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Aspiring wine masters sip for success in ‘Somm’

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‘SOMM’ ★★★

Samuel Goldwyn Films presents a film written and directed by Jason Wise. Running time: 93 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opening Friday at the Music Box.

Updated: July 15, 2013 3:10PM

Remember the joke Woody Allen quotes in “Annie Hall” about not wanting to join any club that would have him as a member?

Well, pretty much the opposite is true in this modest yet intriguing documentary about four determined men who are desperate to join the Court of Master Sommeliers, an elite group of wine experts that has admitted fewer than 200 members since forming in 1969.

“Somm,” the feature debut of writer-director Jason Wise, follows Brian McClintic, Ian Cauble, DLynn Proctor and Dustin Wilson as they make a final push in the weeks leading up to their master-level sommelier exam. A test that potentially includes anything and everything there is to be known worldwide about wine, spirits and cigars and is so arcane, so minutely detailed and just plain insanely difficult that only 3 percent of candidates pass it. The Jedi Knights have nothing on the Court of Master Sommeliers when it comes to exclusivity.

There’s a certain amount of dollars-and-cents motivation involved here. Quality sommeliers are in demand in the restaurant industry and a master sommelier can earn up to $160,000 a year in a top-tier establishment. Even so, with the grim reality of a 97 percent failure rate, it soon becomes clear that the four hopefuls in “Somm” are driven more by passion and pure competitive spirit (mixed in with mild monomania) than practical concerns.

“It’s pure obsession, there’s no way around it,” admits Cauble, the most intensely single-minded of the group. The extreme difficulty of the master sommelier test requires the same sort of all-out effort that’s necessary for success in law school or medical school, as well as the cultivation of a truly impressive skill set. Take blind tasting, for example, which involves using nothing but smell, taste and simile to identify a mystery wine that could have come from anywhere in the world.

At one point, we see Cauble sampling an unidentified white and ticking off this analysis: “This wine is clear, star bright, with a medium concentration of color ... lime candy, lime zest, crushed apples, underripe green mango ... no evidence of oak ... freshness like a freshly opened can of tennis balls.”

Laugh if you like, but the tennis-ball thing doesn’t prevent him from identifying a 2009 Riesling from the Clare Valley of Southern Australia.

Obviously, that sort of thing is going to be of particular interest to wine aficionados, but “Somm” also provides the sort of general interest that comes from watching anyone involved in an endeavor that requires dedication, discipline and a touch of craziness. A cer­­tain amount of suspense is built in because the odds make it clear that some of these guys are not going to make it — though for some reason the film doesn’t build to a big emotional payoff.

Perhaps the whole business is too cerebral and circumspect to stir up emotional involvement, or perhaps there’s a tinge of wine snobbery that has a slightly distancing effect. Then again, maybe it’s wrong to expect much in the way of excitement from a quiet art best suited to the sedate setting of a fine restaurant.

Bruce Ingram is a locally based free-lance writer.

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