In the new documentary SOMM, which opens today, four extremely dedicated wine guys strive to join the prestigious and almost preposterously selective Court of Master Sommeliers. Following our review, we chatted with filmmaker Jason Wise to find out all the dirt behind what seems to be the hardest test in the world.
One gets the impression from watching SOMM that you already knew your way around a tasting room. Before going into this, was wine a passion of yours?
You know, I'm glad you thought that. Basically I tended bar at a nice restaurant. I absolutely loved wine, but I didn't really know it. Only now can I truly appreciate what was then my lack of knowledge. But yeah, my background mostly was selling wine in a nice restaurant, and sometimes drinking it until 5 a.m. in a friend's garage. The one thing I'm happiest about after making this film is that I kept that love. Sometimes people learn more and become very picky. I really haven't changed. I still love all kinds of wine. I've just learned how much more there is that I can love.
So how did the film get started?
I was bartending after film school. Myself and one of the guys, Brian McClintic, we were restaurant bums. And we were on the same path of wondering how to further our careers. I wanted to make a film more than I wanted to breathe. I was trying to get anything off the ground. He said, "You should come watch this thing. It's really bizarre. It could be good for a movie." And Brian had worked with Ian Cauble, who was at the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay, and was obviously very serious about wine. I thought: This guy is insane. But in all the right ways. It also put the Master Exam in perspective. You can be a sommelier without being a master. But it's like climbing Mt. Everest: either you're going to do it or you're not.
At first I didn't look at it as them doing something with wine. I looked at it as them doing something hard. Anyway, Ian was studying with DLynn Proctor ... all these guys just sort of came together naturally. I saw guys acting like guys, around wine. And I saw an opportunity to tell a story about friends. Comments have come out that it's really bro-y. And I'm like, yeah, you're welcome. The movie that you thought you wanted has been done many times before.
What would you say are some traits that all these guys have in common?
With everybody I met, they had ... I don't know if you want to call it type-A personalities, or what. Really it's about having no back-up plan. They would not give up. The plan was to pass; if they failed they'd take it again. However long it takes. There's one guy in Colorado who took it seven times. This was before iPads, so he had shelves and shelves full of books, just lugging them around for seven years. It's also a little bit like poker. By the time you've lost a thousand but won ten thousand, that's worth so much more. I'm sure there's other people that have done it other ways. But that's what it's like on the master level. At the lower levels, people can satisfy their curiosity or get what they need for the job they want and be done. But for others there is just something about getting to the master level.
Was it hard to track all of them at once? For that matter, was access ever a problem with the administrators of the exam?
For the vast majority of what we did, the crew was two people: myself and my director of photography, with two cameras. We did everything we could to make it look like it had a budget and was planned, but it was neither of those things. There are so many members of the court that are in the film, and they were accommodating. But exam day is a lot of pressure for everyone. So we just tried to work with that. With the guys getting ready for the test, I tried to concentrate on those moments where they had something on the line. But I also wanted to show the everyday stuff. Yeah, it was hard.
While shooting, were you able, and willing, to drink?
I would say that if we did not have a healthy buzz all the way through this movie, we would never have finished it. You never want to manipulate the situation, but these guys wanted us to try everything. Like: "Ooh, this Sancerre is truly amazing," or, "This wine really shows you the Alto Adige character," or whatever. And they had to spit a lot of it out. Not us. We definitely drank our way through the film. Also, the guys were holed up studying in their dark apartments a lot of the time, but we got to go around the world -- to show people that what they were studying really is beautiful. We tried some things that they weren't able to.
So how did your sense of the sommelier trade evolve while doing this?
I was lucky enough to come to this without any pre-formed ideas about sommeliers. I know people can think they're snobby or whatever. I took none of that to the table in making this. When you pigeonhole a group of people, you're really missing out on getting to know someone who can open your eyes. Really, all they want to do is talk about it. They just want you to try different stuff, and enjoy it. I think a lot of people believe that when sommeliers start giving out all these crazy descriptors, there's a lot of BS involved. I realized it was more like showing your math homework. Any master I've ever met will sit down and talk to anybody about anything.
I also find the master sommeliers to be much more humble than people at lower levels. I think it's because they're at a different place with ambition. When you're working so hard to pass the test, you have something to prove. But then they get out in the world and it's like, "Now I realize I don't know anything." For me personally, the biggest thing I discovered is that you don't have to spend money to get a good bottle of wine. As a takeaway for personal wine drinking with my family, that is the thing that changed my life. You can find stuff that'll really knock your socks off for 20 bucks or less. Before this, I thought you'd be spending 50 at least. It makes a big difference!
In recent years it seems like there's been a push to "de-mystify" wine. Would you say the Master Sommelier culture wants to "re-mystify" it?
I don't think so. But I would say this question might be above my pay grade. I don't think it's really mystifying. I think there's just a lot to keep track of. By making something elite, that is a way for the industry to screw itself, definitely. But the main thing sommeliers do is trying to keep track. Now, they're human beings, so of course they have tastes and opinions. But the mystification -- that's a real shame, and I believe most of them think so too. There is the understanding that it's impossible to know everything. That's what makes the discoveries fun.
Do you think the Master Sommelier Exam is the best way for people to acquire this knowledge? Do you think it tests for the right things, and is good for wine culture generally?
I think it's more a question of whether it's the right person doing it. You don't need to know everything, but some people want to. And if I'm the Bellagio hotel and someone comes to me with that on their resume, that's someone I want. They've invested in themselves. In some ways it's like asking whether someone should become an Army Ranger or a Navy Seal. Well, which test can you pass, and why do you want to do this? As for how it affects the average person, I think the answer to that will come in the next five or ten years.
Right now, if you go to a store in Southern California, you see so many of the same wines on the shelves. But as the world gets more connected, I think you're going to see less of the same wine. More variety. And people will appreciate guidance. Anything that gets people to drink more wine, that's a good thing. With this movie, next to entertaining people, I want to get them drinking. You know, there's always that one guy at the table that people give the wine list to. "Oh, he's the expert, let him pick." I don't know if that's the right way to do it. What I do, when the wine first comes to the table, I ask the least knowledgeable person to taste it. If I know what it is, I already know I'm going to like it. But what about everyone else?
All right, what next?
For years now I've been thinking of a film about oysters. People say: "Oysters?! How can you do that?" Well, when I first started making SOMM, everyone said: "Do not make this. It's too esoteric." They said, "How will you make money?" And I said, "I don't give a shit. I want to make a movie." You have to make films about stuff you love. And I love oysters. I mean, yeah, at this stage it's like talking to your high school girlfriend about maybe we'll get married and have a kid someday. But it's what I'm working on.
And I say this in all seriousness: I think oysters can save the world. I mean it. You've heard of The Giving Tree? Oysters are like that. Unless you're plankton, oysters just give and give. So much has depended on them. If people realized how much of human history has revolved around them, they'd be blown away. And today they're such a part of American culture, and French culture, and Australian culture, so we'll have to go all over the world. Obviously it's very ambitious. I can't believe I'm punishing myself by trying to do another movie set in the food and wine industry, but here I go.