It’s not the hardest wine examination in the world – that’s arguably the grueling Master of Wine – but it’s close. Only 192 people worldwide have earned the Master Sommelier title since it was launched in London in 1969. According to the Court of Master Sommeliers, the diploma represents proof of "the highest level of proficiency and knowledge" in the profession. And despite a pass rate of just ten percent, hundreds of hopefuls sign up each year, with 138 registered for 2012 in the United States alone.
In his about to be released documentary "SOMM," director Jason Wise follows four American sommeliers over two years as they prepared for the challenging – some say tortuous – diploma exam.
Dustin Wilson, 32, got the bug after attempting the advanced certificate, a precursor to the diploma. “I didn’t pass the first time and that really upset me," he says. "I was in Colorado and was starting to wonder what do with my life and that’s when I decided to go full steam ahead for wine and this master sommelier thing.”
A geography major at college, Wilson had intended to spend a year skiing in Colorado before returning to Maryland to attend graduate school: “I really wanted to get into finance. Then one year turned into five and the pursuit of finance turned to the pursuit of wine. Life comes at you sometimes.”
In fact, any semblance of a carefree life must be abandoned when sommeliers set their sights on a diploma. They must study for a three-part examination: oral theory, practical wine service and salesmanship (for which the candidate must “provide a corkscrew and other tools of the trade”), and – the killer – a blind tasting of six wines. According to the rules, “if all three parts are not passed during a three year period, the entire exam must be retaken.”
Candidates are also required “to exhibit a high standard of both technical and social skills throughout the examination, and demonstrate the courtesy and charm of a Master Sommelier.”
That savoir faire is what drove another of "SOMM's" subjects – 31-year-old D’Lynn Proctor – towards the profession. “It was just being that guy in the restaurant with so much know-how and smoothness, and command over the table and the list and over the people around him – in a respectful way. It was the guy who moved elegantly and gracefully from table to table. I really wanted to be that guy.”
The Dallas-based sommelier started out as a restaurant server [waiter], then progressed up the food chain to “the wine guy responsible for training the staff.” After taking the Court of Master Sommeliers’ lower-ranked exams he found himself hooked.
Proctor reports that “some guys have taken it [the diploma exam] seven times.” During the filming of "SOMM" he was preparing for his second attempt. That meant committing to “a 40-hour week on top of a 45-hour work week, plus travel” – a regime that turns candidates into “the walking dead.”
Proctor insists that it’s time well spent. “If you want something bad enough you’ll make it happen. It doesn’t matter how busy or sick or tired you are, you’ve got to taste, study and read if you really want it.”
It’s one thing to work your heart out every day; it’s quite another to have film crews recording your every move. Why did the four candidates – and the Court of Master Sommeliers, which granted unprecedented access – agree to take part in Jason Wise's documentary?
“A lot of times sommeliers are perceived as snooty, arrogant, mightier than thou, please shut up and order – and reality TV spins it in that way," Proctor explains. "Jason gave his utmost promise that [viewers] would ‘see what you guys do, see the good folks that you are – and how insane.’”
The filmmakers followed Proctor, Wilson and two fellow sommeliers – Brian McClintic and Ian Cauble – as they hit their books and tasted oh, so much wine. For Wilson, it was mostly “a lot of fun, with me and my friends studying and hanging out like we normally do.” But sometimes the cameras were a distraction – at least for Wilson.
“There was one notable time in the middle of a blind tasting,” he recalls. “It was a flight of six wines at someone’s house and I knew the cameras would be there and that was fine. But there were also five or six other sommeliers who wanted to watch and see how I tasted. I was sitting at one end of the table and the others were sitting around judging me, and I had three cameras in my face. So it was a little overwhelming and stressful and it got the best of me.”
With Wilson and the other two sommeliers based in San Francisco, Proctor regularly traveled from Dallas for intensive sessions. “I would fly to San Francisco twice a month and sleep on those guys’ couches, because that’s what we do – study, study, taste, taste.”
Finally, in February 2011, it was D-Day. Both Proctor and Wilson had already passed the practical wine service test, so they were facing the blind tasting and oral theory.
“There are three or four master sommeliers sitting in front of you at a six-foot banquet table and they ask you questions about anything in the world of wine and alcohol, plus coffee and cigars,” reports Proctor. “For some people it lasts 40 minutes, for some it’s an hour and ten. They will let you know [about the time]: ‘Candidate, you are taking too long.’”
He adds: “With some, you flat out don’t know the answers, but the questions that make you really mad are the ones that when you walk out, you know exactly where in Savoie the small appellation sits. Or where is Albersbach? It’s a small village in the Ruwer. Where is Malconsorts? It’s a premier cru within Vosne-Romanee. But you don’t remember when you need to.”
Guy Stout, one of the master sommeliers who judged the final exam, reported afterwards: “To add to the drama there was a documentary film crew following several of the candidates ... I don’t think I would have volunteered. There was enough pressure without the added presence of a camera.”
However, Proctor insists the cameras did not throw him off his game. “I was an athlete back in my day and if you’re focused nothing should distract you. The camera is not going to make your taste buds or your nose [react] differently.”
For Proctor, the big day brought disappointment: he didn't pass the theory test or the blind tasting, which requires candidates to “describe the appearance, bouquet and taste [of the wines], and identify, where appropriate, grape varieties, country of origin, district of origin and vintage.”
“There are six wines – three whites and three reds – and you’ve basically got 25 minutes,” says Proctor. “You can’t just say it’s a grand cru Chablis or call a Kamptal grüner. You have to say your deductive reasoning for getting there.”
Surprisingly, the candidates are not told afterwards what the wines actually were. But after talking to his friends, Proctor is pretty sure which wine tripped him up: “Wine number three I called an Austrian grüner: it had high acid and a lot of minerality. But it didn’t really speak to me and I didn’t know where to go with it. Now, we all believe it was a Clare Valley riesling.”
How difficult was it to rejoice for the six candidates (out of 38) who passed?
“I was ecstatic for them, of course, but it really sucks because damn it, I’m supposed to be with them,” says Proctor, who now works for Treasury Wine Estates’ Heirloom Group. “It doesn’t feel good when you’re the guy who gets left behind. But hey, you’ve got to deal with it and re-tweak it.”
After chilling out over the summer “to let my mind and body and emotions rest,” Proctor returned to studying in the fall and is due to take the exam again in July. He’s back into the old routine. “From 7pm last night to about 1 or 2, I spent a lot of time in Burgundy and Germany. I drew a map of the Mosel to see if I could put every vineyard where it needs to be.”
The brutal rules of the diploma mean that if he fails to pass any element of the exam in July, he will have to start again at the beginning.
Wilson, who passed, is finally getting to spend time with his wife. “When we met is when I first started getting into this whole thing, so really till I passed she never knew me not studying.” He has moved from San Francisco’s RN74 restaurant to become wine director at Eleven Madison Park in New York.
But although he’s now a master sommelier, Wilson says he’ll never stop learning about wine.
“For me, the magic is when you smell and taste something really amazing and you know that it’s grape juice that has come from a specific place but it can turn into something so detailed and elaborate. The culture and history and all the things that go into that glass, it’s fascinating to me.”
As for the fate of the "SOMM's" other likely candidates – McClintic and Cauble – all is revealed in the documentary.
UPDATE: The world premiere of "SOMM" will take place on the opening night of the 2012 Napa Valley Film Festival, being held from November 7 to 11.