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'Somm': Swirl, sniff and imbibe a mid-level documentary ★★ 1/2

MusicMusic Box Theatre

Filmmaker Jason Wise has worked as an underwater photographer as well as a bartender, so quite naturally Wise's first feature-length documentary involves massive quantities of liquid. In "Somm," a slick, easygoing feature debut, we follow four male friends and colleagues, wine obsessives all, as they prepare for the exam that qualifies a lucky few (201 worldwide to date) for the distinction, title and prestige of becoming a master sommelier.

Wise shoots "Somm" like an extended vineyard infomercial — gorgeous-looking close-ups of fermented grape juices, sloshing around big wine glasses in slow motion — combined with the competitive vibe of a reality TV series. Call it "Top Sniff." As we meet Ian Cauble, Brian McClintic, DLynn Proctor and Dustin Wilson and hear from their wives, girlfriends, relatives and various wine experts, the language of "Somm" confirms every satiric jab ever aimed at aficionados. One man notes the odor of "freshly opened can of tennis balls" describing an Australian riesling. Another, tasting and smelling a different varietal, notes a "chalky limestone minerality." Whitney Fisher, vintner, says with a smile that one of her favorite descriptors for riesling is "pool toy."

Jokey, competitive, arrogant, driven, these men (who call each other "dude" a lot) are undeniable "egomaniacs" (says one girlfriend). Studying for the master sommelier exam, says another, has turned her man into "a shell" of his former self. It's fun to hear what these folks have to say, although in "Somm" the central quartet never really seems to behave or speak as if they'd forgotten a camera was running. Also, composer Brian Carmody's jazz-inflected musical score may be charming, but it rarely pauses for a breath.

Like most docs about any competitive scenario, "Somm" comes down to simple matters — in this case, one candidate in a room, with three whites, three reds and four master sommeliers at the table, ready to judge the candidate's detective skills. By the end, despite the surface-y quality of the treatment, you're caught up in the suspense, the horse-race aspect of a very particular pursuit of knowledge and excellence. But I probably could've done without the close-ups of the contents of the spit bucket.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Somm' -- 2 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating
(some language and tremendous amounts of high-quality alcohol)
Running time: 1:33
Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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