The obsessive pursuit of accomplishment is at the heart of “Somm,” a look into the arduous process of passing the Master Sommelier Exam. This three-day exam is the highest achievement in wine. In more than 40 years, less than 200 people have been awarded a place on the Court of Master Sommeliers. “Somm” is a fascinating, funny and maddening look into this secret world of wine that will captivate foodies and non-foodies alike.
Now, I love wine. But the only thing I really know about wine is that I need a glass of it right after I put my 2-year-old to sleep. For a somm, there’s nothing more important. “Somm” is short for sommelier, a restaurant professional who has exceptional knowledge in the pairing of wine and food. They’re the new rock stars of the culinary world. “Somm” begins by detailing the herculean task of becoming a Master Sommelier. The three-day exam includes a theory test that, amongst other futile tasks, forces you to memorize the 3,000 grape varietals of Italy; a service test that’s designed to unravel the tightest type-A; and a blind tasting that not only challenges contenders to name the age, type and region of a wine, but the single vineyard it was produced in. In the entire world. Which could be in one of five languages. Did I mention I can barely pronounce sommelier?
But what “Somm” does so well, in the vein of other outstanding documentaries like “Spellbound” (about teens trying to win the National Spelling Bee) and “The King of Kong: A Fist Full of Quarters” (about two video game wizards competing for the world record in Donkey Kong), is to take a seemingly small world that you didn’t know existed and tell the stories of the real-life characters who have everything at stake within them. For these characters, nothing is bigger.
The heart of “Somm” is the journey of four passionate Master Sommelier candidates. Dustin Wilson, the flashcard-addled everyman. DLynn Proctor the dapper, rising star, nicknamed, “Senior Smooth.” Brian McClintic, the Eddie Vedder impersonating, black sheep. And Ian Cauble, nicknamed “Dad,” the uber-obsessed, tasting nerd who puts wine before family. These Master Sommelier candidates aren’t the pretentious, pinky-up connoisseurs you’d expect. Instead, they come off as a bunch of dudes hanging out at a bar trivia night — only with spit buckets. We watch as this motley study group rattles off label-less, wine descriptions like auctioneers, using words like “verbaciousness” and identifying smells like “under-ripe green mango,” “decaying dry rose petals,” “freshly cut rubber hose” and even “cat pee” (apparently sauvignon blanc smells like your litter box).
It all culminates in the ultimate test of gastronomy, geology, geography and anthropology: the Master Sommelier exam. A year of work and years of strained personal and family relationships are on the line. At the final, diabolical, blind tasting there is panic, anxiety and a whole lot of self-doubt. But the most heartbreaking realization for this group of friends is that some will conquer their ultimate obsession, while others won’t. The brilliant will be unmercifully separated from the crazy.
“Wine on its own is not a complicated thing. We’re talking fermented grape juice, right?” McClintic says. But in “Somm,” through the passionate, obsessive and impossible journey of a few friends, we learn that there’s nothing more complex.
“Somm,” screens one night only, this Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Consolidated Theatres Kahala 8. Following the show there will be a Q&A with Master Sommelier, Chuck Furuya of Vino Hawaii & DK Restaurants. “Somm” will be released on iTunes on Friday, June 21st.