It’s time to Netflix and chill some wine.
A movie review from one wine amateur to another.
Somm is the first of two docu-movies by director, Jason Wise and currently streaming on Netflix. It is a behind-the-scenes look into the Ninja Warrior challenge of the wine business. It follows four young men — Ian, Dustin, Brian and DLynn — who have put aside their lives to prepare for the master sommelier exam.
Going by the first few scenes, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a quest to cure cancer. The people speaking begin by describing a moment in their lives comparable to their children being born and their parents dying; something they prioritise even higher than their families.
Jack of all trades. Master of somm.
There is a very simple reason why the people that prepare to take the three day Master Sommelier exam turn into maniacal, wine-tasting, flashcard-wielding savants.
Because it’s bloody hard. We learn that in 40 years, a mere 170 people passed the test. It’s only given once a year in Dallas and if you fail, it’s back to the drawing board – or give up if you can’t summon the internal fortitude to put yourself through it again.
There is a lot to learn. To pass, they must demonstrate pinpoint accurate knowledge of wine and the regions from whence they came. This involves studying (and tracing) maps, knowing how to serve wine, memorising and understanding terroir and the growing conditions in any given year in any given region. (Stop. Think about that!)
It also involves drinking a lot of wine, describing it and reverently discussing it.
Hints of Garden Hose
Colour, concentration and structure are just some of the terms consistently, impressively bandied about. There is some sort of periodic table that must be followed in describing a vino. Regrettably, I couldn’t quite make it out as old mate, MS alumnus, rattled it off at a speed akin to that which we were expected to recite our times tables as Sister Patricia stood over us, ruler in hand.
The wine descriptions were a highlight. Sure, we heard the obligatory reference to cherry, rose petals, acidity and crispness; but when you watch the film, you will be enlightened as to a whole other way of categorising flavour.
‘Just opened can of tennis balls’ springs to mind immediately.
As does ‘freshly cut rubber, garden hose’. (Me thinks the less said on that one, the better.)
Other standouts include: decaying animal skin; dried, rotten violets; pool toys; cat pee; and my grandmother’s closet.
Those crazy kids
The protagonists of Somm are entertaining and compelling – if not a little lacking in perspective.
One scene features a night with the four comrades getting together (along with a woman also taking the test, inexplicably not featured in the doco). I can’t decide whether being out with these guys would be awe-inspiring and fascinating or whether it would require some sort of psycho-intervention. Obsessed wine geeks to say the least.
Spare a thought then for their girlfriends and wives who can barely contain their collective sentiment of: OVER IT.
These women are over the preoccupation, the 10 hours a day of study, flash cards covering every surface of the home, constant wine babble, 2am Skype study sessions with their buddies, and – most disturbingly – spit bucket duty.
Yep. 1950s-style, these supportive partners are the ones that deal with the party aftermath. (If you’re squeamish, you might have to look away in that part).
Worth the watch
Lest you think Somm isn’t worth the watch, it is. It is also beautifully shot, featuring stunning vineyard scenery, as well as beautiful wines (Penfolds BIN 28 makes a cameo), and some Mythbusters-eque treatment of wine glasses.
As test day draws closer, you can feel the tension. Sure, while I wanted to shake these people and tell them “YOU’RE TASTING WINE NOT PERFORMING BRAIN SURGERY!” I was onboard. It meant so much to them and while I can scoff all I like, the ability of these sommeliers is next-level freak genius.
And really, what these guys are doing is no less-worthy than athletes kicking around a footy or picking up a tennis racket. No one questions the nerves you feel when your team is on the precipice of either leaping to victory or falling to failure (Wallabies, anyone?). No one belittles an Olympic athlete that pours their body and soul into training for one event every four years.
These guys, likewise, put a lot of training, sacrifice and dedication into the gold medal event of wine tasting. And ultimately, any sport where it’s acceptable – encouraged even – to drink wine the morning of the event, is just fine by me.
Somm and its sequel, Somm – Into the Bottle, are currently streaming on Netflix Australia.