Thursday, December 1, 2016


Welcome to another installment of SIDE BY SIDE, where we dissect the differences and similarities between two films, be it a remake/reboot with its original, a sequel with its original, or two similar movies. This week we're looking at two documentaries set in the world of wine: 2012's SOMM and it's 2015 follow-up, SOMM: INTO THE BOTTLE.

Howdy fellow film freaks, Robert here. For this week's Side by Side, I've chosen two documentaries that first attracted me by offering the chance learn about two things of which I was aware, but knew precious little about. The first was the sommelier (pronounced "SO-mall-YAY"), a professional who is studied in the knowledge and appreciation of wine, and the second was wine itself.

Somm is a glimpse into what it takes to attain the rank of Master Sommelier, or MS, the highest rank in the sommelier profession after Certified Sommelier and Advanced Sommelier. The film follows four MS candidates: Ian Cauble, Brian McClintic, Dustin Wilson and DLynn Proctor, during the final three weeks of preparation to take the 2011 MS exam. Through interviews with these men, as well as the Masters serving as their mentors, the film impresses upon us that what these candidates are attempting is not easy. At all. Master Sommelier certification has been available since 1969; according to the website of the Court of Master Sommeliers, the organization that oversees sommelier training, as of now, only 240 people have ever successfully acheived the rank of Master. That's an average of just over five per year.

So what makes it so difficult? The MS exam comes in three parts. Part One is Theory, which gets into very obscure territory about things like wineries around the world and the laws governing them. There's a Service portion, since sommeliers very often deal with the public in restaurant settings. But the big one is called Blind Tasting, in which the MS candidate is presented with six wines (called a "flight") and is expected to identify them all by sight, taste and smell alone -- down to the vintage year -- in 25 minutes. The film spends a great amount of time on watching these four prepare for the blind tasting portion of the exam, probably because it's the most interesting part of their studies to watch. It is amazing to watch these guys work in their blind tasting practice sessions, talking through the description of the wine, rattling off country, wine region, winery, and then finally declare what the wine is, and more often than not, get it right.

When not showing us how hard these candidates are working to prepare for the exam, or the relationship the four share as they are all preparing for the exam together, the film falls back on interviews, the bread and butter of documentary filmmaking. The four candidates talk about what preparing for the exam is like, how eager they are to pass and finally have it behind them, or just what they think of each other. The Masters who mentor the four candidates, as well as a few others, are also interviewed about the exam, and share anecdotes about their own experiences with wine. We are also regaled with a number of stories about a man named Fred Dame, who became a Master Sommelier in 1984 and apparently has been quite the figure in the recent history of the sommelier's art. Dame himself is also interviewed, as he is one of the mentors involved with the candidates we're following.

The reliance on interviews, however necessary, is what typically puts me off of documentaries. They can quickly become dull, lifeless things that suck all the color out of even the most fascinating topic. The interviews in Somm never fall into this trap. When we're not watching the four candidates study and stress, Somm is like getting to talk to a wine geek who wants to share their geekiness with you, and that's very cool. By the end of the film we've not only gotten to know these four candidates, we've gained an understanding of what they do.

Somm: Into the Bottle serves as a companion piece to its predecessor. Instead of following up with the four MS candidates from the first film (although they do contribute briefly), Into the Bottle starts by informing us that a good sommelier can tell the story of a wine, and not just discuss a wine's flavor and what it may or may not go with. And so we are presented with ten stories from the world of wine, including profiles of wineries and winemakers from around the world, discussion of the point system used in reviewing wines and what it means, and other interesting facts. There's also a segment devoted to sommeliers, which is a natural inclusion, but the film takes advantage of this segment to transition into another round of love for Fred Dame.

On one level, I understand why this is. Director Jason Wise, who was behind both of these documentaries, clearly wants us to understand what an important figure Fred Dame is in the sommelier profession, and includes amusing anecdotes about the man to try and keep the moments where Dame is the topic of discussion from turning into some kind of canonization exercise. Also, there's no reason to assume anyone watching Somm: Into the Bottle has watched the previous project, so it makes sense that Dame's importance be discussed in both films. Watching both documentaries back to back, however, it becomes a bit of overkill, and I notice how much of what was said about Dame in the first project gets recycled here. It was something of a relief when the film finally set him aside and got back to being a feature-length Did You Know session.

Somm: Into the Bottle tries to wipe away some of the mystique that's built up around wine, and cut through the belief that wine is only for those who can appreciate it "properly". My favorite part of these efforts is a segment when the interview subjects discuss their favorite mundane food and wine pairings, talking in all seriousness about what wine pairs best with things like hot dogs, popcorn, and even chocolate-chip cookies.

It's the discussion of this random assortment of wine-related topics and factoids that makes Somm: Into the Bottle the weaker of the two projects for me. It doesn't fall short by much; this is still a project that never loses sight of its goal to enlighten the uninitiated viewer, but the problem is one of content. Whereas Somm is a personal, even intimate story of four people nearing the end of their efforts toward a major achievement, Somm: Into the Bottle feels at times like someone found a book of fun facts about wine and is reading the whole thing aloud. To put it another way: you watch Somm to learn something new. You watch Somm: Into the Bottle to prepare for your local pub quiz night.

As of this writing, both these films are available on Netflix, and I don't see them listed as leaving in December 2016, so if you want to know more about wine and related ephemera, or just want to pick up some useless knowledge, this is an excellent place to start.

Robert's Scores

Somm - 8 / 10 
Somm: Into the Bottle - 6 / 10

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