Filmed over three years in six countries around the world, SOMM—which hits select cities and iTunes on June 21—follows a group of four sommeliers on a mission: To pass the wine world’s most arduous exam and win the coveted title of Master Sommelier. Wine Enthusiast caught up with the film’s writer and director Jason Wise to talk about the ins and outs of filmmaking.
Wine Enthusiast: What inspired you to make this film?
Jason Wise: My inspiration came from equal parts obsession to actually make a movie, and having found a story worth telling. I was a bartender when Brian McClintic, who is a major character in the film, began going through the early parts of the exam. He was a server at a restaurant. I have always loved the wine world, especially the history of wine.
WE: I understand that it was difficult to obtain permission from the Court of Master Sommeliers to make SOMM. How did you finally gain access to their secretive world?
JW: Obtaining permission from the Court of Master Sommeliers may have been the most difficult aspect of this film. There is no question their reservation was founded—I was a first-time filmmaker with no money to my name—but I believed in what they were doing. I think the more farsighted members of the board turned in my direction when I explained how I actually saw their organization: Analogous to something like Harvard University. All kinds of personality types attend it, some have huge egos and some are the kindest, most generous people you’ll ever meet, the thing they all have in common is that they got into Harvard. Say what you will about the institution or the individuals, it’s still Harvard and it’s still incredibly hard to get in. That alone deserves respect, no matter who you are.
WE: The film looks at the journey of a group of four men to study for and ultimately try to pass the notoriously difficult Master Sommelier exam. How did you select the group of men featured?
JW: Selecting who was in this film was completely organic and really was the easiest thing I did. Brian McClintic was my friend way before I started filming and he was crazy enough to let me document his personal life, so I did. He was studying with another guy named Ian Cauble who was studying with DLynn Procter and they were all studying with Dustin Wilson. I think at that level people who are crazy dedicated find each other and I just stuck with a group of friends.
WE: In addition to tracing maps and making enough notecards to start a bonfire, what other techniques did you uncover about sommeliers learning their craft and studying for the test?
JW: They smelled every flower, every rock, every spice—everything. They would go to the farmers’ market just to smell everything they could, almost like people go to the gym to work out a muscle.
WE: SOMM focused primarily on men: The women profiled tended to be supportive and somewhat neglected girlfriends and wives. Can you speak to the continued perception of the world of sommeliers at that level as a “boys’ club”?
JW: My subjects just happened to be men who had female partners who were understandably frustrated by the time they spent studying. The perception of this being a boys’ club has no chance of standing long into the future. Women comprise a huge percentage of sommeliers and it will balance out. Master Sommelier Emily Wines, who is in the film, “Krug Cupped” the exam, or passed it all in one try, which is incredibly hard, and I doubt she is afraid of any of the guys she took the test with.
WE: The film was shot in six countries around the world: Did you get a sense that there are ‘rock star’ sommeliers in Europe, a trend that seems to be growing in the U.S., where sommeliers are starting to become media personalities in their own right, like chefs?
JW: Since I’m an American I think I’m allowed to say that the reputation we have for being louder and more extreme in pretty much everything we do is based in fact. You can’t just be a singer in a band, you have to be a rock star. I met many sommeliers in Europe and I think Europe is just more comfortable about wine, they don’t make such a big deal about it because it is part of everyday life. America can’t figure out if wine is a class-one drug or a grocery. The “rock star” term is a dangerous one for sommeliers because it says that you can’t just be good at a craft, you have to be famous for it. The people I worked with in the film are extremely humble and I really hope they stay that way.
WE: In one funny scene in the film, the sommeliers were discussing wine descriptors like “tennis ball” and “granny’s closet.” Do you think sommeliers can get so passionate that they get carried away?
JW: The thing that really attracted me to the story was that they were so obsessed. People think that it’s a bad thing to be obsessed, but when you can be around even one person who would do anything—and I mean anything—to accomplish a goal, you will learn so much about life. But to answer your question, probably yes. For the record, I was just as bad trying to make this film.