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?
McNamara: To me, this was the most fascinating part of the movie. Yes – the tension/stress/etc. associated with it from a personal level (spouse, studying non-stop) and work (never having enough time) were captured very well.
Koziol: I believe most people feel like Ian Cauble [one of the documentary’s “stars”]. He displayed the feeling that you never know enough, so you keep studying to the last minute.
Blazon: I think the Director Jason Wise captured the tension quite accurately – down to the group and individual anxiety, self - reflection and natural apprehension. The exam is a game changer for one’s self in many ways. Do you have what it takes, do you know what it takes? Are you willing to take the steps and to push yourself – at what cost and the natural unbalance, that comes with it, are you willing to endure?
Miliotes: I started sweating as the movie went on.
SJ: Were your study habits similar to those of the candidates in the film?
Miliotes: While I was not a late night studier and did not have computer resources they have today yes we studied crazy amounts. I have two shoeboxes full of cards (and my wife still gets worked up when she sees them).
Koziol: I probably wound up with over 6,000 note cards during the journey. I did a lot of work with maps. Actually, I lined up maps in the back hallway of Victoria & Albert’s to help me study. The staff actually gained some knowledge along the way.
McNamara: I was never a flash-card person. I didn’t want to learn the answers to questions, I wanted to understand why something was the way that it was. I took notes on legal pads (I still have the stack of them) and then transferred it to spreadsheets from memory – if I could put the spreadsheet together without looking anything up, I knew I was ready. I worked with another candidate (Juan Gomez) and he and I would spend every possible moment tasting or asking each other theory questions. The other somms would set up blind spirit identification, and blind tastings and pepper us with questions all night every night. It was crazy!
Blazon: I passed in 2004 and so technology and the resources to gain knowledge were different. I lugged a suit case of text books with me to SFO and would set up shop in my hotel room for a week during the exam and order room service. There was no Skype or Facebook sharing. Tasting was so important. Leading up to my final pass was a 3 year dedicated effort of tasting with any and all MS’s I could while they were visiting Disney for education, Epcot Food & Wine Festival or around the country. If I was traveling anywhere, I would determine if there was an MS in that market who could set up a tasting for me and give me their opinion and perspective. Brian Koziol and I would taste on Saturday’s in my office in Celebration – we would help each other and focus on varietal precision exercises. I set up maps around my house and dedicated Sundays as my theory day. With an alarm clock set for 45 min cycles I would move from my den (studying Spain) to my garage (studying Australia) to the guest bedroom (studying Germany) to my bedroom (studying Loire, Alsace) to finally my wife’s closet (studying Greece, Austria). That didn’t play out so well for Deb knowing there were maps and text books occupying her wardrobe and shoe haven. She implored me to pass Theory quickly so we could get our home back in order.
SJ: How many attempts did you make before succeeding?
Blazon: You get three attempts within a three year period. Once you pass one part of any three the clock starts ticking. For me my first attempt I passed theory and service, no on tasting. My second attempt I only needed tasting and I did not get through. Third and final attempt for me at tasting took place successfully, November 4, 2004 – London, Dorchester Hotel at 9 a.m. I spent the afternoon until 4 p.m. walking around and lighting candles in all the churches I could find! By 5 p.m. I was pinned as the 59th MS in the US. Laura Depasquale and John Szabo, who became the first Canadian MS, we were the only three, who passed from a contingent of 28 mainly Europeans. A clean North American sweep.
Koziol: I was a good customer to the Court of Master Sommeliers. I took the MS level exam six times. Tasting was my nemeses.
McNamara: I was fortunate enough to pass on the first try and was awarded the Krug Cup [given to the single highest-scoring candidate who passes all three portions of the Masters Exam in the first attempt].
Koziol: I poke a little fun at my fellow colleagues like Fred Dame and Andrew McNamara, who passed on their first attempt, that every squirrel finds a nut once in there life.
SJ: Was it just me, or did all the candidates depicted in the film come off as jerks?
Blazon: I think the director wanted to create more than a documentary. He wanted to show the human frailty despite confidence and preparation. It tested the egos of four strong, motivating and diverse candidates. Humility is a key virtue in preparing for and ultimately carrying the accreditation. Sometimes this has to be learned the hard way – trial and error. The exam is a true test on all fronts. Not just for the world of wine and its service but for the individual stepping forward to see if he or she has what it takes to prove that if you want anything bad enough, if you dream that can be you wearing that pin, then nobody but yourself can stand in your way. Go get it, make a difference for your life. It has for me, but every candidate is different.
Scott: As a side note, these four somms allowed me to sit in on -- and allowed me to pass, I've always suspected -- the first level certification course a few years ago. Over two days, the students were given and overview of world wine regions, grapes and winemaking methods. Beginning early in the morning, we began tasting wines, each student being required to stand and say something about the wine. Give three characterisitcs of the nose, three of the taste, describe the color, estimate the alcohol content. Be specific. You couldn't just say it tastes of cherries, you had to say what kind of cherries. It's not a white wine, it has color. What is it? Straw? What's the clarity.
It was all quite intimidating, even at that level. And it wasn't just hard, it was damned hard.
You can find Somm on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video and other services. It doesn't quite fit the Redbox demographic, so don't expect to pick up a DVD at one of those kiosks. To see the trailer, click the image at the top of the story.