tasted to identify the varietal, vintage, origin and quality level of the wine within 25 minutes. There is plenty of tasting in the film, and it is great to see the “method to the madness.”

Then there is the theory portion, where each candidate must answer a barrage of questions on wine law, production, geography, geology, vintage, etc. I was personally reminded of the hours after dark, after work and after our newborn son was asleep when I studied on my own until 3 in the morning, then try to get a few hours of sleep before getting to work the next morning. SOMM truly gets this across by showing just how much time these men spend flipping note cards, testing each other and studying.

The third portion is service. It may sound simple to serve wine, but after you see the film, you will have a different view.

I also was afraid that the film would give viewers the impression that people who are in the program are simply cork dorks or geeks who just “get off” on wine. But perhaps the film’s best strength is showing the relationships, bonds and camaraderie that build among those who study together. The film endears these men and their plight to viewers. There is a palpable tension when each is seen entering and exiting the examination. And there is the release when the results are finally revealed.

I think the film gives viewers a true impression of what it is like to become a Master Sommelier. For those who are even remotely interested in wine, SOMM is a great film to watch. It will show you just how much passion for wine as well as endurance, tenacity and talent every single Master Sommelier must have in order to become one.

Recommendations: 2010 Blankiet “Prince of Hearts” ($75) This seamless Cabernet has a stunning amount of fruit. Texturally, it is like a red velvet cupcake with perfectly ripe black fruit. This is most impressive. 2011 Feudi di San Gregorio Falanghina ($14) This Campania white has a lively peachy and apple-y core of fruit with bright acidity. It is perfect for almost any fish dish or just as an aperitif.

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier. Email or follow him on Twitter @Pinotpusher.