Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Wino4life Movie Review: Somm

After last week's posting on how to make prison wine (what was I thinking???), I decided I needed to make up for it by picking a topic at the other end of the wine spectrum - the Master Sommelier.  Specifically, today's topic is my review of the movie Somm.

Somm is a documentary about four guys studying for the Master Sommelier exam given by the Court of Master Sommeliers.  This test has been given over the course of the last 40 years, and during that time less than 200 have been able to conquer the test to become a Master Sommelier.  The Pass rate for this test is about 8%, which means 92% of those who take it will fail it.

The Master Sommelier test consist of three parts: 

  • Theory.  Questions about literally any wine region in the world, and the format is oral, not written. Literally they will be grilled with questions by other Master Sommeliers.  All of the subjects of the move studied for 8 - 10 or more hours a day at times - with like a billion flashcards.  I am pretty good at taking written tests, but the extra stress of an oral examination is mind boggling to me.
  • Blind Tasting. The Master Somm candidates are given 6 wines to taste blind. So imagine walking into a room with 6 glasses of wine (3 whites and 3 reds), and by nothing more than the look, aromas, and flavors identifying 1) wine region, 2) grape or grapes, 3) vintage.  I don't think they had to nail all the wines exactly, but needed to be within a certain tolerance (e.g. misting the vintage by a year or two).
  • Service. In a real life scenario, the Master Somm candidates serve a table of Master Somms. 
The exam is given once per year, and if someone passes one part, then they have the next two years (two more tests) to pass the remaining parts, otherwise they have to retake all parts of the test.  While the movie focused mostly on the wine aspect of the test, in order to become a Master Sommelier there is also test material about beer, spirits, and cigars.

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, which to me turned out to be less about wine, and more about the drive to obtain such a prestigious level in any endeavor.  In fact, I wish there was more about wine,  but I do understand that if they wine geeked it up too much - they may not attract any non-wine geek viewers.  You probably have to be at least a partial wine geek to really enjoy it - but for me and my experience in studying for and passing the International Sommelier Guild's Level II Sommelier exam,  it was especially fascinating to me.  The test I passed included a written test of multiple choice and essay questions, plus a blind tasting of four wines (two red and two white).  Passing the test means that I quality to take the Sommelier courses and test to become a Certified Sommlier (not Advanced or Master - just regular old Somm). I needed to do this because other than Godfather's Pizza when I was in college, I don't have any food and beverage industry experience.  The test I took is like comparing a 2nd grade spelling test to a final exam in Quantum Mechanics, but it gave me additional perspective as to how difficult the Master Somm test must be.  

For the blind tasting I did, I could count on that there would be one old world and one new world white, and ditto for the reds. The whites were likely to be Napa Chardonnay, White Burgundy, German Riesling, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, or White Bordeaux. The reds were likely to be Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Oregon Pinot Noir, Rhone, or Australian Shiraz.  Compared to having to be able to recognize just about any wine in the world, and nail it down to the vintage.  

For me, I learned two main things from watching this movie - both of which were a surprise to me.

1.  Motivation. I cannot even estimate the number of hours of studying with the billions of flash cards, tasting wine in order to be able to identify wines in a blind tasting, plus learning about beers, spirits, and cigars.  The surprise to me was that none of the Master Somm candidates struck me as being incredibly passionate about wine.  Doesn't make sense does it?  At least three of the four guys in the movie seemed more motivated by the competitiveness and exclusivity rather than a pure love of the subject matter. One of the guys featured in the movie, Brian McClintic told FoodGPS in an interview "I have a natural competitive drive to do things that are fairly low percentage. I wanted to be a baseball player. I wanted to do the screenplay thing. I like a challenge. Not a lot of people can do this. That is appealing to me."  I guess if someone were to spend that many hours studying, sacrificing, and out and out suffering for one thing - like wine, they may end up losing the passion. I believe I probably would!

2. Blind Tasting.  Blind tasting was one of the toughest things for me to tackle for the wine exams I've taken.  Having to rely on your sense of smell and taste as the key tools for a test was and is difficult for me.  Your nose will get fatigued quickly, and your mind will play tricks on you. Do I really remember what a plum smells like, or roses vs violets, or grapefruit vs lemon peel? Reading about and hearing about anyone at the Master Sommelier level,  they have a reputation of being able to taste just about any wine and tell you all about it. I was glad to see that even at the Master Somm candidate level - the blind tasting is a huge challenge. Don't get me wrong, I realize they are a million times better than I could ever hope to be, but it inspires me to continue to work on that skill instead of blowing it off as an unobtainable goal.  Also, watching this movie I picked up some techniques for blind tasting that I can work on for my own benefit (I don't want to give away too much so you'll still want to see the movie!)

So, the bottom line is that if you are a bit of a wine geek and interested in the trials and tribulations of a becoming a certified Master Sommelier, you will like this movie. If you are hoping to learn much about wine you will be mostly disappointed.  You may however find the aspect of motivation as interesting as I did.  Overall - I recommend you give it a try. It is a documentary after all, so no car chases or explosions, but I enjoyed it and look forward to watching it again. It has definitely motivated me to get back to studying for my Certified Specialist of Wine, which I have been blowing off in favor of major home renovations (which are done now!).

If you do see this movie - let us know what you think by leaving a comment below.  Thanks!

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