Last week, I had a date with my boyfriend to see the Canadian premiere of Somm 2, a sequel to a 2013 documentary which is one of our favorites. In the original Somm, Director Jason Wise followed a group of sommeliers on their quest to become Master Sommeliers, a prestigious title awarded only after passing a notoriously-difficult exam. In this sequel Somm 2: Into the Bottle, Wise seeks to unravel the mysteries of the wine industry by visiting famous vineyards, speaking with notable professionals, and bringing the viewer on an immersive, visually-gorgeous exploration of this complex subject from all angles. What follows below is a loose review, my impressions of the film.
On the Director’s Choices:
It would be hard to argue with the fact that Jason Wise is a beautiful director. He has a great eye for editing and syncing visual content with interviews and voiceovers; however, the fatal flaw present in Somm 2 is that Wise has become too close to his subject. As more of an outside observer in the first documentary, Wise managed to explore the inherent tension between the magic of the experience of wine as a portal to culture and history coupled with the actual science and chemistry of wine-making. The focus of Somm was studying the human experience, where studying for the Master Sommelier exam was simply a context within which to frame the very relatable, real experience of managing the push/pull of ego and ambition. It explored the tensions that this builds between the test-taker and their significant other; it explored the internal struggle of self worth when these Somms put their whole life on hold to study for a test, just to ultimately fall short and have to “waste” another year focusing on little but wine; it explored the dynamic among a group of adult men united around a common interest which falls outside of traditionally masculine hobbies. There was so much story, such a clear vision, and a definitive narrative arch.
The big problem with Somm 2 is that Wise discovered a love for wine while making Somm and wanted to—in one film—attempt to explain as much as he could about this deeply complicated subject, one which many professionals spend their whole lives cultivating. The film reads as a frantic scramble to cram too much subject matter into the medium of a two hour documentary. What we are left with is ten partially-explored beginnings, some more deeply engaging than others, with enough material for at least five documentaries this length. Basically, its fatal flaw as a film is that it lacks a narrative arc or specific focus. As soon as you get pulled into a certain subject, you flip away onto a completely different tangent. One could make the argument that the focus of the film is capturing the magic connection a sommelier (or simply a wine aficionado) has for wine, how this complicated love affair is not just with the wine itself but the culture and the history in which each individual bottle of wine is rooted. However if this was the intention, it was a point which Wise doesn’t focus on strongly enough to land.
On the Inclusion of the Sommeliers:
It seems redundant and unnecessary to have interviews with Sommeliers at all. The thesis of the film was that Sommelier’s role is to convey the rich history of wine in a palatable manner to consumers overwhelmed while choosing a wine at the restaurant; however, this film did exactly what most consumers can’t do while in the restaurant—the form of documentary offers viewers a firsthand view into the wineries around the world, a chance to hear directly from experts, watch a winemaker cut the top off of a bottle of wine for which there are only twelve left in the world; basically, it provides the immersive experience. That is the real magic in the medium of documentaries—they can provide you with an insider’s firsthand account of experiences many spend whole lifetimes cultivating edited down into a neat two hour package. Why then were Sommeliers present in the film? Most of the documentary felt like a crash course in what Sommeliers themselves study; it felt almost like a master class for which occasionally the TA would take over while the Master stood by. Wouldn’t most rather the Master speak the entire time? It seemed like a misguided attempt to tie together the first and second Somm films when in reality they occupied completely different spaces, only loosely tied together through the world of wine.
On the History:
One of the most compelling and fascinating sections of the movie focused on the history of winemaking as a trade. We got the inside look at beautiful vineyard countrysides from Napa to Germany. We felt the dank and musty air while shadowing incredibly exclusive wine cellar tours, witnessed the look of delight mixed with apprehension on the faces of winemakers as they opened vintage bottles of wine from the 60’s, leafed through winemaker’s records of a vineyard stretching back to the Roman Empire. We learned about the impact of the wars on the vineyards of Alsace (nestled in the valley on the border of Germany and France), the folklore that led to the naming of Hermitage hill, and the effect of earthquakes on Napa vineyards. It was a deeply engaging and fascinating look into the rich and complex history of one of culture’s oldest traditions. It offered great insight into the reasons why people become fascinated with the world of wine, how drinking wine is a way of connecting with this complex culture in a tangible, accessible fashion.
As someone entrenched in American culture, I was also fascinated by views into the history of specific vineyards. In the US, the tradition of children taking over their family’s business, learning the skills and trades necessary to do so straight from their parents themselves and having a pre-determined career path has all but vanished. Visiting some of these vineyards where we were introduced to the 12th generation of winemakers ready to take over for their parents in running the winery was a humbling reminder that profession legacies are still a deeply important part of culture in many areas of the world.