As much as the 2004 feature film Sideways turned on the wine-loving public to pinot noir and the Santa Ynez Valley, the 2012 documentary Somm tuned in an entire generation to the intense world of sommeliers, those information-soaked experts who lord over restaurant wine lists and fill your glass with the best wine for your dish.
The film, which follows four young men as they prepare to take the notoriously difficult Master Sommelier exam, triggered a tidal wave of interest in the profession, dramatically increasing the numbers of would-be somms enrolling in classes and braving the myriad tests offered by various wine accreditation programs. Today, there’s a preponderance of sommeliers, and the restaurant floor is only one of their stages. Many now own retail shops, work as brand ambassadors, or run direct-to-consumer digital wine clubs — indeed, those are the jobs of the four original Somm stars.
In 2015, director Jason Wise produced a second film, Somm: Into the Bottle, which is about the regions, stories, and wines that inspired such passion in the somms. It was enjoyed by wine geeks but carried none of the drama that brought wider attention to the first film.
And now there is Somm 3, which marks a return to form for Wise, who is able to tease a bit of drama back into the somm scene. He does so by re-creating, in a somewhat roundabout way, the Judgment of Paris, the game-changing 1976 tasting in which Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay prevailed over legendary French châteaux. Through two blind tastings — a controversial process that is very much explored in the film as well — of younger somms and then a trio of influential elders, a half-dozen wines from around the globe are vetted.
It’s a good ride, with enough personality and punch to entertain those with only a passing interest in wine and yet with deeper insight for the savvier crew. The golden nugget, at least for those of us here in Santa Barbara, is that a certain Central Coast wine does rather well.
I spoke to Wise a few weeks ago, the morning after I screened the film.
Why did you make a third Somm film? After the second one, I really did not want to make a third. I didn’t want to make any more wine films. But at the same time, the Judgment of Paris has really loomed over me. I really liked Bottle Shock [the 2008 feature film based on the tasting], but it is one of the most historically inaccurate movies. Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor is more accurate than that.
And I really wanted to work with Jancis [Robinson, renowned wine author/critic] and Stephen [Spurrier, the retailer who hosted the original Judgment]. Someone connected me to them, and they both said yes. They’d seen both films, which I couldn’t believe.
My executive producer really wanted me to make another Somm film. I was like, “No way.” The egos involved — they’re wonderful people, but there is a lot to manage. Everyone wants to be on camera all the time.
How do you draw non-wine people into your films? I have a personal opinion about wine that it’s pretty boring. It can be very boring in a long form. That’s why this film moves the way it does. I didn’t want it to stop. I think a good documentary is one where you see stuff that you would never be able to see otherwise. If you’re in the wine business, you see people be nervous. For the general public to watch that tasting in New York, people’s jaws are on the floor. They think, “So this is how the sausage is made.” That’s really special for me. I really do think with the proper marketing and proper word of mouth, the film has enormous potential to be seen by a wide audience.
Do you expect to get any flak from the wine world for the film? The number-one thing we’re going to get a lot of crap for is which wines Dustin [Wilson, star of the first Somm and now a retail shop owner in New York] chose to have at that tasting. There was a brilliant mosaic of wines. But people are gonna ask, Why didn’t you put DRC [Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, considered the best wine in the world]? There’s a big reason: DRC is $2,700 a bottle.
What do you see as a takeaway message? It goes on to show how hard the job is and how much harder it is when wine keeps getting better. All of the sudden, you’re grading on a curve that’s not the same curve anymore. Everyone hates on [wine critic Robert] Parker, but I wanted to show that if Parker didn’t exist, I don’t think the rest of the wine world would have stepped up their game.
How did the plot come about? Originally, the film was going to be about, How the hell did we get where we are today — why is wine where it is? from a number of standpoints. But that’s not the story anymore.
It turned into a combination of passing the torch from the older generation to the younger generation, how they taste wine differently, and how they look at wine differently.
Tell me about Delicacy, your next film. I keep seeing updates on Instagram. It’s a very long-gestating project shot on film about sea-urchin divers in Santa Barbara and the culture of fishermen. It is a nature documentary about people. It’s much funnier than that would sound, and much more emotional too. At the center, you have this virtually brainless echinoderm that can live to be 150 years old, and people eat its sex organs and it has no idea this is going on. It’s a very strange look at what humans value. If you look at the concept of delicacy, you don’t eat this to be satiated. It’s not a hamburger. It’s one of those things that either represents status or curiosity. You are eating it for reasons other than you need food. The urchin is most interesting because it is one of the most far-out things that West Coast hipsters will put in their mouth.
Somm 3 screens as part of the Santa Barbara Vintners’ Celebration of Harvest Weekend at Solvang’s Festival Theater (420 2nd St., Solvang) on Saturday, October 13, 8 p.m. It will be followed by a Q&A with executive producer Jackson Myers and some of the stars of the film, moderated by Matt Kettmann. For more info and to buy the $25 tickets, see celebrationofharvest.com.