SOMM: A Lackluster Portrait of an Arcane World
The way professional wine-people describe wine is both ridiculous and magnificent. The best descriptions of this kind of thing that I have personally ever heard were a red wine described as "lathered ponies"—these bits of poetry are incanted without any bothersome, pedestrian words such as "like"—and a white wine as "flinty soil... the strike of a match, far away." The four men who hope to earn their Master Sommelier diplomas in the documentary SOMM must strive to achieve such heights, and they more or less get there. Descriptors for glasses of wine found here, often issued in a sort of Aspergian trance, include "freshly opened can of tennis balls," "fresh new rubber hose," "decaying dried red rose petals, decaying animal skin," "grandmother's closet," and "can of green beans." The guy who says the tennis balls/rubber hose thing gets laughed at a little by his compatriots, but only a little.
The famously difficult sommelier exam includes a timed taste test in which the aspirants must not only prove themselves as poets and historians of wine, they must identify three reds and three whites—through taste and smell and vision alone—by varietal, country, region, and, to score most highly, specific vintner and year. Watching them practice in SOMM is amazing; you just cannot quite believe it when they get it right. When they get it wrong, there's a charge of schadenfreude, as in, well, they can't tell a viognier from a chardonnay either.
Unfortunately, the amazement found here is diluted by a smarmy, overdone filmmaking style, with bad smooth jazz to match—intertitles of exploding glasses of wine as the tension mounts do not actually help the tension mount. The pacing is also far, far off; as the exam gets closer, scenes become repetitive, and the camera lingering on boring scenes of loading luggage into cars thoroughly undermines the momentum. Most egregiously, the four men, and the institution of wine in general, come off more as a bunch of bros who happen to have a weird, obsessive hobby—one that translates into a lucrative vocation with great cuff links—than as a group of people seeking to perpetuate an arcane but amazing body of knowledge about a beautiful human accomplishment.