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Film review: Somm

SOMM, the 2012 Napa Valley Film Festival’s headlining film and debut feature from director Jason Wise, attempts to pull back the curtain on the mysterious Master Sommelier Exam.

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The central figure here is not any of the four principal characters that inhabit its universe, but rather the exam itself—or its long shadow.

SOMM conveys surprising emotional depth for a movie about a process, yet its chief subject remains on guard, illuminating its aspirants while revealing itself only indirectly.  
   
Fitting nicely into the vein of charming, smart documentaries about the tunnel vision of geeky obsessives, SOMM follows four sommeliers – Ian Cauble, Dustin Wilson, Brian McClintic, and Dlynn Proctor – in the crazed final weeks leading up to the notoriously difficult exam.

McClintic serves as a narrator for the process, and the film trains its lens chiefly on preparations for the feared blind tasting, a make-or-break section for many candidates.

Practice sessions produce scenes both comic and intensely confrontational. In what may easily pass for a useful tutorial in how to spit with aplomb, viewers may find a few new curious descriptors (what does a freshly cut rubber hose smell like, exactly?) while peering into the secret-late night world of sommeliers.

Proctor waltzes across the screen, exuding charm at every step, but it is Cauble, spiralling from overconfident to shell-shocked and back again, who provides the film’s most wrenching, human moments.

Sommeliers are a misunderstood species, derided by winemakers and critics who do not share their sensibilities and heralded as ‘gatekeepers’ by those that do.

In America, the ‘somm’ may be poised as the next celebrity du jour of the restaurant world—although one cannot imagine the sommelier’s lasting fame (or pride) will ever rival that of the chef’s—and SOMM could plunge headlong into that puffery.

But it doesn’t: Wise lets the players’ ambitions (and failures) speak, and crafts a satisfying, personal story about cracked, flawed, interesting people who happen to sell wine in Italian cut suits, and minus the tastevin.

The SOMM world premiere drew a standing ovation at the Napa Valley Opera House, as hundreds of wine professionals converged on the valley.  Wise remains humble: ‘Last year (Alexander Payne’s) The Descendants opened the Napa Valley Film Festival…to put SOMM in that same place is the greatest honor we have been given.’  A big stage for a film, and a profession.

Read our exclusive interview with Dustin Wilson, wine director of Eleven Madison Park.

Watch the film trailer here:

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