I’m a total sucker for almost any competitive cooking show or documentary that features people who’ve mastered, through years and years of practice, the art of making beautiful, edible things. Think of Top Chef or Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The creations of such talented people are so transient and yet so undeniably nutritious, in both the literal and aesthetic sense, that I can’t help wishing the people who made them were all my friends. Seriously, I’d much rather visit a cooks’ kitchen than most artist’s studios. Anyway…
SOMM, a film playing at St. Anthony Main, had me at wine. While I’ve been on a beer kick these past few months, I’m much more likely, on any given week, to have a Trader Joe’s box red in my kitchen than a case of Grain Belt in my fridge. I’m telling you this in an attempt to explain my fascination with SOMM. After all, it was one of those docs that kept me enthralled, eager to learn more about fermented grape juice and the guys who want to master all there is to know about it.
For these guys, it’s all about being certified as a Master Sommelier. That’s basically a grand master wine expert, a person who can taste any given red or white and tell, by the wine’s taste and smell, its country of origin, producer and even the year it was made. Watching such a display of skill — the process of which, the movie shows, is quite tactical — is incredibly impressive. They must also know all of the world’s wine regions, the various languages involved, and be be able to serve it, like a gentleman. It’s a strange calling.
Moreover, to become a master one needs to flawlessly display these skills in test that’s notoriously difficult. Since the Master title appeared late last century, fewer than 200 people have ever earned it. It’s really, really tough to get.
Director Jason Wise brings out the struggle for this honor really well. He let’s it breathe. He lets the guys explain their passion and then shows their struggle, as well as their means of coping with their liquid obsession. For instance, these guys (they are all men) have support groups, where they just sit and test each other. They crunch on flashcards. They taste. They get drunk, sure, but much of what they taste they spit into the buckets. In the morning, much to their annoyance, these guys’ girlfriends and wives are on clean up duty. These women root for their men to pass the esoteric test so that they can, at long last, lead something of a normal life.
After you get to understand there guys’ passion, you get to see them be tested at the movie’s end. There are about four main characters the film follows, and they all take their test at the same locale: Texas, of all places. Seeing who passes and who fails is irresistible. You root for all them, knowing most will likely fail. And, on top of that, there’s the chance that one guy may fail while all his friends pass, leaving him in the dregs — without the support group, without new opportunities and without the title.
While you don’t have to be a wine snob to “get” this movie, it sure doesn’t help to have an interest. Wine, after all, was the product of Jesus’ first miracle, and it’s also a major part of Western culture. Seeing that something so simple can be the focus of people’s lives is, for me, refreshing: a reminder that great achievements don’t always have to include a televised award show or a giant check with lots of zeros. Reaching the apex of one’s passion, SOMM shows, is a sweet and intoxicating reward all its own.
*And, if you don’t drink enough alcohol over the holiday weekend, there’s a wine tasting along with the film’s screening on Monday. Details can be found here.*