Cleveland-born filmmaker Jason Wise was a part-time bartender and film student at Chapman college the first time he heard of the title of Master Sommelier, and of the three-part final exam one must pass to join the ranks of the London-based Court of Master Sommeliers.
But when a friend of his, Brian McClintic, began the grueling process of prepping for the test, Wise knew he'd stumbled upon the subject for his feature documentary debut, Somm, which opens June 21. In it, Wise follows McClintic and three fellow wine experts — Ian Cauble, Brian McClintic, DLynn Proctor and Dustin Wilson — who devote long hours of sipping, pontificating, bickering and ignoring their long-suffering wives and girlfriends in the hopes of becoming one of the fewer than 200 people in the world who can put CSM on their resume.
You might walk away from Somm wondering about exploding wine glass interstitials and the sports metaphors, but you will learn many things from it including the meaning of the term “granny purse,” and the fact that from a vast understanding of wine springs knowledge about geography, history and culture. Recently we caught up with Wise to talk about spit buckets, hangover cures and who reaped the benefits of the leftover wine. Turn the page.
Squid Ink: What was it about the behavior of the men you follow in Somm that made you know they'd be good documentary subjects?
Jason Wise: They behaved like guys do when guys are being guys. They'd bust each others' balls non-stop. I think people put wine on a pedestal. But they talked in a way that I'm familiar with — yet they were talking about Albariño. It was a very organic process: Suddenly I realized I had a very good story and I didn't want to mess it up. That became my mission: Don't screw up a good story.
SI: How long was the filming process?
JW: About three years.
SI: Really? I'm not sure the passage of time is reflected in the film.
JW: Here's the thing: The big problem we had is that you look at a film like Undefeated that won the Oscar two years ago. It's a documentary that has to do with football. How much time did they spend trying how to play football? None. But this is a foreign thing to people. I spent a lot of time on the expositional material.
SI: When it came to educating people on your subject what was your starting point?
JW: First you have this word “sommelier.” I couldn't believe the number of people who had never heard the word. They'd say, “You're making a documentary about Somalians?” I found the drama of the story, though, leading right up to the exam. Once you understood the characters, I just wanted to let them loose.
SI: How much did you yourself know about sommeliers prior to making Somm?
JW: I knew what a sommelier was because I worked in restaurants. But I didn't know there was a master level. Outside of drinking it and selling it as a bartender and enjoying it socially, I knew nothing. If you had asked me about wine four years ago I'd look you right in the eye and say, “I know a lot about wine.” I could not have been more wrong. Although I know exponentially more now than I knew back then, I now know that I know nothing.
SI: Did you learn to understand the string of descriptors they'd use to convey what they are tasting?
JW: Yes. They're trying to recall something. The markers help them understand what they're trying to remember. They do it deductively. They're trying to figure out what the wine ISN'T. When you first see it happen you think, “There's an element of b.s.” I will say when I first saw Ian blind taste it was almost like a performance. When I saw that, it was a race for me to figure out what music to set to it. I felt like I had lightning in a bottle. Outside of the industry, I'd never seen anybody practice like this. I will also say, “It's not b.s.” When Ian calls “freshly opened can of tennis balls,” if I put a glass of Claire Valley Riesling from Australia in front of you, you would go, “Absolutely.”
SI: Do you have favorites?
JW: The way they describe dirt is fascinating. Ian will say “crushed hillside.” There's a pretty drunken conversation that will be on the DVD where they're analyzing what “crushed hillside” means. Ian recalls a time when he was in northern California hiking and he tripped and fell down a hill. The smell that came up from that hill reminds him of certain wines in France. Or “crushed hillside.”
SI: What's the most amount of wine that you saw consumed over a single evening?
JW: “Consumed” isn't quite right: They'd spit about three-quarters of a bottle. A lot of wine went to waste around these guys. Especially leading up to the exam. Most of them do not swallow any alcohol leading up to the exam. They want their senses really sharp.
SI: I will revise the question. How many bottles of wine were emptied over a single evening?
JW: Together they brought over sixty bottles of wine to Dallas. There was a scene that was cut out of the film where they're in the hotel room and they're going through all the wine and tasting it and recalling certain things that were in the wine. This is five or six people.
SI: Changing subjects: The spit bucket. We get why it is useful. Our question is why don't they just pour it down the kitchen sink at the end of the evening? Why do they leave it for their wives or girlfriends to stumble upon in the morning?
JW: Guys don't notice this: The spit bucket is a tool they use every waking moment of their lives. I think when you're totally focused on something one hundred per cent, you just don't think about it. But to a spouse or someone you live with, it's disgusting. The wives and girlfriends, they're the only sane people in this movie.
SI: Did any of these aspiring master somms share hangover cures?
JW: One morning we were relatively hungover and Brian took me to Bi-Rite in San Francisco and we got ice cream at 10:30 in the morning in the freezing cold. That was his cure.
SI: Did you ever witness epic drunken wine nights?
JW: No, it really wasn't like that [for them]. But the crew? We probably put a few back.
SI: Meaning they'd be done sipping and spitting and then you'd drink the rest?
JW: Oh yeah! They'd leave a quarter or a half a bottle of incredible wine. Once the wine starts oxidizing even a little bit the wine starts going bad. It had to be finished that night. So the crew — myself, my director of photography — we didn't want that stuff to go to waste.
SI: What happens to a sommelier after they pass the test? Does it actually open doors to greater things? Or is it just for the glory?
JW: I've watched incredible opportunities happen to people. Incredible. More money, more stature. I think that people who take the test think it will be about bragging. But I've watched everyone become humbled after they became a master.
SI: You captured moments that were both happy and heart-sinking. What was that like?
JW: Jackson had to film the guys getting the results and I filmed the masters delivering them because I was crying behind the camera. It was so stressful. We'd been with these guys for so long and we were rooting for them. It was a very, very interesting process.
SI: How do you respond to the criticism about the absence of women candidates in Somm?
JW: When we showed the film somebody asked me, “Where are the women?” and all I could think was, “I never expected to get asked that.”
SI: Why not? A quarter of those who take the test are women.
JW: I see it this way: I think there are plenty of women in the film and they're the only ones who make sense. Without us trying, I think the film is very representative of the demographics.
SI: What did you take away from your talking head interview with master sommelier Emily Wines?
JW: I think women handle this test better. Look at it this way: I asked Emily, “How hard is this test?” — she Krug cupped it, which means she passed all three parts on the first try — and she said, “I passed it on the first try. It was very hard, but I did something that very few people ever do.” I found that a lot of men were very passionate about how hard this test was. I asked these guys and they were like, “It's harder than having kids.”
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