It’s not hyperbole to say that the quest to become a master sommelier of the Court of Master Sommeliers is brutal. It involves learning (not to mention memorizing) all facets of wine, beer and spirits, as well as saké, coffee and tea, then being tested through notoriously difficult blind tastings, service critiques and an oral exam. In the new documentary, Somm, premiering at the Napa Valley Film Festival on November 7, director and producer Jason Wise tracks four sommeliers as they attempt to pass the challenging MS exam.
Wine Enthusiast caught up with Wise to learn more about this riveting project, and the exam that only 197 sommeliers can say they’ve passed.
Wine Enthusiast: What was the inspiration for this film?
Jason Wise: I have always wanted to make a film about wine. I was lucky to be friends with someone who was going to try to pass his intro level sommelier exam and I immediately knew I had to set this world to music. I wanted to show how accessible the world of wine could be, and the easiest way to do that was to wrap it in a deeply human story.
W.E.: How did you cast for it?
JW: Originally we intended on filming candidates spread out across the United States and Canada. I then met several individuals training together and saw a chance to take a journey with a group of friends, which created a very organic story that came naturally.
W.E.: Does this film have universal appeal beyond wine experts?
JW: We made this movie to appeal to the person who spends twelve dollars on a bottle of wine at the grocery store. In the end, Somm is not about wine; it’s about any huge goal that people set for themselves. Everyone can sympathize with someone trying to achieve his or her dreams. Ambition is contagious; you want these people to succeed.
W.E.: Do viewers find out what happens to these candidates during the quest to become a master sommelier?
JW: Absolutely. We wanted to see this thing through, and the film builds to an incredibly tense and very emotional end. The filmmakers were lucky to be granted unprecedented access to some of the most dramatic moments that happen during the course of this exam.
W.E.: What does it mean to you to kick off the 2012 Napa Valley Film Festival?
JW: As a director, it’s the single greatest honor I’ve had in my career. Last year, The Descendants had that spot. For the festival to put our small independent film on such a large stage, and trust us in that position, is an overwhelming honor.
W.E.: What did you learn about wine during the making of Somm?
JW: The biggest thing I’ve learned is that I don’t know a damn thing about wine. During filming, I was lucky enough to drink more amazing wine than most people will in a lifetime. I’ve learned that really great wine can be found inexpensively if you know what you are looking for—my particular favorites are German Rieslings and Sicilian reds.