No Somm Left Behind

December 13, 2013

I just saw the movie Somm, and I haven’t had that much fun since 2002, when I was studying for the bar exam. The documentary follows a group of young sommeliers as they cram to take the test to be certified as Master Sommeliers. There are two things, however, that you will not see in the movie: 1) any of the protagonists actually engaged in sommeliering, and 2) the actual Master Sommelier examination itself. They must not have gotten permission to film that part, so the climax of the film consists of each protagonist walking into the exam room and closing the door behind him. The result is something that could easily have been titled Test Prep: The Movie. It would not have been a wildly different film if it focused on law students boning up on the Rule Against Perpetuities for the bar exam, or, for that matter, ambitious high-schoolers trying to ace the SAT.

The Master Sommelier examination is multipart. One part tests the candidates’ rote memorization of esoteric wine-and-spirits facts and involves a course of preparation in which each prepares for himself thousands of flash cards posing such questions as, “Name a wine producer from the Ukraine.” They all joke that the first thing they will do when they pass is burn their flashcards. Another part is a blind-tasting challenge in which candidates must taste six wines in 25 minutes, rattle off flavor-wheel descriptors for each one, and guess the appellation, grape variety, vintage, and climatic conditions, and make some general assessment of the producer. Although we don’t see the actual test, we do see several practice sessions. The candidates all have it down to a science. They call it “going through the grid,” after the Court of Master Sommeliers’ official tasting grid. Here’s how Ian Cauble does it:

“Wine 1 is a white wine, clear star bright. There’s no evidence of gas or flocculation. The wine has a light straw core, consistent to green reflections in the edge. Medium concentration of color. We’re almost coming out of like this lime candy, lime zest. Crushed apples. Underripe green mango. Underripe melon. Melon skin. Green pineapple. Palate: The wine is bone-dry. Really like this crushed slate, like crushed chalky note, like crushed hillside. There’s white florals, almost like a fresh cut flower, white flowers, white lilies, no evidence of oak. There’s kind of a freshly opened can of tennis balls and a fresh new rubber hose I get. Structure: Acid is medium-plus. Alcohol is medium. Complexity is medium plus. I’ve reached a conclusion this wine is from the New World, from a temperate climate. Possible grapes are riesling. Possible countries are Australia. Age range is one to three years. This wine can only be one thing. This wine is from Australia. This wine is from South Australia. This wine is from Clare Valley. 2009 riesling, high-quality producer.”

He’s right. But he does this a lot.

He’s sort of the ringleader of the group, the alpha, the Alex to his droogs. They all go through the grid the same way, but Cauble sells it with the most confidence. Some others of lesser constitutions get lost along the way and nearly break down in tears.

The main thing the movie captures is the constant tenseness, the suffocating terror of having to take a test which will determine the course of your life and which requires studying every waking hour because the prospect always lingers that the one extra minute you didn’t spend, the one extra flash card you didn’t review, will turn out to have made the difference between passing and failing. The movie conveys this horrible pressure vividly enough that viewers can be assured of waking the next night in a sweat from one of those dreams about having to take a final for a class you never attended, and you’re naked.

One might imagine that the fact that this test is about wine and not advanced organic chemistry or 16th century British property law would make it more entertaining. It does, but not as much as you might think. One of the striking things about the film is just how little its scenes of wine consumption actually resemble any wine-consumption setting that would be familiar to you and me. The physical elements are more-or-less the same—a group of friends gathered around a table with glasses of wine—but what’s actually going on is very, very different, almost unrecognizable as the same activity.

For one thing, none of these people are enjoying themselves. At all. They are very deliberately not making any effort to appreciate any of the wines they are tasting, only to identify them. They are also not tasting much that’s particularly interesting or that you would expect to quicken the heart of an experienced, enthusiastic wine professional—Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay makes a cameo appearance—because they must limit themselves to the sort of commercially available archetypes likely to appear on the test. Losing oneself in a high-end grand cru matured to perfection, or a wine so spellbinding and unique that it isn’t typical of anything, would be a waste of time. And, in any event, one may only spend four minutes and ten seconds with each wine. Anything too good would just be a waste.

Cauble calls the exercise “training,” and indeed it has more in common with other forms of training than with the activity they are ostensibly training themselves to facilitate—i.e., dining. The film, ironically enough, opens by explaining that its title, “Somm,” is “Slang for sommelier, a restaurant professional who has great knowledge of pairing wine with food.” But food is a complete non-factor from the first scene to the last. None of the Master Sommeliers-in-training are consuming their wines with food. The tasting grid doesn’t even seem to address the cuisine that the wine might go with. That would interfere with the clinical environment necessary to ascertain whether a wine’s structure is “medium-plus” or just-plain “medium.”

The only people who appear to be having less fun with this than the Master Sommelier candidates themselves are their wives and girlfriends, who would seem willing to settle for four minutes and ten seconds of attention from their mates. Instead, they just get to clean up those gross spit buckets left behind in the morning. (At least there are no dishes! Just tasting-grid sheets.) The spit bucket ensures that no training sessions find themselves descending into revelry. Yes, there are wine glasses on the table, but they may as well be in a law library doing drills on the hearsay rule.

One of the other odd things the movie conveys is how the clique of Master Sommelier candidates is a subculture unto itself, with its own lore and lingua franca, as though it had evolved in complete isolation from any wider subculture of wine enthusiasts. It’s kind of like how there is one subculture of people who lift weights to compete in Mr. Universe pageants where they parade their waxed, G-stringed bodies on a stage, and a completely different subculture of people who lift weights to compete in Olympic-style events where they have to, well, lift weights. And never the twain shall meet.

Have you ever heard of Fred Dame? I hadn’t. He passed all three parts of the M.S. exam in 1984 on his first try, then helped bring the sport of Master Sommeliering to America. Among the Master Sommelier candidates he is a legend. They even have a slang term in his honor—“Daming it”—to identify a wine in 3 seconds flat on nose alone. (The typical exercise of going through the nose, palate, and structure and arriving at the right answer is referred to as “rocking the wine,” an impressive feat but an order of magnitude below “Daming it.”)

For those of us who have spent years around wine without having heard of “Daming it,” or without having had the desire to spend four minutes and ten seconds with a wine “going through the grid,” the movie does make one question what, exactly, is the point of it all. There is really only one moment in the film that addresses what any of this has to do with making someone a better sommelier, when Rajat Parr explains that when you learn to describe a wine without reference to the label, you are learning to describe it in a way that a guest can relate to. Maybe—but only to a point. That point is well short of medium-plus color concentration, freshly opened cans of tennis balls, and flocculation, whatever that is.

Since Somm doesn’t depict any sommeliers doing their actual jobs, it’s easy to lose sight of what the job actually entails. At the most basic level, they help restaurants choose wines to buy, and they help diners choose wines to drink. At the very highest level, they do all that but also have something of a sixth sense, the ability to take a wine and know not only that it belongs on their list but that it is the wine the world needs right now. To cite two of the more famous examples, the grüner veltliner trend in the last decade and the somewhat more recent revitalization of sherry both owe a lot to visionary sommeliers who found wines that nobody was interested in, evangelized for them, and made a place for them at the table and in our consciousness before anyone else even realized that there was a widespread, unsatisfied craving for exactly what those wines deliver.

All of those skills require powers of discernment. But it is not the kind of discernment deployed in four-minute tasting-grid exercises. Being able to identify a wine as a chardonnay isn’t the same thing as being able to identify it as a good chardonnay, or a great one, or as a chardonnay likely to taste good with the chef’s lobster. But however important those skills may be, they are not as testable. And thus Somm really does turn out to be a movie more about test prep than wine, perhaps even the quintessential test prep story of our age. Our heroes study and train and (most of them) ace the test, eventually. Whether the skills they have developed have done anything more for them than prepare them for the test and advance their careers is a question the movie doesn’t answer, and perhaps doesn’t even realize it’s raising.

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4 Responses to “No Somm Left Behind”

  1. bags said

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for taking apart this terribly unsatisfying movie. I almost turned it off several times, but hope against hope, persevered to the end, to learn…virtually nothing about wine. As you say, it’s just about test prepping for professional accreditation. What’s most depressing is that, okay, we all know you lawyers are a sad lot: we only go to you and to dentists when we must. But we choose wine for pleasure and passion, and what we find here is the sterile commoditization of an industry. The only take away for me was that, within this post-industrial nightmarish economy, there are still odd niches outside of Silicon Valley and Wall Street that supply upward mobility for the young and ambitious.

  2. Ron Levenberg said

    I’ve had *Somm *on my Netflix queue but haven’t gotten to it yet. I guess I’ll give it a try to see what you’re writing about. Why do you think the producers of *Somm *got it so wrong?

  3. Glenn said

    It was fun watching the film and thinking about how they ramped up the tension; all the while reflecting upon my board exam experience in General Surgery: a written exam that followed 5-7 years or residency (flashcards would not be the chosen study modality) and then the oral exam consisting of three rooms, where in each two experienced surgeons eviscerate the candidate asking about whatever complicated clinical nuance they wish. Nashville, TN was my oral exam city, I’ve never returned after passing that test.

  4. Marcus said

    Great review. What a weird subculture — this testing culture in law or medical school at least has some justification in the nature of the professions themselves, but not so much here.

    I thought a sort of hidden subtext of the movie is that people get the blind tasting wrong A LOT. The Aussie Riesling example you give is I think the only one shown where anyone actually nails a wine blind. It is used to set the Cauble guy up as some kind of super-talented taster. But he’s not; doesn’t he later call the Beringer Chard as either a Burgundy or (worse) a Northern Rhone white? Anyway, for all the studying they seemed to avoid scenes where you could clearly tell if people were getting the blind guesses wrong.

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