“Somm” is probably the worst movie I haven’t seen this year. Though anything with Morgan Freeman is a close second. That guy will do anything for a paycheck. Hell, he’d be a perfect somm. In fact, now that I think about it, all “Somm” needs is Morgan Freeman, perhaps as Andrea Immer-Robinson, to whom he bears a passing resemblance. I made a point of not viewing “Somm” for this review, and I’m glad I did. Too much emphasis is placed on actually viewing a movie before you review it, discovering what the movie is about, its subject matter and plotlines, its story development, its director and its stars. Reviewing a film blind is far more objective. It removes any prejudices I may have brought to the screening. I think you’ll agree that blind movie reviewing is the best way to get to the core of the film, and the best way to evaluate it. Hard to imagine a sommelier could disagree, at least.
Let’s begin with the title. Why “Somm” and not “Sommelier?” Were they worried about the number of letters on the theater marquee? Hell, it won’t be up there more than a week. Or is it because Americans are incapable of pronouncing “sommelier?” Well, that’s the truth. I used to hear “som-lee-ay,” and “som-a-lay” and “prik.” But I always think "somm" is a bit derogatory, a bit diminishing. And it’s not consistent throughout the film, from what I made up in my head. For example, no one calls Fred Dame simply, “Dil.” Is he even in the movie? If he is, I loved Linda Hunt’s performance as the old M.S.
“Somm” follows a bunch of guys as they attempt to pass the legendarily difficult Master Sommelier exam. It seems few women attempt the exam, which explains the absence of stirrups. The film has the obligatory time-lapse shots of clouds passing over vineyards (a symbol, I suppose, of the fleeting nature of time and the irrelevance of what these bozos are doing—either that, or the clouds look like ponies), as well as more time-lapse photography of vineyards going from dormant, to sprouting leaves like the Jolly Green Giant’s pubic hair, to being laden with grapes and, finally, to being harvested by Jolly Brown Dwarves, who wouldn’t know a somm from la migra except the somm’s shoes are dirtier. What this has to do with four dweebs cramming their pickled brains with wine facts escapes me. It’s said that maybe only 1 in 50 manage to pass the M.S. exam. So it’s exactly like the Miss America Pageant, only these guys don’t need to have a talent or a Brazilian.
If you don’t know that much about wine, much of what is discussed by the four candidates may seem like gibberish to you. It is, actually. I mean, look at those dorks, you know English is their third language, after Elvish and Klingon. The boys talk in short hand about the general character of a variety of grape varieties. This might come in handy the next time you feel like a dinner guest has overstayed his welcome. For example, we learn that Viognier has the characteristic smell of “Nathan Lane’s Wet-Nap.” Zinfandel can be pegged to “I threw up a little Pop-Tart in my mouth.” Seyval Blanc reminds the boys of “Melissa McCarthy’s landing strip.” A round of Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noirs yields the descriptor “Don Knotts.” And Syrah is given away by its distinctive aroma of “Bev-Mo 5¢ Sale.” There’s way too much of this kind of babbling in the film, but it does accurately reflect the kind of secret lingo that prevails in the wine world. When it comes down to it, it isn’t knowing wine that really matters, it’s knowing how to speak the language of wine that fools people into thinking you’re a wine expert. Con men always learn to talk the talk first.
But along the way, as we watch the guys sit around and drink thousands of dollars worth of wine, spit profusely, and expect their wives to clean up (are they becoming sommeliers or Arab princes?), we start to fall in love with them and their obsessive pursuit of an M.S. They’re likable enough guys, in the way all self-absorbed, narcissistic men are--think Charlie Sheen and Mel Gibson with tastevins. The filmmaker, pity that guy who had to sit through endless hours of tastings with those bores, manages the nearly impossible task of making the audience root for these guys; though it’s to fail, of course.
The M.S. exam consists of three parts. The service exam is perhaps the easiest of the three. The boys have to learn how to smoothly upsell a wine list (“Really, domestic sparkling wine for her birthday? Planning on riddling yourself later?”), pour just enough wine in the first three glasses so the host’s glass is only half-full, remember to not take phone calls from annoying wine salespeople (“Remind her I only taste with winemakers or other M.S.’s”), and show up drunk for work. No one fears this part of the exam, or the second part, which entails a scholarly essay on some esoteric part of the wine business. One of the boys fails when he states that “Phylloxera is the capital of Pennsylvania.” It’s Harrisburg, moron.
It’s the third part of the exam that the boys spend the film fearing—the blind tasting. A candidate has to taste six wines blind in 25 minutes and identify them with no other clues besides how they smell and taste. The wine could be made from any of the thousands of grape varieties, and could be from anywhere in the world. Passing this portion of the exam is the most difficult part, and, as with any good exam, it’s a gift a sommelier will never make use of again. In what other test is the passing grade dependent on a party trick? You only have to do it once to get the result you want. Basically, it's like erotic asphyxiation done right. It's at this point in the film that the suspense builds. We’ve watched our heroes taste countless wines, crack endless wise, cry, wet the bed, call Jancis Robinson and breathe heavily, dance with Chaz Bono for good luck, stick pins in their Larry Stone voodoo doll (actual size), and swordfight with Erectile Dysfunction victims. All that for those two letters after their names.
After 19 years as a Sommelier in Los Angeles, twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers' Association, I moved to Sonoma County to explore the other aspects of the wine business. I've spent, OK wasted, 35 years learning about and teaching about and swallowing wine. I am also a judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition--so I can spit like a rabid llama. I know more about wine than David Sedaris and I'm funnier than James Laube. Stay tuned for an informed but jaded view of everything wine and everything else.
I'm living proof that alcohol kills brain cells.
What the Critics Are Saying About HoseMaster of Wine
"If you want a great hoot and howl moment or two...go read the HoseMaster's year-end reflections...that guy is without a doubt the funniest SOB in the blog-world...and thank him for having the brains and balls to target his laser of laughter on anybody...HoseMaster for President...HoseMaster for Blogger of the Year...although he would be the first to say the bar is so damn low for that award, he should win it every year..." --Robert Parker
"No one is immune from California sommelier and wine judge Ron Washam's skewering. He polishes that skewer with boundless enthusiasm and acuity."
"Please let this guy write the scripts for Saturday Night Live which has gotten so lame...his newest "wisdom" is worth an Emmy....I wonder if he is the genius behind all those Hitler/Parker,etc. clips? No one else is remotely as funny or as talented.And the wine world sure needs someone to poke fun at all the nonsense and phoney/baloney unsufferable crap out there."
"Washam uses his own blog, HoseMaster of Wine, to skewer the industry in general and wine blogs in particular. If your mouse scoots to your browser's close box while reading a wine blog, Washam may be the blogger for you."
--San Francisco Chronicle
"...that guy Hosemaster has real talent...if you ask me sign him up for Comedy Central...he's the funniest guy since Adam Carolla's hilarious book...IN 50 YEARS WE WILL ALL BE CHICKS..."
"Ron Washam, former sommelier, is easily the most bitingly funny blogger/wine writer that we have ever come across. He is an equal opportunity crusader who pillories big wineries and amateur bloggers alike, as well as everything and everyone in between...One needs a sense of humor and a tolerance for earthiness to enjoy reading The Hosemaster. We must have both because this guy deserves a wider audience, in our humble opinion." --Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine
"In my opinion, and that of many others, his blog is one of the best. And in terms of satirical or parodic wine blogs, it has no peer. Ron’s alert eye catches every pretense and skewers it with laugh out loud mercilessness."
"This site should carry a warning label. It's sort of a Dave Barry/George Carlin approach to wine. The Hosemaster (real name Ron Washam) skewers fellow bloggers and industry savants with glee, while offering hilarious wine guides such as his Honest Guide to Grapes..."
--Paul Gregutt, Seattle Times
"Washam is a skilled wine judge (I have judged with him) who is willing to judge wine double blind, in public. To my knowledge, Parker does not do this and never has. So Ron's credentials are in place, and so is his sense of the absurd."
--Dan Berger, VintageExperiences
"...I consider Ron a very talented writer and I’ve long been an admirer of his scathing wit..."
"And if any free sites think they can conquer the world, there’s always the Hosemaster to take ‘em down a notch."
--Tyler Colman "Dr. Vino"
"Those of you who know Ron either love or hate him, because he throws jabs like a punch drunk boxer, and we’re all in the firing line. He’ll throw them if he hates you, and he’ll throw them if he loves you. He’s a satirist of exceptional quality."
--Jo Diaz "Juicy Tales by Jo Diaz"
"I must say you are an idiot. I've never liked you. I have no idea why people find you funny."