American director Jason Wise scored an unexpected hit six years ago with his first commercial release, Somm, a documentary about four candidates attempting to pass the gruelling master sommelier exam. The sequel, 2015’s Somm: Into the Bottle, sank its purple-stained teeth into the deeper culture and history of fermented grape juice with a focus on 10 storied wines. Now he’s out with a much-anticipated third installment, Somm 3. In the new film, Wise trains his lens on the controversial subject of blind tasting and two events that he himself sets up, a faceoff of six concealed pinot noirs adjudicated by top sommeliers in New York and a roundtable discussion in a Paris restaurant between three famous wine imbibers, Jancis Robinson, a British-based writer, Steven Spurrier, the British merchant who orchestrated the influential 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting, and Fred Dame, an American master sommelier. In the process he proves that even experts can disagree and widely miss the mark. I recently spoke with Wise about blind tastings, subjectivity and how being a sommelier is like being an athlete.
Did the first Somm movie grow out of a personal passion for wine?
I was definitely not a wine guy at all. I had bartended through film school and fell in love with a girl and then we got engaged. The man who’s now my father-in-law, he was very into wine. And you could honestly say there’s a chance I made Somm to impress my father-in-law.
How well did that original installment perform?
Netflix never tells you anything about how something’s done, how many views it received, which is infuriating if you’re in the business. What happened was, it did very, very well at festivals and theatres and stuff like that. But when it hit iTunes and people could share a link and sort of say, “Here’s this movie, you should watch it,” it really exploded, especially with wine and service professionals in the United States and Canada. You had a lot of people signing up for the Court of Master Sommeliers [the body that administers the rigorous exam required to earn the elite “master sommelier” title]. You had a lot of people swirling wine and either making fun of the film or trying to do what people were doing in the film. But then when it hit Netflix, you had people like your aunt watching it. It was one of these weird films that was about wine but anybody could watch it.
That seems odd to me given the rarefied subject matter and that most people find sommeliers intimidating, assuming they even know what one is. What do you think clicked with the lay audience?
For any documentary that’s successful, one of the most important ingredients is that people get to see something they would never get access to otherwise. Whoever you are, whether you’re a construction worker or a chief executive of a company, you would never have been able to know either that this world existed or you’d never be able to get into it if you knew. And I think the one thing that really, really, really was special with Somm is that it was on the list of the best sports films of the year. It was the weirdest thing for us. We had Olympic swimmers, we had CPAs, we had lawyers, we had anybody who’s ever taken a hard exam or done something that for them was an insurmountable challenge. They all looked at Somm and they went, “I understand this.”
Interesting you mention sports. In its early days, the Food Network consisted almost exclusively of cooking shows, as I recall. Today it seems like one big game show – a food fight, if you will. Do your movies reinforce that wine is in fact boring to most people unless it’s turned into a game?
Here’s the problem. Food itself is a much more exciting thing than wine. I do not think food has to be turned into a competition to be interesting. But wine is a tricky thing. If you’ve got an egg and you’ve got some greens and you’ve got some fruit or whatever, you can take those ingredients and, in a very cinematic way, change them into a different form, hand them to somebody beautiful and that beautiful person will go, “Oh, it’s delicious.” You can go from A to B in the span of 20 minutes. With wine, it’s literally impossible, because it takes you six years to find a vineyard site, it takes another 10 to have a vintage that’s actually worth it. It takes you another six or seven potentially, to get it reviewed. And then this wine comes out and it goes to somebody and that person’s in a bad mood when they drink it. The problem with wine is that to do a cooking show with wine would take 20 years. So, yeah, absolutely, I try with every trick I have to make wine competitive, to make it interesting, to make it stressful.
Most of the cast in Somm 3 is drawn from the trade – sommeliers and merchants. Why include a writer, Jancis Robinson?
Ever since I knew Jancis existed, I wanted to work with her. Whether she likes it or not, Jancis is a major influence in the wine business. She is somebody who writes a review and it moves the needle on what’s expensive and what’s cheap. Somm 3 has Jancis Robinson, somebody from the Wine Advocate, a bunch of master sommeliers and masters of wine. All these people who have no business being in the same film are all in the same film. If the Somm series has done anything, in my opinion, it has taken all of these different, insane, disagreeing opinions and put them all in the same movies, and the general public just goes, okay, they belong, they’re all part of wine. But none of them agree with each other at all. It’s an outstandingly different opinion, and we get into that pretty big.
As for the tasting scene in New York, it’s comprised mainly of New York-based wine-trade professionals. Yet somebody in the film makes the claim that these are the “best of the best.” Really? The world’s best palates coincidentally all live in New York?
I’d have to answer this in two different ways. I do stand by the claim that these are absolutely among the best tasters. If you were to take a list of 30 of the best wine tasters in the world, I think each and every one of those people would be on it. But, at the same time, all of these people know each other. And on camera, if none of them knew each other, I can’t explain to you how bad this film would be. As a director, I can tell you that these people have to have history and they have to be able to break down quickly and disagree with each other on camera.
I’m always amazed at how often wine pros in blind tastings seem underwhelmed by $100-plus bottles, at least until labels and prices are revealed. I’d say that’s the case with Somm 3. What was your reaction to the experts’ comments?
My cameramen and I were blown away by every single wine in that tasting. We thought they were stupendous. Some of our favourite wines were some of the ones that the experts didn’t like. And if you watch the film, you realize we don’t give away what the scores are. We never show what the bottom three wines are. It wasn’t about ranking for us. And I think watching them taste, I was very happy to see them taste that way but I can also see why you’re asking the question. It’s strange to watch somebody talk about a wine. But remember, they don’t know what it is. So, I mean, half the people at that table are a little nervous. They don’t want to have their credibility completely undermined.
So, you were able to partake of bottles poured in the film?
Oh, yeah, my crew and I drank all of it. That 1908 Cockburn’s Port was one of the best bottles I’ve had in my life. There was the majority of a magnum of 68 Ridge left, and most of Jancis’s bottle, which is a 59 Les Amoureuses. Yeah, my crew and I drank all that stuff and then stumbled out on the streets of Paris with our gear.
I’m so glad you said that. I’m living vicariously.
We don’t make films to drink that stuff but it’s certainly a nice byproduct.
For people who haven’t seen the movie, what can you say about the ending?
It ends in a way that I think goes on to say how subjective wine is. It’s tough because there is a spoil factor, but I also think that if you can spoil a film in one word, it’s not a good film. What happens is, there’s a tie at the New York tasting. So, Dustin [Wilson] takes the top three wines to be tasted by those legends so that they can break the tie. And they each pick their favourite of these top three. What I’ve been trying to say since moment one with these films is that what you drink is okay and what you think you know is wrong. Nobody knows anything. And I think that wine is one of the most subjective things we have. What the movie does is give the viewer the right to like what they like to drink.
Somm 3, directed by Jason Wise and co-written with wife Christina Wise, is now streaming on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play.
This interview has been condensed and edited.