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Review: ‘Somm: Into the Bottle’ Squanders the Wonderful Story of Wine

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Did the 2013 documentary Somm really need a sequel?

Courtesy Samuel Goldwyn Films

Do you like food? Do you like movies? Do you like movies about food? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might enjoy Eater at the Movies, a column by Joshua David Stein which examines eating and drinking on screen.

Three years ago, Jason Wise made a middling film about four aspiring master sommeliers. Earlier this month, he followed it up with a sequel: Somm: Into the Bottle. The first film dwelt — much to its detriment, I thought then and now — on the grueling process by which these men earned their Master Sommelier certification. There was lots of spitting, a fair amount of machismo, some mishegoss, some tsuris, and a little bit of naches. It never delved deeper into the forces motivating them to embark on such insanity, nor did it offer a compelling case as to why this might not be insanity after all. Somm: Into the Bottle is much more explicitly about wine and its wonders. It seeks to render these men retroactively sane by showcasing the manifold wonders of wine.

The original Somm Four still make appearances. Here's how I described them back in 2013:

There's Brian McClintic, a bro from San Francisco who likes Pearl Jam; Ian Cauble, a very anxious, very obsessive, somewhat intolerable overachiever, also from San Francisco; DLynn Proctor, a dapper man who lived in Dallas (now Napa); and Dustin Wilson, who looks like a benign handsomer Voldemort and lived, at the time of the filming, with Mr. McClintic in San Francisco but is now the sommelier at Eleven Madison Park in New York City.

It’s a gas to see where they ended up after four years. All told, they seem to have aged well. No surprise, I guess. McClintic, who is most heavily featured in the film, has lost his baby fat and now looks like a slightly beefier Adam Levine, so, you know, he's handsome. He's launching some project called Viticole this year. Details are scarce. Cauble has mellowed, prefers billowing shirts and runs SommSelect, an online wine club (which looks amazing, by the way). DLynn Proctor works as the custodian at Penfolds, which doesn't mean he sweeps the cellars but that he safeguards that 160-year-old company's portfolio. Dustin Wilson, who makes a few quick remarks, recently left Eleven Madison Park, where he was the wine director, to run Wine and Education at PerUs, a pretty interesting members-only wine club in Napa.

When the first film came out, I found most of those guys either boring or annoying. So you'd think I'd be happy that Wise shifts his lens away from them. But the passage of time has rendered these characters much more interesting. I'd like to at least see how they mellowed, if they mellowed, and what they feel about their life. Did they think the exam was worth it in the end? How are their marriages, their children, their partners? Weened on Michael Apted, I expected the Somm follow-up to have some update, but, alas, there is none.

Instead, Wise breaks down wine into 10 chapters, which he laboriously trots through. As was the case for the first movie, the film is visually breathtaking. He does point out, somewhere in the beginning, that wine does grow in the most beautiful regions of the world, so in some ways, he's got it made.

Here are the chapters into which the film is divided. They are numerous and not parallel, which is irksome:

1. The Winemaker
2. The Vintage
3. History
4. The Wars
5. The New World
6. The Cost
7. The Barrels
8. The Point Scores
9. The Sommelier
10. The Memory

In each chapter, Wise follows a formula. And in fairness, each chapter contains some really interesting stories. For instance, chapter 7: The Barrels, which is exclusively about how Elio Altare, an Italian winemaker, revolutionized Barolo by aging the wine in smaller French oak barrels rather than large one, a technique he picked up in Burgundy. The story is told by his daughter who relates that her grandfather, Elio's dad, hardly spoke to his son after that change.

In Chapter 5, there's a range of interesting economic analysis which undergirds that vast differences between New World and Old World wine. Chief among them is the high cost of living and the economic imperative of the New World, a pressure, many winemakers say, that results in more crowd-pleasing, less adventuresome wines. And the last chapter — the Memory — has an amazing story of Leon Panetta, dark lord muppet of the CIA, drinking a bottle of 1870 Chateau Lafite with legendary somm Fred Dame after killing Bin Laden — from little CIA shot glasses. (A similar bottle went for US$160,000 at auction.)

Throughout the chapters, some tics become apparent. For some reason, Wise thinks it adds immensely to the experience if, at every opportunity, some guy opens an extremely rare bottle of wine, mentions how rare it is, then drinks it and contorts his face in ecstasy. But who is this really for and what does it serve? Having winemakers and sommeliers opening ultra-rare bottles like a 2004 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti — called DRC, natch — or a 1969 Hermitage or the legendary 1962 Penfolds Bin 60A Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon Barossa Shiraz is neat party trick, I suppose, but it reads like Wise just beating on his chest. The viewer gets nothing. (Wise and his DP, however, liberally partook.)

There is, nevertheless, much to be gained from watching Somm: Into the Bottle, vastly more than watching the first film. I assiduously noted the many winemakers interviewed because to a man or woman, each seemed charming and dedicated and intriguing. The movie, at the very least, gets you into the room with them. Unfortunately, just as Wise's interrogation of the sommeliers in the first film rang dead, so too do these. Too short to portraits, too long to be soundbites, there but glimpses of greatness and, of course, bottles full of it, too.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Somm: Into the Bottle is now available via streaming and VOD.