Taking another break from drinking this week, so I went back to wine-related media. This week I watched Somm (2012), a documentary about four candidates for the Master Sommelier (M.S.) exam. It’s the hardest examination in the wine world. At the beginning of the film, they note that in 40 years, there have only been 170 Master Sommeliers ever. This exclusivity can throw open the doors to lucrative paths of employment and teaching.
One of the obvious things you’ll notice is how overwhelmingly male this world is. The four candidates we follow — Ian, Dustin, Brian, and DLynn — are all male. Only two women are interviewed for their expertise, among at least six or eight men. One other exam candidate is a woman, but I can’t remember her speaking on camera. Wives and girlfriends of the candidates are included, mostly for eye-rolling or “oh well, what are you going to do” interviews where they talk about how tough it is to have a partner who’s studying wine terminology 10 hours a day. Brian’s wife mentions how she has to clean up the spit bucket after her husband and his friends spend a night tasting.
It’s also a very white world. DLynn is the sole Black person in the film. There is one Asian gentleman who runs practice tastings for three of the candidates. Everyone else is white. In a scene where a group of students get together to quiz each other on tastings, DLynn is at the table, but he barely speaks. The scenes with practice tastings, DLynn is nowhere to be found. It’s just Ian, Dustin, and Brian. Brian mentions how the three of them – “Dustin, Ian, and me” – are super tight. What about DLynn? Part of this might be because he seems to live in Dallas (where the exam is held), and the other three all live in and around San Francisco, but this is never clarified or even commented on. While we spend some time with the other three’s partners, we never hear about DLynn’s family. He appears to be wearing a wedding band, and in a brief scene in his apartment, there’s a framed photo of him and a pretty lady. His wife? Girlfriend? No idea. Maybe he and his partner just didn’t want to participate more than he already was, but it comes across as a very strange omission.
Not only is it very white and male, it’s super bro-y. Brian says that many of the guys he knows who got into wine are also very into competitive sports. Fred Dame, the first American to pass all three phases of the M.S. his first time in 1984, is hailed as a genius. But his teaching methods are rude and pushy. Even one of the wives notes that they can be “self absorbed egomaniacs.” Reminds me of the guys from Sour Grapes who pick at each other for drinking inferior vintages. Fun guys.
Lots of time is spent showing how much studying is involved. Flash cards are an integral part of the process, as a third of the exam focuses on theory: grape varietals, international wine laws and regulations, and other minutiae. Ian stays up three hours late into the night to run flash cards and trace wine region maps. Dustin runs flash cards in the grocery store. Ian runs them while driving (um, that doesn’t seem safe).
It’s never discussed how expensive all this is. According to the M.S. website, the fee just to take the exam costs almost $1,000, plus you have to pay for travel to the site. There’s no mention of how much all this wine tasting (and spitting) costs, but if you’re going to learn about Hungarian tokaji to the point where you can identify it in a blind tasting, you gotta drink a lot of it, and a lot of other wine. Admittedly the M.S. exams are intended for professionals. This article nicely explains the difference between Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) vs the Court of Master Sommeliers. If I wanted to enhance my knowledge as a writer or even just a consumer, I might check out the WSET Level I. If I were already a wine professional and I wanted to advance, I might consider the M.S. But either way, studying and consuming at this level ain't cheap.
The testing itself takes up about the last half hour of the film. I was kind of sick of these wine bros by then, but I was committed to seeing it through. During the exam is when the main characters become more sympathetic. After the Practical Tasting phase, they meet up with their buddies and try to figure out if they got it right or not. (It’s never mentioned whether every test-taker gets the exact same six wines.) “You said albariño? God, I said chenin blanc!” I found myself starting to soften towards them. (DLynn debriefs to the camera, alone, not with the other wine bros. Huh. Weird.)
Brian is probably my favorite wine bro. He seems to be the most well-rounded of the group. He has a funny scene where he’s playing guitar and making up lyrics to Pearl Jam songs by faking a decent Vedder-esque growl. He gets a nice moment where he talks about how he really wants to succeed for his wife, that he knows his work for the exam has deprived her of a normal life, and he just wants to “be a husband.” That was nice. Almost Valentinesy. But dude, god, clean up your spit bucket.
While the film warmed me up a bit towards the end, the glaring gender and racial imbalances distracted me for a significant and annoying chunk of time. You won’t learn much about wine, or how to sign up for the exam. If the troubles of some young white guys speed-talking their way through tastings sounds like fun, please do enjoy.
Somm is available in the U.S. on Hulu.