Talking Wine With Jason Wise and Dustin Wilson of 'Somm'
Around 200 people have passed the Master Sommelier exam since its inception in 1969. Less than 135 North Americans have achieved the diploma and only 10% of those who try will ever succeed. To become a Master Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers examinations is touted to be one of the most difficult achievements on the planet.
It’s a test that requires full investment of your entire being: your mind, to learn all the regions, sub-regions, grape varieties, laws, techniques, languages, and laws; your sense memory and ability to discern subtle smell and taste, to accurately identify characteristics that point to the sub-region, variety, and vintage of an unnamed wine in the glass; your ability to perform gracefully under pressure of high-stakes restaurant scenarios. All your free time. Relationships with your loved ones. Probably a dose of your sanity. And the movie Somm has managed to show us the behind-the-scenes process and to make it entertaining and human.
The first feature-length film by Jason Wise, the documentary Somm follows four friends – Dustin Wilson, Brian McClintic, DLynn Proctor, and Ian Cauble – as they prepare for their Master Sommelier exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers. I spoke with Wise and Wilson for a closer look at the process of filming and the process of preparing for the exam.
Wise was inspired to make the film when he and McClintic were working together at Morton’s Steakhouse, both talking about their crazy dreams: Wise to make his first movie and McClintic to become a Master Sommelier. Wise watched McClintic practice his blind tasting and said he was struck by the insanity and beauty of the process. Through McClintic he met the other principles and followed them for two years as they studied, and studied… and studied. And traveled. The film was shot in six different countries with no budget whatsoever. Wise’s wife, a producer with a television ad company, continued to work and Wise picked up odd film jobs around the world, working in trade for camera time and plane tickets. The crew slept on hardwood floors and used Starbucks gift cards for food. There came a point where there was no turning back: “We had no backup plan. If you decided to do something like this, it’s best if you don’t have a backup plan, or you will take it,” the filmmaker explained.
The Court of Master Sommeliers is a highly secretive organization and gaining permission to film many of the scenes was extremely difficult, but Wise's persistence paid off. Viewers have the opportunity to see rare footage of the inside-world and hear hilarious stories about some of the greatest wine professionals on the planet. For wine lovers, that alone is worth the viewing.
There are four levels in the Court, with levels 2 through 4 requiring candidates to pass a three-part test of theory, blind tasting, and service. The Masters test takes place over three days and candidates are allowed to pass one, two, or all levels (or no levels) of the test each year and return again the next year to try again, with any passed levels off the docket. They have three years to pass all parts, then the slate is wiped clean and they have to start again.
Thirty-three year old Wilson had around a decade of experience in wine from Baltimore, Colorado, and California and one attempt (with service passed) under his belt during the filming. He said it was an amazing journey, one that required a lot of sacrifice in time, energy, and social life. The experience took him all over the world, both physically and sensually, tasting and learning about all different wine regions.
For him, developing his palate was the most challenging part and we talked about that seemingly mysterious process of blind tasting. Although some people are certainly born with heightened abilities, it is a skill anyone can hone. It just takes a phenomenal amount of time and practice. “Tasting is the part that is really up in the air. You can have good days and bad days. It’s something I had to work really, really hard at to improve. It’s not exclusive to natural tasters at all. I don’t find myself to be out of the ordinary, but really had to focus and work hard on it.”
I'm tempted to disclose Wise's favorite scene in the film, so you can know how well all that practice paid off, but I think it’s best if you see it for yourself. I will say the best part of the whole process for him was the people he met and the friends he made along the way, something the film does well to embrace. The camaraderie shared between these men as they encourage, goad, and support each other makes up the meat of the viewer's experience and oftentimes leaves you in stitches.
I asked Wise if he would consider trying for the Masters himself and without pause replied, "Hell, no." Then he laughed, "That's not out of disdain. It's out of respect."
Full disclosure: I passed level 2, a shortened, smaller version of the exam, as a Certified Sommelier in February and Somm gave me anxiety dreams of reviewing piles of notecards at stoplights and in grocery store lines, trying to blind-taste a week before the exam with the flu, the obsessive habit of drawing maps, and turning down dates and social functions to study. It is an all-in proposition. As McClintic says in the film, "When someone tells you this is something a lot of people can't do, people either go, 'Wow, that's impressive.' Or they say, 'Wow, I want to do that.'" See what you say after you see the film.
Somm has a pre-premiere at the Violet Crown Cinema tonight with a special tasting led by one of Austin's Masters, Devon Broglie. Call the theater for remaining tickets. Regular showtimes begin Friday. David Gil, Marketing Manager at Violet Crown Cinema, believes it will outsell other top culinary films, including Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The film will play twice a day for a week and may continue longer, if there is demand. Best not take any risks. Ticketing is now open. (See The Austin Chronicle's 3-star review.)
It is also available on iTunes.