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Thursday, 26 September 2013

Hollywood & Vine? The Latest in Wine Themed Movies


 A documentary about the three-day Master Sommelier exam.


Wine-themed movies used to be few and far between. Indeed, the topic of fine wine was thought to be box office poison prior to the success of “Sideways” in 2004. Fortunately for us wine lovers, major independent and documentary film distributor First Run Features has been taking on more such titles for theatrical and/or home video distribution. In just the last few months, First Run has released three wine-themed movies.

The one that has received the most attention and critical acclaim—deservedly so—is a documentary about the three-day Master Sommelier exam. “Somm,” the first feature film by writer/director Jason Wise, employs striking visuals and high level production values to tell a compelling story about the wine world’s toughest exam—one that less than 200 people have passed in the history of the Court of Master Sommeliers.

The exam is the closest thing the wine world has to an intense sporting competition, so there is lots of testosterone on display. The film focuses on four exam candidates, all men, who at the time of filming were all based in the San Francisco Bay Area. One of them, Brian McLintic, is an athlete and former baseball player who observes lots of parallels between competing in this event and his former sports career. It’s his wife who deftly sums up Brian and his study group as, “like guys in a locker room, with wine.”

Another candidate, Ian Cauble, insists there is a positive aspect to the intensive preparation for this exam, which requires participants to respond to questions about all aspects of winemaking and every wine region of the world; to demonstrate professional wine service in a very challenging environment; and to identify as accurately as possible the region, grape variety and vintage of six different wines in a 25-minute blindtasting. He claims human beings rarely stop to experience things deeply these days so that studying wine as required for this competition makes one “live life through your senses for that quick 25 minutes; it’s like nothing else matters except for this liquid.”

The film also does a nice job of touching on the history of wine and its importance to culture, in part through short interviews with an eclectic group of winemakers. They include, from the U.S., Bo Barrett, Whitney Fisher and Pax Mahle, and from Europe, Wilhelm Haag, Paul Graf von Schönborn and Andrea Cecchi.

One of the film’s most indelible characters is Fred Dame, who was the first American to pass, on his first try, the Master Sommelier exam in Britain where the Court of Master Sommeliers was established. It was Fred who, as the film makes clear, was instrumental in establishing an annual version of the three-day exam in the United States, and who also regularly participates in administering the exam and in coaching candidates for it. Fred is a highly intimidating presence. Those hoping to follow in his footsteps aspire to be able to “Dame” a wine, i.e., to identify the variety, region and vintage accurately by spending only a few seconds nosing its bouquet.

All in all, this is the most suspenseful film about the world of fine wine I’ve ever seen, giving us a rare glimpse into the world of the Court of Master Sommeliers, whose examination and certification processes had never before been filmed. Even though its focus is a group of “self absorbed egomaniacs,” in the words of one of their wives, one does find oneself rooting for all four to succeed.

Source: www.rjonwine.com