Welcome to the obsessive, all consuming road to the Master Sommelier exam.
I’m still amazed that someone made a movie about becoming a sommelier, especially one that pulls in admirers from outside of the industry. Most people can’t even pronounce 'sommelier', much less know what one is. The Court of Master Sommeliers has four levels of certification: Introductory, Certified, Advanced, and Master. You have to be personally invited to take the Master's level exam by The Court of Master Sommeliers. Earning the title of Master Sommelier is to reach a level of madness most of us in the industry do not understand on many levels. Today there are 201 Master Sommeliers in the world. We’ll find out this week if there are more after the annual exam in Dallas.
In the movie SOMM, we watch four candidates prepare for and then take the exam, which is still shrouded in secrecy. Through the documentary we are given glimpses into the madness of each candidate during the process - the flashcards, the blind wine flights, the maps, and the relationships, both personal and professional. Would we have the same level of interest about students studying to pass the bar? Perhaps... if there were only 200 in the history of time! SOMM writer and director Jason Wise successfully conveys the tension, excitement, courage, and self doubt that each candidate experiences, along with the romance and history of wine.
The idea for the film began after Wise graduated from film school at Chapman University. At the time he was bartending to pay his rent and trying to make a film about Champagne during World War I, but he abandoned that project when his friend Brian McClintic mentioned he was going to start taking the first level of tests to become a sommelier and invited him to observe the practice tastings. Wise was blown away. In his words, "it was one of the most insane and beautiful things I had ever seen in my life. I knew we had to set it to music and that it would be my first film.” He began documenting McClintic and the three others he was working with on their crusade to pass the Master Sommelier exam.
For over two years, a crew of just two filmed the Olympic-like exam training, sleeping on floors and surviving off of Starbuck's gift cards for food. Over two thirds of the production happened sans budget and the cameras were borrowed as favors from friends. Permission from the Court of Master Sommeliers to make the film was not granted; they were fought every step of the way until The Court realized there was no stopping them.
The resulting film is beautiful, moving, and exhilarating, and brings a new level of respect and admiration for those that have worked their way through and up the levels of becoming a sommelier.
Interview with Jason Wise, Writer and Director of SOMM
Did you have any idea what you were getting into?
JW: From the perspective of filmmaking, I knew I was getting into a story that didn't have a set end point, it wasn't as if we got to the last page of the script and finished filming. I knew if we had the patience to see it all the way through, it could end up being a really compelling story. The other thing entirely was the wine and how deep the world really is. I had no idea what I was getting into there, but this is why you make films, so you can learn about different subjects that happen to be part of stories worth telling.
Did you drink wine before you began the movie?
JW: Definitely. I had worked in restaurants since I was about 15 and had been a server and a bartender for several years. I came into this thinking I knew about wine since I sold it and I drank it, but man was I wrong. I definitely drink more wine now, and I now know that I know nothing about wine.
Did you have any other connections to the industry besides Brian’s experience?
JW: I was a restaurant bum before college, through college and after graduating from film school, mostly as a bartender at a high end restaurant so I knew several wine reps and distributors. My connections to the world of elite sommeliers started with Brian, and expanded enormously while making this film.
How did you pick the somms for the movie?
JW: We never really picked the people in this film. Brian MClintic was my friend way before starting this and he introduced me to Ian Cauble, with whom he was studying, and I began following Ian with a camera. Ian introduced me to DLynn Proctor and then Brian moved in with Dustin Wilson in San Francisco. These four guys formed a study group to get through the master exam and we found them interesting as a group, so to answer your question it was a very organic process that just came together over time and we were very lucky.
What great experiences didn’t make it into the movie?
JW: We forced ourselves to keep a pretty narrow focus while editing the film, and wanted it to be about four friends going through a very difficult process together. Some very pretty wine region and wine making footage didn't make the cut, but by far the greatest thing was an original ending you will have to see to believe. That will be on the DVD.
What surprised you the most about the Master Somm process?
JW: The thing that surprised me the most was how relatable the process and the people are to so many outside the wine industry. I found the people in this world to be the exact opposite of the snooty wine snob stereotype. The people we met are the same you would see at a baseball game or at a concert, normal people who happen to talk about this insanely complicated subject. So many from other professions have told me how the film stressed them out because they could relate to it, everyone from lawyers to firemen to accountants to underwater welders. Ambition and really difficult obstacles are a universal thing.
What did you want the audience to come away with?
Besides the need to drink a glass of wine immediately? I hope Sommeliers are seen as a more approachable and I hope people try different wines than what they are used to drinking. Above all of this though, I hope they are entertained and feel like they enjoyed a good movie.
What did you come away with?
JW: I came away with a story that was one of the great honors of my life to have been able to share. I also learned that good wine doesn't need to cost a lot of money, those two things are not mutually exclusive, you just have to listen to people who taste way more wine than any sane person ever should. Listen to your Somm, they know what they are talking about.
I personally wished the movie was twice as long, did The Court dictate what could make it into the movie?
JW: HAHAHAH God I wish it was twice as long too, and our first cut definitely was! The court had no say in who & how we filmed, or how it was cut, so no - I am sure they were worried though. What dictated it is that documentaries have to have a serious reason to go over a certain time length, and we wanted the film to have an arc for the characters. That is the ultimate goal for a filmmaker, that people wish the movie was longer.
What were the hardest parts of making the movie?
JW: Shooting this film on a shoestring budget for three years proved incredibly difficult, I know all of us came very close to not making rent several times during the process. The other thing was convincing the Court of Master Sommeliers to trust me with this film. I came to them and asked to make this film, they were sort of blindsided by the idea. Thankfully I was able to wear enough people in the organization down and make the film, but it had some very trying moments.
Will there be a follow up?
JW: I truly hope we will be able to do some sort of a follow up. There is so much depth to this world and we only scratched the surface in SOMM. We have all talked about it for sure.
What is your next project?
JW: I have a couple of documentaries set in the food and wine world I have been prepping. One is set in the world of Whiskey in three countries and one is set in the Oyster industry world wide, both incredible stories. There is a chance one of these will be the next project, you have a rich aunt or uncle I can talk to?