By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
6:55 PM EDT, June 20, 2013
Note to self after watching "Somm": That nice person who helps you decide what wine to choose at an upscale restaurant just might be a little bit crazy.
That is one of the messages of this glib but ultimately engaging documentary about the folks who not only become sommeliers but also expend the extraordinary effort necessary to become master sommeliers by passing an exam so rigorous it makes grown men weep.
As written and directed by Jason Wise, "Somm" follows four individuals as they prepare to take the test that fewer than 200 people have passed in the more than 40 years since it was first given in the U.K.
The exam has three parts, all flowing from the basic job of the sommelier, which is to help patrons match the wine they choose to the food they've selected. It is, a winemaker says, a bit like being a racetrack tout. Buying any bottle is a wager, and these folks assist people in placing their bets.
Section 1 of the test is theory, which mandates all kinds of specialized wine knowledge. Section 2 is service, and it involves figuring how to deal with the most obnoxious customers imaginable. Section 3 is the real killer: a blind tasting where six wines have to be specifically identified by taste and smell alone.
Because the people administering the test are committed to making it as fiendishly difficult as possible, the candidates we see have to be maniacally obsessed with passing it. These self-absorbed folks disappear from the rest of their lives as they try to memorize thousands of flash cards and taste wines without end, throwing out descriptors such as "freshly opened can of tennis balls."
Filmmaker Wise heard about this process from a college friend, Brian McClintic, a competitive ex-jock who is committed to taking the exam, and McClintic and three of his friends become the people whose hopes and dreams "Somm" follows.
They are Ian Cauble, an obsessive whiz kid the others call "Dad," his good friend Dustin Wilson, and Dlynn Proctor, who was initially attracted to the profession by the opportunities it provides for sharp dressing.
Though these guys need each other as practice partners and as an all-around support group, because they are so competitive they periodically trash talk each other — "like guys in a locker room with bottles," says one of their wives. This makes them not always the most appealing people to be around, something to which those wives and girlfriends, who often have to clean up the spit buckets after massive tasting sessions, can testify.
"Somm" also introduces us to Fred Dame, who passed the test in Britain in 1984 and was then instrumental in getting this classification established in the United States. A larger-than-life individual who specializes in putting the fear of God into candidates, Dame is shown in full intimidation mode, which is scary.
In broad outline, "Somm" is similar to the excellent Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker documentary "Kings of Pastry," which focuses on a French competition to be named one of Les Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (the best craftsmen in France), known collectively as MOFs, though wine tasting is by definition less visual than pastry making.
"Somm" is also hampered by an intrusive score, but the film's formula of following these four from three weeks before the start of things right through the competition is a tried and true one that can't help but have success. We've seen these guys torture themselves so much, we inevitably get emotionally involved in the final verdict, and drinking to their success is what we'd all like to do.
MPAA rating: Not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: At Sundance Sunset Cinemas, West Hollywood
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