Back in my school days, some people relied on music to get them through particularly tough final exam. For me it was opening a bottle of wine. But in Jason Wise's 2012 documentary, Somm, wine is the subject of the exam.
Wise follows four candidates preparing to take the Master Sommelier examination, a rigorous assessment braved by the world's most exacting oenophiles, with less than 200 successful candidates in its nearly 40-year history. If I ever wondered what could be more fun than drinking wine to prepare for a test, I now know the answer: literally anything.
The grueling study sessions, all-night practice tastings, and testimonials from supportive yet bewildered spouses made me think of similar films about professional athletes. The rhetoric is very much the same: the time, money, and dedication required, the sacrificed time with loved ones, the immense pressure to succeed. And while I did think it was kind of cool that they could identify a wine practically down to the coordinates of the tree on which the grapes grew, things got weird. The unintelligible wine jargon, the in-jokes, and - let's be honest - the wine snobbery, only underscored the inaccessibility of the subculture. Beyond a cursory interest in something I enjoy (very, very) frequently, but about which I know very little, I never managed to get on board. While it was interesting to watch the four candidates poring over their stacks of flashcards and quiz each other over Skype, there was an air of absurdity to the proceedings that prevented me from taking things as seriously as they did. And when one candidate's long-suffering wife described having to clean out spit buckets from the previous evening's tasting, I had a moment of the 'Oh, hell no' variety.
I feel like maybe you felt the same way, Brian. The soundtrack didn't quite fit with the intensity displayed by the candidates. To be honest, it seemed to be making light of what was happening onscreen. As the pre-exam pressure grew, and the candidates began to look more and more harried, it just didn't seem like the time for light, tinkly piano bar music to be playing in the background. Frankly, the theme from Rocky would have worked better. Because I suspected you weren't taking the whole thing all that seriously, I decided to take my cues from your music and try to have a few laughs. I chose to enjoy the subjects' various idiosyncrasies rather than dwell on the questions that arose, like why is the sommelier scene such a boys' club, and how are these people able to spend eight hours a day with their flashcards, and don't they have jobs? Which is good, because they're never addressed.
By the end of the film, I found myself emphatically agreeing with candidate Brian McClintic, who says, "After all, it's just fermented grapes." I had settled in to watch with a bottle of my favourite Ontario Cab Franc, but after all was said and done, I really just wanted a beer.