Opens Fri., June 21 at SIFF Film Center. Not rated. 93 minutes.
Reality TV and competition docs—Spellbound, Kings of Pastry, etc.—set the familiar structure for this backstage tale of four guys preparing to take the grueling master sommelier exam, basically a cram-course Ph.D. in wine. Director Jason Wise was a friend of bartender Brian McClintic, who gave him total access over three years. The other three candidates are Dustin Wilson, Ian Cauble, and DLynn Proctor—a rare black face in the cheerfully snobby and competitive grape game. Brian, Dustin, and Ian are the California bros, who meet regularly to taste, spit, and describe. (DLynn lives elsewhere and gets less screen time.) In addition to being a geeky celebration of wine, SOMM offers a torrent of words as our heroes struggle to articulate what’s on their tongues: truffle, chalk, skins, decay, “like a freshly opened can of tennis balls,” youthful, wet wool, lemon seeds, cat pee, granny purse, rubber hose, slate, cinnamon, nutmeg, canned peaches, etc. It’s like a free-association SAT vocabulary-building exercise as the four guys try to match blind-tasting samples with the correct vintage.
The very tolerant wives and girlfriends of these “egomaniacs” are interviewed for context, and Wise also adds helpful graphics and opinions from experts who have the sommelier exam behind them. (The star among them is the grandly loquacious Fred Dame, who deserves a movie of his own—he’s like the Jackie Gleason of wine.) The whole process reminds you of the London taxi-driver exam or Joshua Foer’s book about memorization contests, Moonwalking With Einstein (also to be a movie). Ian is the overbearing alpha-taster of the obsessive, one-upping bunch, whose group dynamics suggest a Christopher Guest mockumentary. Another aspect of the exam is table service, so our guys also practice with surly fake customers in what’s essentially an improv comedy exercise (where, again, Dame shines).
If SOMM is overscored and too prone to cutesy slo-mo interstitials of shattering wine glasses, no matter. By the time we get to Dallas for the big exam, we’re so invested in these four funny, personable fellows that failure would be shattering for us too. Heading into the test, says Brian, “It’s like the death-row walk.” After the film’s done, however, you’ll want nothing less than Champagne.