So you know your merlot from your malbec, your buttery chardonnay from your grassy sauvignon blanc. You’ve tossed out the rickety corkscrew you bought at CVS and upgraded to a Rabbit. You own a DVD of Bottle Shock, which you can’t watch without a glass in your hand. You prefer dry Rieslings over sweet ones, and you aerate before pouring a cabernet, which you call cab, so fond are you of the grape.
But could you be a master sommelier? Absolutely not.
Jason Wise’s riveting documentary Somm, which opens Friday at O Cinema Wynwood, lays out the truth in no uncertain terms: The rare air the master sommelier inhales is only for the best of the best. The film follows the experiences of several hopefuls as they prep for their master certification exam (there are four levels, of which master is the most prestigious). The grueling test is given once a year and includes three parts: theory, an oral exam that requires an all-encompassing knowledge of wine and its history and regions as well as the ins and outs of spirits and cigars; service, in which a mock restaurant is set up and the candidates must navigate a variety of crises; and, the most terrifying of all, a timed blind tasting of three whites and three reds in which the candidates must thoroughly describe and identify the wine, from its structure and alcohol content to its region and vintage.
Writer/director Wise, who shot the film over three years, got the idea for Somm when a friend prepping for a lower level test invited him to watch a practice session.
“It knocked me off my feet,” he said. “I had worked with wine as a server and a bartender, and I thought I understood what it was. It’s like you’ve driven cars your whole life, and then someone hands you one that flies.”
A rare title
Somm illustrates that becoming a master is not for the easily discouraged. There are only 201 professionals worldwide who have earned the title, with just 134 in North America, according to the Court of Master Sommeliers website. Of the 134, 115 are men and 19 are women. Eight are from Florida; two work in Miami. During this year’s test, which took place recently in Dallas, 70 applicants took the exam. Only one passed.
After shooting footage of the intense practice sessions, Wise — who admits he became emotional when filming the final scenes during which the candidates found out if they passed — is convinced that only one sort of person can become a master.
“Anybody who passes the master level — 90 percent of them would’ve taken another level if it existed,” he says. “You have to be a total Type A personality. The way the test is set up, it weeds out every other personality type. An introvert won’t pass service. If you can’t memorize, you won’t pass theory. If you don’t have confidence, you can’t pass tasting. Some people have said Somm is like a sports movie. It’s not intended to be, but it has that feeling. These people have no backup plan. That’s the only way to pass it.”
“It’s an obsession, and it has to be,” agrees Laura DePasquale of Miami, vice president and general manager of Stacole Fine Wines, who became a master sommelier in 2004 (the other Miami master is Eric Hemer of Southern Wine & Spirits of Florida). As vice chair of the Court of Master Sommeliers, she now administers the exam she once fought so hard to pass. Like most candidates, she took the test more than once. The first time, she passed service; the second, theory. When she went back the third time she failed the tasting and had to start over. Happily, she passed every segment the fourth time out.
Preparing for the test is “like training for an athletic event,” she says. “You’ve got to have the timing down so you’re not even thinking about it. ‘Did I say fruit? Did I say earth?’ You can’t even think about those things. It has to be muscle memory. ...You focus in on ‘What am I smelling? What am I tasting?’ You really have to separate the nose from the palate. You study vintages as part of the mastery. We take that word seriously. It’s not just a vaunted title. It’s really having a mastery. You have to know that a chablis in 2009 was a warm vintage. In 2011 the sun never came out, so you have a different fruit profile; it was more tart in 2011 because it was so cold. That’s part of theory, and theory supports your tasting.”
In the film, three of the candidates form a study group, testing each other on facts and such properties as “wet forest floor,” “decaying animal skin” and “chalky limestone.” One confident candidate even offers up “freshly opened can of tennis balls” when confronting a white wine redolent of rubber and plastic, to the amusement of his buddies. Funny, yes, but DePasquale says that sort of teamwork is essential.
“Your mind can do funny things,” she says. “You can convince yourself of something easily. You get about four minutes a wine, so the key is you’ve got to practice as many times as possible with a master, so many times you absolutely hate wine. But in Florida we didn’t have a master then. We just had eight people who found each other and realized, ‘Oh, you’re as crazy as I am! Great!’ so we started hanging out. It’s really paramount to have a group around you.”
The pressure of the exam “makes people crazy,” DePasquale says.
“I always coach people this way in the blind tasting: If you feel like you’re putting a square peg in a round hole, you are. Back it up and rethink it, but you don’t have the luxury of time. You get around 25 minutes generally, and one wine really kills you. You’re at five, 51/2 minutes, and you’ve got to make it up elsewhere. You’re super keyed up, nervous. Without a doubt your head plays tricks on you.”
Even passing the lower levels of the sommelier exam can be hair-raising. Until lawyer and wine collector Brian Tannebaum of Miami took (and passed) the second-level certification course, he had no idea how intimidating his hobby could be.
“When I signed up for the class I didn’t tell anybody,” he says. “I hadn’t taken an exam since the bar. I was scared I was going to fail ... . The hardest thing for me was picking the actual grape. I could come close to where it was from, but when it came to the grape, it was hard. Some wines don’t taste like they’re supposed to. Sometimes a pinot will taste more like a syrah. Age, I’ve been good with. You can get the years based on color and smell of wine. You can tell how old a wine is without knowing what it is.”
Becoming a master sommelier is not an automatic guarantee of wealth and fame, warns DePasquale: “You’re only as good as what you’re professionally trained to do.” But winemaker and art collector Dennis Scholl, vice president of arts for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and co-founder of Betts & Scholl, says working with a master sommelier is invaluable. His partner Richard Betts — whom Scholl calls “the savant of the blind tasting” — is a master, and his experience has elevated Scholl’s own abilities and enjoyment of wine.
Opens up wine
“I’ve done close to 50 formal blind tastings, and Richard used to teach a lot of them,” Scholl says. “It opens up wine to you in a different way. It’s an intellectually stimulating experience. You’re turning your nose and your palate into this intellectual thing. The properties of the wine are endless, and it’s a revelatory experience having a master take you through a tasting, then you decide whether something tastes like tobacco or horse saddle or crushed blueberries on a Tuesday afternoon.
“If you’re a dancer you’d love to have a master class with Baryshnikov. If you were an opera singer, you’d love to have Placido Domingo come and train you. These 100 or so guys — the Jay Fletchers, the Raj Parrs, the Richard Bettses — they are the ultimate in this world when it comes to analyzing and describing what it is you’re looking for in a great wine. One of my favorite sentences ever, and I don’t remember who said it, is: ‘The difference between good wine and a great wine is a moment on the tongue.’ You’re spending all this time and energy, and that’s what you’re searching for, the difference between good and greatness. When you find it it’s an epiphany, but you only find it through context. These somms have dedicated their lives for searching for greatness, and that’s a wonderful way to live.”