What's the hardest test you've ever heard of? For many, the bar exam -- the test every aspiring attorney must pass in order to legally practice law -- will come to mind. The test's difficulty cannot be denied; only about 55,000 people pass every year.
But the fact is, the test to become a Master Sommelier is much, much more difficult to pass than the bar exam. It's so challenging, so all-out consuming in every way, that fewer than 150 people in the United States have passed it -- ever -- since the United Kingdom's Court of Master Sommeliers started offering the once-a-year, three-day master's exam in 1969. So first-time director Jason Wise decided to make a film about it -- and that film, SOMM, premieres tonight at the Sie FilmCenter.
Despite the elusive nature of this coveted certification, Colorado is home to the largest concentration of Master Sommeliers in a single state. The list includes Bobby Stuckey, co-owner of Frasca Food and Wine; Brett Zimmerman, owner of Boulder Wine Merchant; and Sabato Sagaria, Jonathan Pullis and Carlton McCoy of the Little Nell in Aspen. The Nell is essentially ground zero for Master Sommelier training in the Western half of the U.S., having had more masters come through its wine program than any other establishment in the country, turning out five successful MS candidates in the past five years alone.
Jay Fletcher, chairman of the Court of Master Sommeliers and executive director of fine wines for Southern Wine and Spirits in Colorado, wins praise as the man responsible for Colorado's master somm success. "Jay has done more for somm advancement than any other person in the country," says Stuckey. "He's the reason we have more masters in Colorado than any other state."
SOMM was filmed over three years in six countries around the world; it focuses on the journey of four Master Sommelier candidates: Brian McClintic, DLynn Proctor, Ian Cauble and Dustin Wilson (an alumnus of both the Little Nell and Frasca Food and Wine).
"I've been a restaurant bum since I was fifteen years old, but only certain restaurants have a somm on staff," explains Wise. "I had no real idea what the job entailed. My friend Brian [McClintic] told me he was going to start taking the first level of tests to become a Master Sommelier. I was blown away watching him practice blind tasting; it was one of the most insane and beautiful things I had ever seen in my life. I knew we had to set it to music and that it would be my first film."
If Sideways was the first movie about wine -- a subject that intimidates so many -- to really become a part of the world's collective consciousness, SOMM will go one better. Rather than focusing purely on the technical nature of what it takes to pass the exam, the film explores the four candidates' incredible love of wine and the unbridled pursuit of excellence that motivates them to dedicate years of their lives to accomplishing what so many others have failed to achieve. "People are shocked to find out that it's a funny, entertaining movie. I really like that the one thing people take away from the film is the reason you need somms -- to understand that you can get an incredible bottle of wine for $15," says Wise.
"Grueling" is probably the best word to describe what it takes to successfully pass the exam, says Stuckey: "So many people told me to walk away. I had already won a James Beard award; I was working at the French Laundry. People thought, here's a guy with all this going for him. Why bother with all the stress?"
"In terms of financial investment, just taking the final test itself costs $1,000," explains Sagaria. "Then you tack on airfare to the city where the test is being administered, accommodations and meals -- you're now probably $3,000 to $5,000 in. That doesn't include the money you spend on wine for tasting practice, the cost of visiting wine regions -- I have no idea how much I spent. But I know I like my [Master Sommelier] diploma better than my undergraduate degree!"
Both Stuckey and Sabato agree that in the end, the payoff was more than worth all the suffering. "I felt I should do it for my guests; I felt they deserved to have me be the best at my job, and being a master somm has taught me that," says Stuckey. "I want to help people break down the barriers of wine so that they have a better experience moving forward, they have a better chance of the right decision next time when they're on their own."
The effort to bring SOMM to theaters was almost as grueling as the test itself. Production took more than two years, and the Court of Master Sommeliers initially refused to grant Wise permission or the access required to make the film. Still, the director feels nothing but gratitude for the experience. "It's been the honor of my life to tell this story -- outside of my wife just having a baby!" he laughs.
After tonight's premiere, SOMM will open its theatrical run on Friday, June 28, at the Sie FilmCenter; it's available for download on iTunes now.