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Somm Director Jason Wise on the Intensity of the Master Sommelier Exam

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Photo: Forgotten Man Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films

The wait is just about over for those who have been jonesing to see the sommelier-focused documentary Somm, which finally hits theaters (and iTunes) on Friday, June 21. The trailers have been trickling out over the past year for the film that follows four hardcore wine professionals as they study for (and sometimes cry over) the incredibly difficult Master Sommelier Exam. In anticipation for the film's release, first-time director Jason Wise talks about the challenges of making a film about wine and why it couldn't have been a better time for this kind of movie. He also talks about the intense and emotional experiences the film captures in the lives of sommeliers Brian McClintic (Caveau Wine Bar, Santa Barbara), DLynn Proctor (Penfolds Winemaking Ambassador), Dustin Wilson (Eleven Madison Park, New York City), and Ian Cauble (United States Ambassador to Krug Champagne).

How are the screenings going so far?
This has been a very fascinating month as a whole, I would say. We just did the Southern California premiere at the Montage hotel in Laguna Beach, which is just an insane place. It is probably my favorite hotel in the United States. I never thought we would do a big, huge gala film screening and a food and wine pairing kind of thing for this movie. So we just got finished with that, and I think I aged 10 years.

Well, lack of sleep is probably the number one thing. But no, it's been incredible. The reaction to this movie, I never could have planned it.

How is the reaction?
Everybody keeps saying, "Wow, good timing that you planned to have this come out now when people are really into food and wine and everyone seems to have their pulse on it." And I just look at them and go, "Yeah, we planned that." We made this film for three years and the story came together and we finished it. And so right now it has this strange feeling in the air that it is the right time. People have been waiting for this movie.

When I first started trying to fund this, it's about sommeliers, and people would be like, "Somalians? What is it about?" And I'm trying to get money and everyone's like, "It sounds like such a niche." All I could think about is that's the greatest thing in the world if you're making a film because you know who's going to want to see it. Wine people are at least the start. Now everybody's like, "Why didn't you come to me for money?" And I'm like, "I did." It's a fascinating thing. When it comes out on Friday, I hope the reaction is as positive as it feels going into it. We'll see. You never know until it actually happens.

So you hadn't heard of the exam too much sooner than when you decided to make the film right?
Right. I had heard obviously of sommeliers; I was working as a bartender in a nice restaurant. But no, I had not heard of the exam. All the films I've ever wanted to make rest squarely on the theme of ambition. When I heard about this, I immediately gravitated right at it because the fact that people would put it all on the line for something that I think a lot of the country would feel, "Why would you do this? How can wine be so important? How can it be stressful?" And it was just to me like, wow, this could have everything I'd like to make in a movie.

[Photo: Forgotten Man Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films]

Were you always into wine yourself?
Sure, yeah, definitely. But not anywhere close to the way I am now. I've said this before a million times, but I can't say it enough: I really thought I knew something about wine before we started. And when you work in a nice restaurant in Southern California, especially while I was in film school, pretty much you're 90 percent Napa wines. That was even before Santa Barbara wines were everywhere. I feel like that's changed enormously in the last five years. For me, my knowledge was based mostly on Napa stuff. So yes, I would say I was definitely into wine, and I definitely loved to drink wine and everything around that. But nothing compared to what I know now and the lack of knowledge I know I have now.

But the movie was always intended to be more about the human aspect.
Yeah absolutely. This is going to come off wrong, but I don't think wine is very interesting. I think filmmakers who make films about wine make the mistake of thinking wine is interesting. And it's not. It is something that is very, very difficult to make well and there's a lot of fluctuation in how much you can make and where it can grow. And because of that you've got a lot of human stories and drama that come up around wine just because of the chemical it is and how hard it is to make and how many people are needed to make it.

So I think the mistake people make is they think that wine is the interesting, romantic thing. That's not the truth. It's the people that make it and the people that drink it and the people that suffer with it and the people that love it. That's the story. It's not that I wasn't interested in wine making the film, it's that I needed people to learn a little bit about wine so they could understand what the hell these people were doing. And hopefully that's successful.

And you were friends with Brian McClintic before making the film, right?
I was. Brian and I were just restaurant bums. We were both just out of college. I was trying to be a filmmaker — I went to film school in Southern California — and he at the moment was feeling pretty much like a lifer at restaurants. Which is not a sentence, by the way. You find yourself in the right situation, and it's a huge honor to work in the right place.

But Brian and I were just bums after college trying to figure out how we were going to do the next steps in our careers. That's when Brian started going through this process. I think he was getting ready for his Advanced, the level before the Master. I sort of took a look at him practicing for that and then he passed it and I realized, "Oh my God, this might be something."

I thought the scene where Brian pointed out how terrible it would be if all but one of them passed was sort of intense.
There was this one moment where he wanted us to come and talk to him. It was weird. He just wanted to talk. That's the odd thing.

So that wasn't something they worried about on camera very often?
No, they definitely did. Nobody really said it so plainly. I left it on screen like that as one take, letting him ramble like that on purpose. I wanted the audience to kind of get stuck in that moment and wonder how long is this interview? And then they'd start to listen and get in the rhythm of what he's saying. So yeah it was a major concern.

But I will say, it wasn't very often that they were alone from each other. Most of the time, especially Dustin and Brian were with each other all the time. These guys put up a front, I think. They had a lot of eyes watching them and they don't want to look vulnerable, so when they're around each other, they put up kind of a front. They wore their emotions on their sleeves, you could tell what they really meant. But they weren't incredibly honest until they were really alone. And there were a lot of times where that was just impossible because they were always studying together. So when Brian was alone that minute, it was a moment of honesty. But they all definitely were rooting for each other very much and were very worried that they wouldn't get through.

Brian McClintic. [Photo: Forgotten Man Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films]

And also the way the film touches on the relationships that these guys have and how they suffer a bit during the course of the exam. Was that tough to get people to talk about?
I don't think so. You have to remember, we were living this 24 hours a day. I became friends with their wives. We'd be bitching about these people, how they couldn't see past their noses. From our end it was very difficult. We were sleeping on their floors, hauling gear up and down apartments, all sorts of stuff. And I have to admit the wives and girlfriends would look at me constantly like, "Is it worth it for you guys? Why are you doing this to yourselves?" And we'd be asking the same question to the guys in the film. So, no, when I said to Dustin's wife or Brian's wife, "I want to talk to you guys," they'd say okay and then they would just start talking. It was one of these things where when you're living it with such intensity, it's nice to have somebody who can understand your side.

I will say there's been some odd criticism, people are like, why are the women in the film just in support roles? And all I can think of is that's not what the women are. The women are the voice of reason. I saw something very different making the film. The wives and girlfriends got to be, I think, the only sanity in the movie really. When you make the film organically and you don't go search out a guy in New York and a guy in LA, you're not really casting it.

So it wasn't like you were trying to...
Hell no. Are you kidding? I wish. Do you know how much better the film would have looked if I had actually planned it? (laughs)

Was it difficult to get access to the exam and especially as they heard the results?
Yes. Hardest thing I've ever done. Ever. Especially from a management standpoint because that's not creative, begging people for access to something. But probably three-quarters of making a documentary is begging people and convincing them that you're talented enough to pull this off. Or stupid enough to try.

So yeah, the Court [of Master Sommeliers] was understandably apprehensive about letting me do this. A lot has been said about the fact that this is my first movie. I'm from the Midwest and I was not in the wine industry and I kept trying to explain to them that all of these things are beneficial to me making this movie. You do not want an insider who's a sommelier making a film about you guys because it's going to be the same wine movie that's been made a hundred times in a row where grapes are pretty and everyone talks about the majesty of Bordeaux or whatever. You know what I mean? I said, "Look, if you want to make a film that has a chance to be entertaining and as honest as I can possibly make it, give me a chance."

Eventually, after wearing them down for I don't know how long, maybe the greater part of a half a year or so, they started to come around on letting me do that. I was told yes, you can film the results. And then right before that happened, some members of the Court tried to pull that away from me. But luckily cooler heads prevailed because that would have been a very different movie.

No kidding.
But they weren't just trying to be mean. They didn't want anybody who didn't pass to be like, well, they just didn't want to hurt people. But the thing is to be honest you've got to show the hard stuff too. Or else you're just bullshitting through life.

It was tough to watch those minutes where they got the results.
It was tough to film. There were a couple of camera guys in there, we had minutes to figure out how we were going to shoot that scene. That's why it's so rough and raw. I like it that way. But I couldn't be the cameraman on the guys. I couldn't. My director of photography and I cried the entire time we were in that room. It was very emotional. Remember, we had no idea of the results of what was going to happen. So we were in there with cameras, not quite sure, just filming it on the fly. That's the way a lot of this film was filmed. We don't know what's going to happen. And that's a cool way to make a movie. If you ever get a chance to do that, I think that's the way to do it.

Dustin Wilson practicing blind tasting at San Francisco's RN74. [Photo: Forgotten Man Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films]

So was the Court pleased?
The response that I've gotten from the master sommeliers has been incredibly positive. The Court itself is a hard thing. I don't know what that is really. I know the individuals that I've dealt with and they are very happy. I sort of look at the Court as an institution, kind of like Harvard. You've got a very venerated building full of people with all types of different personalities. They're all Type A, though. Anyway, the reaction I have gotten has been enormous. And the masters that are not in the film are like, "Oh thank God, now my husband knows what the hell I do. Now they understand why I'm so insane." Those are compliments you never expect to get and they mean so much.

But the crazy response has been from the lower levels of people taking these exams. And not just them, servers and people that are into wine going, "This validates why I like this so much." That's been the reaction. It's been very, very positive. Now, look, it hasn't come out yet so I'm bracing myself for a few negative ones. But it's been very positive from within the industry for sure.

Dustin Wilson told my colleague in an interview that he hoped the public's takeaway from the film would be that theirs is a legitimate profession and perhaps would give them more trust in restaurants. What do you hope is the takeaway?
The fact that you're even asking me that question is enormous. With most documentaries, people hear the word "documentary" and think it's a social issue or something. And that automatically is one of the things that I think puts people off for a second about this film. It's not about someone wrongfully accused. It's not about human rights. But people go automatically, well, it must not be serious.

The one thing I really hope people take away from this, I hope they're entertained. I pray that people go, "Wow, that was a fun movie. I had no idea I was going to like this film." That's what I want. I would assume they're probably going to need a drink immediately. So hopefully they'll drink wine. If this film makes people drink more wine — and I could care less where it comes from or what it is — I have done a great service to the industry that let me take a peek into it. In the hope that people will just try different stuff. The point is that there's other stuff out there.

· Watch a Trailer for Somm, a Master Sommelier Exam Film [-E-]
· Somm [Facebook]
· All Somm Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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