3 out of 4 stars
Since its creation nearly four decades ago, the Court of Master Sommeliers has passed less than 200 candidates out of a field that averages about 100 per year. With a success rate of one half of 1 percent, becoming an MS is arguably the most difficult pursuits in all of gastronomy.
If you don't know what an MS is, don't feel uninformed; it is an alleged prestigious title that requires a level of micro-tunnel-vision dedication and unyielding obsession that will drive anyone who is not in it for the long haul over the edge and into the abyss.
In layman's terms, an MS is a glorified wine steward; someone who can answer virtually any question about any wine any aficionado could possibly conjure. Their handsomely compensated professional duties consist mostly of acting as consultants and menu planners to chefs and the restaurants to come up with unique (some might say obscure and obtuse) wine-food pairings but could also include an equal knowledge of beer, sake, distilled spirits and cigars. On occasion, they could act as pseudo-wine ambassadors -- representing vineyards or entire countries to other countries in a sales/marketing capacity.
As made clear early on the film, all four of the MA hopefuls consider themselves to be "wine geeks" and are as proud of that self-affixed label as fanboys are with sci-fi flicks, and three of them are both. Two of them are married and the third has a longtime girlfriend -- none of which shares their passion; which in itself is amazing.
When you have such a collection of driven, strong-willed, personality-rich candidates involved in what is essentially a high-brow, beverage-based TV reality show mated with "Jeopardy," the result is a documentary that is far from dull and is highly engrossing. More than once in the film a candidate mentions that all of them are strangely caught up in the extreme knowledge of "fermented grape juice" suggesting the venture to be beyond eccentric.
Rather than getting too eggheady and "inside baseball" too fast with all of the dry and dusty wine minutia, writer/director Jason Wise introduces the contestants in an instantly relatable human light. Brian McClintic is a beefy, bearded guy who looks more like a couch jock than wine snob and likes to put his own comic spin on Pearl Jam songs. The soft-spoken Baltimore native Dustin Wilson has a shaved head and is the mellowest of the quartet. Dlynn Proctor has the most extensive food background, is the best dresser and has rubbed elbows with the likes of Wolfgang Puck and Rachel Ray.
Easily the most intense and outspoken of the four is Ian Cauble, a blonde California dude who spends every waking moment studying handmade flash cards, worries himself sick over throwaway details and comes up with some truly absurd "nose" observations. He describes one wine as having a bouquet that smells like a new garden hose and a just-opened can of tennis balls.
Perhaps realizing that a movie about wine connoisseurs might come off as more than a bit elitist, Wise puts heavy emphasis on the fraternal camaraderie that develops amongst the men as they get closer to their exams. Rather than behaving like back-biting rivals, they help, encourage and study with each other and become emotionally invested with their collective outcomes. Everyone wants everyone else to make it and not a note of it rings false. There's no hidden-camera sneering, slamming or preening, diva-like posturing. These guys seem to really like each other.
While not a huge deal-breaker, Wise only spends a minimum of time delving into the origins of the Court itself. Why was it established? Why is it so hard to pass the test? What are the benefits to the typical white-tablecloth dining patron of having the services of an MA on staff? Is the country, region of origin and specific year vintage in the testing process all that important in the great scheme of things? Is the cost of dedication and sweat equity worth more than the right to wear a red button on one's lapel? And why do wines smell like things that are not grapes and instead types of wood, flowers, soil, concrete, gardening equipment and sporting goods?
For any high-end foodie or wine junkie, "Somm" is a peek into a secret (even for them) world they've rarely heard about and one they will undoubtedly relish. However, if you're not one of them (or only one part-time), and enjoy the occasional mid-level cigar, Scotch that costs less than $40 a bottle, generic American beer, no sake thank you and smoke-encrusted BBQ, "Somm" will solidify your appreciation of simple tastes and make you happy you didn't stress out and spend years of your life chasing a piece of semi-worthless paper you'll likely never get or recommend wines to people you might not otherwise like for or care to know. (Samuel Goldwyn)