Some people learn Italian. Some spot trains. Some hunger to climb K2. And some learn to describe the flavors of wine, in terms like “underripe mango, white lilies, hay, lanolin, wet wool, freshly opened can of tennis balls, new rubber hose, granny’s purse, decaying camel skin and cat pee.”
Delicious! Oh, Monsieur Sommelier, might I order a second bottle of this fine vintage?
The diverting if light-bodied documentary “Somm” centers on four young West Coast men whose goal it is to be ranked among the top wine experts, ambassadors and servers. Administered only once a year, the three-day test to be named a Master Sommelier is the ne plus ultra in the industry. Apparently, fewer than 200 people in the world have earned that honor.
Documentaries are tailor-made for obsessive personalities, and the four guys here — Ian, Dustin, Brian and DLynn — qualify for sure as we watch them swill the equivalent of half the world’s vineyards in their mouths to try to ace the upcoming ordeal.
Director Jason Wise generates some tension as the exam approaches, but he wasn’t allowed to take his camera in to observe how his guys do. That’s disappointing, because the movie turns into a big buildup with the payoff playing behind closed doors.
Also, sometimes it’s difficult to share the kind of affection Wise clearly feels for these guys. I mean, the anguish of these fellows as they sweat the distinction between a sauterne and a sauvignon blanc is definitely a First World problem. It’s hard not to suspect that they may just be a few fist-bumps away from being total, privileged d-bags. But to be honest, the movie could use some more pungent flavors (so to speak) about each of them, even if not entirely palatable ones.
As it stands, except for a few almost-breakdowns (mainly by Ian), the guys and even their mentors verge on being something they would never tolerate in a wine: pleasant enough but sorta bland. Their wives/girlfriends, too, are seen as little more than blandly supportive ciphers willing to put up with their partners’ obsession. Only one scene, as the guys spend a long night testing their knowledge and not spitting out the wine they’re tasting, yields a nice bit of drama as Ian gets petulant after being ribbed once too often about his quest for perfection. But it’s over and done with pretty quickly. While DLynn, the only black candidate, is a friend of the other three, he’s clearly not as closely bonded as they are. He seems to have the most interesting personality, though, and the biggest love for the look, attitude and style that a sommelier represents. The movie could have used more of him.
That said, “Somm” will be a must-see for oenophiles and their friends, or anyone who can sympathize with the fears, frustrations and, with any luck, relief of cramming for a very tricky, tipsy-making test.
“Somm.” A documentary directed by Jason Wise. Unrated. 93 minutes. At the Plaza Theatre.