Somm: A Life(less) in Wine

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Most reviews of Somm, the new documentary on a group of young males seeking passage into the ‘elite’ world of the Master Sommelier, have criticized the movie’s focus on a jock-like obsession in a hyper-competitive environment. I feel these reviews do not go far enough.

Somm is fluff entertainment for (male) wine industry types who seek escapism. The film fails entirely at providing any expose of the cult world of the Master Sommelier (or Master of Wine) that has enraptured wine professionals and the dominant mode of educating them. There is little reflection on the annihilation of humility or the fact that many who achieve these elite classifications end up shilling for luxury brands.

There is no analysis of just how the test is run and whether it is curved or gamed to ensure only a set number of candidates pass the test. The film fails entirely to delve into the psychological obsession of the candidates, their devaluation of human relationships, and fails to question why this is seen as the pinnacle of achievement in wine. In fact, I imagine even some of the winemakers profiled early in the film likely have a more guarded perspective on the value of the Court of the Master Sommelier than the film suggests.

The film also fails at exploring the exam in an even handed manner, instead spending about 70% of its time focusing on the most ludicrous manifestations of the tasting component, 20% on the obsessive memorization required for theory, and 10% on service. Personally, I was interested in seeing far more of the service component (given this is what Sommeliers are ultimately all about), and maybe some thought put into questioning why we value wine professionals who behave like computers, rote memorizing details that matter little.

This highlights the ultimate indictment of this sort of exam – why should anyone value a qualification that has almost no analytical, critical thinking, component? “Theory”, it seems, is purely rote memorization. I’ve never heard of any ‘theory’ in any field of knowledge that relies on mere recitation of detail, but I suppose this nomenclature serves as patina to elevate that component of the exam into something mock resembling critical thinking. Second, in my mind, the tasting component does require an impressive feat of sense memory combined with deductive reasoning. However, at the same time it is robotic and entirely lifeless. Is this really what wine is all about? Is this really why it matters?

And service? Well the film didn’t bother showing this, which I feel is the true human endeavor that grounds this whole enterprise.

Somm is fluff. But it is also a lost opportunity at exposing the pretentions of the wine profession and the skewed, inhuman approach of its dominant mode of education. Of course, as is standard in the wine world, real criticism dies at the feet of power. And Somm is pudding proof.

Posted in: Features


  1. Brian
    July 23, 2013

    It seems that the higher you get in any industry, a snobbish/elitist attitude can set in at a moments notice. It just so happens that wine (and beer) are so readily accessible to the general public, so we notice it more. I also question why the designation is so important, when experience, interest and passion are just as important. I was thinking I would like to see the film sometime, but too bad it didn’t live up to expectations.

  2. Shea
    July 23, 2013

    Maybe it’s worth watching just to see the insanity with which the main ‘characters’ have rendered themselves nearly lifeless. But I think the film unfortunately missed an opportunity to look more deeply at the issue.

    I don’t necessarily agree that every industry is inherently like that. While there may be many at the top of an industry who are elitist and arrogant, any real profession also has thought leaders who drive ethics and critical thinking. The wine world has these people, they just don’t seem to necessarily fit within the dominant educational mode and I wonder why professional qualifications don’t seem to effectively promote such thought leaders.

  1. Somm: Into the Bottle – Review | Just Grapes - […] the Bottle is a completely different type of movie from the original Somm (which I gave a very negative review).…

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