somm enchanted evening

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Once every year or two, a feature film comes along with a wine-based theme. Rarely do they entertain because, fascinating as wine may be, it’s just not all that visual. How do you film smells, tastes, and textures? How many shots of vineyards, wineries, barrels and bottling lines can you watch before boredom sets in?

A new documentary, written and directed by Jason Wise, tackles these and other challenges with visual verve, a clever plotline, and enough minutiae to satisfy most armchair wine geeks. Wise takes the viewer through the vineyard, harvest, crush, fermentation, barreling and bottling of wine in a zippy opening, and in about the time it takes to open and pour a glass of wine, viewers are launched into the story.

The rest of the film tracks the progress of a small number of candidates preparing for the Master Sommelier exam, which is repeatedly described as the most difficult test in the world to pass. I am not sure where this puts the Master of Wine degree, which I surmise is equally difficult. But in any event, you get no argument from me that acquiring an MS is a sisyphean task, suitable only for those individuals (largely male) who are obsessive, driven, highly competitive, and consumed with a fascination for memorizing the most trivial details about wine.

Three 30-something friends form the film's core group, and we see them tasting, tutoring, taunting and tracking each other’s study progress. Actual Master Somms appear regularly, cajoling and mentoring the wannabe’s as they relentlessly tackle the task of preparing for the three main components of the test: the blind tasting, the written exam, and the wine service mock-up.

I have never been a sommelier, though I’ve known many. In fact, my collaborator on a book entitled ‘Northwest Wines’ was Jeff Prather, who wrote a very funny essay on his experiences as the wine director for Ray’s Boathouse. Sommelier was not a well-known title at the time (this is 20 years ago), and more than one person asked the waiter to “send over the chandelier to discuss wine options.”

These days, somm-ing seems to be a far more serious business. The exam's requirement that you must be able to identify six wines that could be from anywhere after spending an average of four minutes with each of them has always struck me as quixotic. And that’s the easy part! The written exam demands that you memorize an endless roll call of wine regions, villages, appellations, grapes, rootstocks, diseases, and so on from anywhere in the world. This seems roughly akin to memorizing the phone book. As a result all the candidates seem to live and breathe flash cards during virtually every waking moment of their lives.

The filmmaker was apparently not allowed to film any of the actual exam, which puts a dent in the finale. Instead, the story focuses on the relentless preparation as the time to the final testing ticks down. Even the men engaged in this pursuit of an MS certificate seem aware that it’s more than slightly insane. They repeatedly praise their long-suffering wives, and reflect longingly on the hope that some day they will return to a more normal life. “I dream about drinking a beer, and not thinking about wine,” says one, musing “I do have a wife I’ve been told...”

It is the achievement of the director that, at least for me, he keeps the film engaging, even through repeated scenes of rapid-fire wine analysis. If I could spit out that many nouns and adjectives in such a short amount of time, my work as a reviewer would be far more efficient. But I can’t, and wouldn’t want to make such snap judgments even if I could.

A website called IMDb posts a community-sourced rating of ‘SOMM’, broken out demographically. So far at least, it’s not scoring all that well, receiving an average vote of 4.0 on a 10 point scale. What is a bit surprising is that men (the majority of voters) give it a rather poor 3, while women seem to love it, coming in at over 9 on average. I can only surmise that men see the obsessive insanity of the enterprise, while women simply admire the quite handsome protagonists, who all clean up well and look great in a suit and tie.

At the end of the day, these self-appointed warriors will either succeed at earning the diploma and the pin, which means they will forever be locked into a world dominated by the geekiest of wine geeks. Or they will fail and give up, which may be a blessing in disguise. For most people, the chandelier is simply someone who points them to a decent bottle of wine to drink with dinner, and they really don’t care about the problems caused by the glassy-winged sharpshooter. To all those who strive mightily and don’t make the grade, we collectively say “Welcome back to reality!”


Sara said...

"I can only surmise that men see the obsessive insanity of the enterprise, while women simply admire the quite handsome protagonists, who all clean up well and look great in a suit and tie."

Yeah, that's what I look for in a film, a cute guy!


PaulG said...

Just my theory - what's yours?

littlefrontierestatewinery said...

LOVE the "chandelier"! why not? it does illuminate like a Somm after all!

thanks for your review, i'm looking forward to seeing the cute guys (!).

now about sara's sheesh comment, because i can't resist...

here's with my theory for your enjoyment (Disclaimer: this is only a 2-cent theory - you get what you pay for:) :

perhaps the movie was too revealing for men and so turned them off?

it reminds me of a business trip to Amsterdam, Netherlands, where we were all taken on a tour of the famous red-light district. prior to heading out, the "curator" of the tour did a bunch of Q and A, and while the men giggled in anticipation of the evening, us women were asking questions like, do the prostitutes have health insurance? Unemployment? Childcare? Stuff like that that deconstructed the allure of a hooker, i guess. And the men stopped their giggling. The fantasy was over as reality and real-life issues were made apparent.

maybe that's why men didn't give it high ratings?! the magic of the sommelier and what it takes to get there lost its "sexiness" through its deconstruction.

now about the women scoring the film higher...i think women can handle the truth better! But only when told to us by cute men, of course.

over and out-

p.s. i had to sign in to comment with an "abandoned" blog; the endeavor is still ongoing, although no winery yet

Rachel Peak said...

I haven't seen the movie yet, so don't have an informed "theory" of my own as to the gender gap in the reviews, but my initial reaction to your conclusion was similar to Sara's. You imply that women are incapable of recognizing the seemingly obvious "obsessive insanity of the enterprise," because they are so dazzled by the "quite handsome protagonists, who all clean up well and look great in a suit and tie", and therefore are also incapable of forming an equally legitimate critical opinion of the film as the male reviewers do.

I find this stance rather degrading and perhaps a smidge misogynistic, but let's not overreact. It can simply be explained as a rather shallow view of the opposite sex. Your conclusion, however, did tarnish my opinion of what was otherwise a rather interesting blog post and review of a movie I'm looking forward to seeing, and was the most memorable part (albeit negative) of your post, unfortunately.

Interestingly enough, W. Blake Gray of "The Gray Market Report" has a post today questioning how common sexism is in the wine industry. This article immediately came to mind as an example of sexism being alive and well.

PaulG said...

My comment was simply a guess at why this tiny online poll skewed the way it did. If a movie features scantily-clad young women but little plot or character I would expect it to rate much higher with men than women. Is that also sexist? Then mea culpa. But I am an equal opportunity misigynist!

Rachel Peak said...

I see the point you're getting at, but I would hope people of either sex wouldn't rate a movie highly simply because of some attractive people in it. If that was the case, "Girls Gone Wild" and the like would be winning Oscars. So yes, it is a little sexist toward both sexes, for stereotyping predicted behaviors based on gender.

Being an "equal-opportunity misogynist" would mean that you hate all women equally. I'm not sure that's what you meant. The male equivalent of misogyny is misandry-- do you mean you are equally a misogynist and a misandrist? If so, the concise term is misanthrope--hatred of all people--and I certainly hope you're not that. No fun at all.

PaulG said...

Rachel - I stand corrected. The perils of multitasking from an iPhone!

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