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Masters and sommeliers

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No matter how much you know (or think you know) about wine, you can't just go and call yourself a sommelier, in the same way you can't just go start calling yourself a plumber or contractor without proper accreditation. Earning the sommelier designation takes extensive reading, studying and tasting for a set of standardized, formal examinations.

Becoming a master sommelier is all the more gruelling. Once a year, the Court of Master Sommeliers puts on a three-day, three-part exam that includes wine service, an oral theory exam and blind-tasting of wines for general characteristics as well as country and district of origin, grape variety and vintage. In short, you need to know an extraordinary amount about wine regions, grape varieties, geology, climate, chemistry, history and much more. It has one of the lowest pass rates of any high-level exam.

An exclusive club

Master sommeliers worldwide: 201

Master sommeliers in North America: 133 (114 men, 19 women)

Master sommeliers in Canada: 3 (John Szabo, Jennifer Huether and Bruce Wallner, all from Ontario)

Master sommelier examination pass rate: 10 per cent

-- Source:

This exam is the subject of SOMM, a documentary by Jason Wise about four prospective master sommelier candidates going through the rigours of preparing for the tests. The film is currently screening in select North American cities and is available for download/rental from iTunes.

The film follows Ian Cauble, Dustin Wilson, Brian McClintic and DLynn Proctor as they rifle through flash cards, pore over maps and taste the heck out of a number of wines with each other as well as with mentors already holding the master sommelier title.

We meet the candidates three weeks before the exam, and learn just what makes each of these four sommeliers tick. Cauble is the de facto star of the film -- he's the most obsessive and temperamental of the group, often referred to as "Dad" despite his being the youngest of the four. The other three are equally dedicated but more level-headed.

The four agonize over maps, tasting descriptions and piles of flash cards as they prepare for the exam. Other than the scenes surrounding the tasting exams near the film's end, the coolest segment comes midway through the film, when three of the four sommeliers each individually practise their blind-tasting skills with master sommelier Reggie Narito. The film is cut so we see the way candidates whittle their answers down regarding what they're tasting in a similar fashion -- often these trained palates zero in on the same characteristics in any given wine and come to similar conclusions. It takes focus, a photographic memory and a whole lot of "homework," folks.

SOMM does an excellent job conveying the wide range of emotions the four go through leading up to and after the exams. In interviewing established master sommeliers, SOMM also introduces an eclectic, engaging supporting cast. They may wear crisp suits with perfectly tied ties and work in expensive restaurants and hotels, but underneath it all these guys (it's mostly men) aren't that different from the rest of us.

Without giving too much away, there's plenty of drama to the way each of the four handles the day leading up to the exam as well as the test itself. Their reactions and relationship post-exam based on how they did is telling as to just how much each has invested in becoming a master sommelier.

While SOMM won't hit a big-box theatre in Winnipeg anytime soon, I could see a group like the recently established Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers setting up a screening (and tasting).

In the meantime, grab it from iTunes -- both those in the wine business as well as general wine enthusiasts will learn from and be entertained by SOMM. It's a well-made, stylish doc that goes a long way to humanize a profession often thought of as elitist, and is the best wine film (fictional or documentary) I've seen in a long time.


Babylon's Peak 2012 Chenin Blanc (Swartland, South Africa -- $12.48, Liquor Marts and beyond)

Pale in colour, the Babylon's Peak offers ripe green apple, lemon candy, firm peach and slightly woolly aromas on the nose. It's a fresh, medium-bodied white that keeps the green apple and citrus angle going on the palate, adding ripe melon and mango flavours and letting crisp acidity hold it all together. An outstanding value at this price, this is a stellar summer sipper. 89/100

Domaine Fouassier 2011 "Les Romains" Sancerre (Sancerre, France -- $20.79, Liquor Marts and beyond)

You'll never mistake this Sauvignon Blanc for its New Zealand counterparts. The Fouassier shows a complex nose of chalky, green apple skin, floral and pear notes. On the light-plus bodied palate that complexity is fleshed out, with red apple, lemon zest, toasted nut and fresh melon flavours and a splash of acidity for freshness. If you're looking for a different take on Sauvignon Blanc, this is a great place to start. 91/100 Twitter: @bensigurdson

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2013 D14

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