Written By Scott Joseph On September 20, 2013
Saturday was movie night, so I popped some corn, opened one of my finest boxes of wine and settled onto the couch to watch Somm, a documentary about the Court of Master Sommeliers’ master sommelier exam. The title is shorthand for sommelier, the term for a wine expert. Just as anyone can call himself or herself a chef, anyone may also claim the title of sommelier. But to be certified, to have the proper credentials. The film follows four candidates as they prepare to take the exam, which has one of the lowest pass rates of any exam in just about any field. According to materials from the producers, in the organization’s 40 years fewer than 200 candidates have passed. Before they can approach the master’s exam, the sommeliers must have achieved two other levels.
The master’s exam actually has three sections that are taken separately: theory, service and tasting. Service, it seems, is the easiest of the three. The other two are killers.
Theory is an all-encompassing subject that requires the somms to know, among other things, every detail about every grape in every wine-producing country in the world. You have to know the climate and the soil and how they affect those grapes and the wines they produce. And it has to be committed to memory. You should probably know that there are over thousands of types of wine grapes in the world and tens of thousands of wine varieties.
As daunting as that sounds, most candidates are tripped up — and most intimidated — by the tasting section, during which the somm is presented six wines and tasked with identifying their grape varieties, country of origin, district and appellation of origin, and vintages of the wines tasted. Within 25 minutes.
The movie depicts great tension among the candidates it focuses on, and shows the obsessiveness that grips then as they grasp for the ultimate prize.
But just how accurate is the film?
Florida has eight master sommeliers, three of them here in Central Florida. So I asked John Blazon, vice president sales, The Spire Collection; George Miliotes, director of beverage and hospitality for Darden; Brian Koziol, Florida sales manager for Stacole Fine Wines; as well as Andrew McNamara, director of fine wine for Premier Beverage Company and Augustan Wine Imports in South Florida for their thoughts on the movie. Blazon passed the final exam in 2004 becoming the 59th master sommelier in the world. He has gone on to achieve MS Examiner level and so is often the person who is the one to tell the candidates whether they passed or failed, as is depicted at the end of the documentary. It was Blazon who, in 2007, gave the good news to Miliotes and Koziol at a test in San Francisco.
SJ: Did the movie accurately convey the tension associated with taking the test?