The third installment in Jason Wise’s documentary series profiling the sommelier profession features a critical look at the process of wine evaluation.
Following a pair of highly popular predecessors, Jason Wise’s Somm 3 arrives at a fraught time for the global wine industry. Millennial consumers, often seen as essential drivers to growing major wine brands, are increasingly turning to a vibrantly dynamic craft beer market, while marijuana products threaten to supplant wine’s laidback lifestyle image. Hitting even closer to home, a recent dust-up stemming from a cheating scandal associated with the notoriously difficult Master Sommelier certification exam profiled in 2012’s Somm continues to roil the top ranks of the profession.
While most of these issues remain beyond the scope of Wise’s film, they hold significant implications for the hospitality trade so effusively portrayed throughout the Somm series. Into the Bottle, the second documentary, took a deep dive into the particulars of grape and wine production, profiling some of the world’s top winemakers. The films did much to dispel the haughty swirl-and-spit sommelier stereotype, depicting wine professionals as impressively educated and passionately devoted to their trade.
If its precursors achieved the notable accomplishment of unexpectedly popularizing the sommelier profession (enrollment in wine training courses has reportedly boomed since the series’ debut), Somm 3 rolls those attainments back somewhat, with an emphasis that’s both more technical and less involving than the two previous films.
Closely examining the evaluation of wines from critical, hospitality and commercial perspectives, the pic takes the famed “Judgment of Paris” tasting event (amusingly portrayed in 2008’s Bottle Shock) as its departure point to explore the varied, and often subjective, characteristics that make great wines memorable and often very valuable.
In 1976, Paris-based British wine merchant Steven Spurrier persuaded a group of French wine experts to participate in a competitive tasting of French and California vintages with the unexpected result that U.S. Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons surprisingly bested their Gallic counterparts. A triumph that fundamentally shifted the standards of the global wine industry, Spurrier’s Paris tasting — “the most famous wine event in the last 50 years,” as he notes in the film — vaulted California wines into the ranks of the world’s top producers.
The competition also reaffirmed the industry’s practice of “blind tasting,” whereby wines are evaluated by taste alone according to accepted technical criteria, without any information on their origins. These inevitably subjective assessments typically involve a dizzying array of technical terms, such as “vegetal,” “carbonic” and “whole cluster,” that may bewilder most casual wine drinkers.
While Wise convenes Spurrier, renowned British wine critic and journalist Jancis Robinson and Fred Dame, one of America’s first Master Sommeliers, in Paris for a retrospective tasting of classic wines, a parallel event is taking place across the pond in New York City. Taking his lead from Spurrier’s comment that any redo of the Paris tasting should focus on Pinot Noir, Burgundy’s signature red grape, Wise delegates Dustin Wilson, a Master Sommelier featured in the original film, to gather a group of wine professionals to blind taste diverse samples from renowned regions.
As these narrative threads converge, Wise’s approach to structuring the film emerges as a plan to have Wilson present the winning wines from the New York blind tasting to Spurrier, Robinson and Dame at a secluded Paris restaurant for their esteemed evaluation. This attempt to restage a Judgment of Paris-style event focused on Pinots and validate Wilson’s assertion that “great Pinot Noir can come from anywhere” impresses as a bit of a stunt, although the trio of experts appears at least appreciative of the effort.
Although the Paris tasting has been restaged several times with close approximations of the 1976 wine lineup, albeit featuring different judges, Somm 3’s attempt to apply a similar methodology to an evaluation of Pinot Noirs delivers a mixed outcome. For one thing, even sympathetic wine enthusiasts may question the scoring methodology adopted, which faces some of the same statistical interpretation issues that dogged the Paris event.
Others may take issue with the “the best of the best” group of sommeliers assembled by Wilson almost exclusively from the ranks of New York retail shops and restaurants, largely neglecting winemakers, professional wine critics and journalists. The filmmakers’ assertion that the tasting’s results “could change the world of wine forever” seems like a bit of necessary hyperbole, even if the media and industry impact hasn’t been comparable to the Paris event.
Wise’s filmmaking style remains consistently engaging throughout the series as he demonstrates a characteristic ability to elicit particularly salient comments from interviewees, many of them already well-accustomed to media attention. Besides Wilson, Master Sommeliers from the previous Somm films make brief appearances, primarily to provide commentary rather than any revelatory insights.
Production company: Forgotten Man Films
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Director: Jason Wise
Screenwriters: Christina Wise, Jason Wise
Producers: Christina Wise, Jason Wise, Jackson Myers, Diane Carpenter, Jeff Clark, Suzette Clarke, J. Mace Meeks, Kevin Baldwin, William Fowler, Debra Davis
Director of photography: Jackson Myers
Editors: Jackson Myers, Jason Wise, Bryan Carr
Music: Trevor Morris