So here’s another review of a documentary for wine geeks. In fact, in this case I would say the documentary is for the subset of wine geeks that are curious about what it is like to study for the Master Sommelier qualification – I must admit that included me. The production team must have hoped was that it would have broader appeal as story about the human quest for excellence against the odds, but to me this story about a group of people studying for a difficult exam was every bit as exciting as it sounds. Millions of people everyday must be undergoing that experience. Yes, believe it or not, there are other incredibly challenging academic pursuits, and the small number of Master Sommeliers does not necessarily imply that this particular qualification is any more challenging than, say, a PhD in theoretical physics. Of the two, I’d fancy my chances more with the Master Sommelier exam.
Apart from the meat of the documentary, there were also musings about wine in general, for example explaining how it touched on so many other different subject areas, from history, geography and cultural studies through to agriculture, winemaking and science. Those bits I enjoyed, probably because I agreed with the musings. Indeed, despite my comments above, I personally did quietly enjoy most of it, and learned a lot about what the qualification was about. It seems to basically comprise three elements: wine facts, restaurant service, and blind tasting. There was no mention of a dissertation component à la WSET Diploma or Master of Wine.
So let’s start with the fact bit of the documentary. Fact-cramming is not much fun, neither for the crammer nor the audience, and there does not seem much more to say other than that there was a lot of flashcard flashing. Thank God for Google!
Wine service was not covered in much depth, despite this being the core skill (you would think) of a Sommelier. I say “you would think”, but it does seem that the Master Sommelier diploma is now regarded as a general purpose wine qualification, and those who hold it like to call themselves sommeliers whatever their job actually entails. The wine service component we saw was a couple of fake customers yelling at a Master Sommelier candidate to chill a bottle of wine as quickly as possible. To me it looked like the sommelier needed more water in with the ice (I happen to be a bit of an expert on that topic after our recent trip to Italy in a heat wave).
A lot of the film dealt with the blind-tasting aspect. I suppose that is the bit that is best suited to the medium, as there is more social interaction. All the candidates seemed mighty impressive in training, reeling many words off pat to say that the wine wasn’t cloudy, followed by a list of fruits and other aromas, a description of the wine according to the dimensions of intensity, body, acidity, sweetness etc., and finally nailing the varieties, appellation and vintage – all in just a few minutes per wine. But that might just have been the documentary giving a good impression, as they were less good under examination conditions. No one gets to find out what the exam wines actually were, but the candidates guesses were all over the place. Was it Sancerre or Albariño? Barolo or Brunello? That seems more like my blind tasting experience: you think the answer should be obvious, but it is so easy to mess up, and strict time limits and examination stress cannot help either.
In summary: if you are a wine geek who wants to find what it is like to take the Master Sommelier diploma exam this documentary is definitely worth watching, but I don’t think you will be bowled over.