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The somm phenom



What’s up with all these movies about sommeliers?

I’ve lost count how many there have been. Now, there’s yet another: Somm: Into the Bottle. Haven’t seen it, won’t see it, just want to understand what’s up with this. When did somms become the coolest, most movie-worthy demographic in America?

And not just movie-worthy, but heroic. I suppose you could make a movie about garbage men, but it would be hard to make them into compelling cultural heroes. IMHO, garbage men are greater American heroes than sommeliers. I mean, we could live without somms, couldn’t we? But we couldn’t live without garbage men.

So why are somms the new American icons? Complicated stuff, better left to leftwing college assistant professors of media (and I should know, I once worked in the Film Department of San Francisco State University). But let’s back up and see what we can figure out. Somms work with two things: wine and food. So we first have to figure out why people go to movies about wine and food.

Well, mostly they don’t. They went to Sideways—I’m still not sure why—and Sideways was purportedly about wine, but it wasn’t, really, it was a buddy road trip comedy that just happened to take place in wine country. Yes, they were able to lampoon the silliness of wine snobbery, and that helped. But Sideways was a phenomenon, and, in some ways, I think all these somm movies have tried to capitalize on the Sideways pheenom. They can’t, of course; they won’t. But I suppose the producers of Somm: Into the Bottle do a little prayer at night hoping it will be the next Sideways.

Nor do Americans much go to movies about food. Was “Julie & Julia” about food? In a way, but if the lead actress had been Meryl Fingerhut instead of Meryl Streep, no one would have gone. Now, food and wine have played important roles in supporting movies: I think of “Disclosure” and Pahlmeyer Chardonnay, for example, but, in the food world, you’d be hard-pressed to think of a movie that seriously dealt with cooking. That is the realm of T.V. But no movie has ever seriously tried to merge the two phenomena into one. “Somm” of course is ostensibly about wine, but everybody knows the milieu of the somm: the restaurant. Somms don’t work in wine stores: they work in places where people go to eat, and eat well. So the food tie-in is inherent in any conversation about sommeliers.

Food and wine are central to our culture. They always have been but arguably now more so than ever. America, despite its problems, is and long has been the richest country on earth. People, even those at the lower end of the economic scale, have more money than most other people anywhere else. We all eat out: how much we spend is a personal decision, but eating out stimulates an interest in the kinds of foods we wouldn’t, or couldn’t, make for ourselves, if we were just at home. So this economic surplus we have actually stimulates our interest in cuisine. And America being a melting pot, of course, those of us lucky enough to live in cities have access to a virtual cafeteria of the world.

Then there’s wine, which has been a superstar for decades. It always lurked at the edges of cultural media, sometimes more, sometimes less, but for the last 40 years it’s been more, more, more. Sometime in the 1970s wine began to be the camel’s nose under the tent. Then the camel’s head. Then the entire camel. Usually with such massive cultural intrusions filmmakers come up with a genre, but they never really did with wine (the way they did with, say, war, or spies, or rom-coms). Still, the possibilities must glow in the eyes of some producers. Another Sideways?

Ultimately, Sideways proved nothing. It indicated nothing; it predicted nothing; it was a meteor that flashed, briefly, in the atmosphere, and then disappeared. So, in this sense, I think all these somm movies represent the dreams and ambitions of script writers, producers and actors who hope they’ll strike the big time. As for the somm phenomenon, their story is always presented in terms of the difficulties and challenges of becoming a somm and being certified. Struggle against the odds: that’s a great American film meme. I guess somms are the “Rocky” stars of the 21st century: Instead of having great bodies, running around in silk shorts and fighting for a living, they pop corks and make small talk with diners. Somms are young hipsters, mostly good-looking, and seem to be the lords of the nightlife of our great cities, at the center of it all, the focus of food, wine and cultural trends in America. It’s not entirely true, of course—the image is much greater than the reality—but it’s true enough for those of us who dwell in the wine-and-food bubble and are curious about these phantoms, a kind of resident spirit of the First Church of the Restaurant at which we all worship. So if you manage to see Somm: Into the Bottle, drop me a note and let me know if it’s any good. Maybe I’ll catch it someday on cable.

Have a great weekend!

  1. Kyle Schlachter says:

    Some and this sequel aren’t exactly widely released movies. Don’t get confused that our bubble extends over everyone. Now, speaking of food movies, “Burnt” is going to be seen by a lot more people than S:ITB. That acronym was accidentally perfect (the ITB part)!

  2. Might as well ask “why do the lowest paid professional football players make multiple times the salary of our finest public school teachers?” Many people obviously think movies about somms are entertaining, and are willing to pay for that entertainment – same with football.

  3. Bill Haydon says:

    I think you’re grossly overestimating the cultural impact of these movies and of sommeliers in general. These movies seem to be a big deal to us because of who we are and what we do for a living. Just scan the documentary lineup on Netflix. There are docs being filmed on just about every subject imaginable these days, and these two under-the-radar films are no more insightful about the zeitgeist of American culture than anything else in the current sea of output.

    As for the MS certificate (I refuse to refer to it as a diploma)…..MEH. The test is pure rote-memorization. Yes, given the ocean of wine factoids out there, the test can be manipulated to achieve a low success rate. That, however, is not indicative of any real intellectual or academic content. Again, it’s merely spitting out wine factoids in a verbal examination with ZERO transparency. A doctoral program in History at Chicago or Physics at Berkeley has a vastly higher success rate than the MS test, but is anyone going to seriously argue that they are remotely comparable.

  4. Jim Caudill says:

    Seriously dealt with cooking: Ratatouille!

  5. “They went to Sideways—I’m still not sure why”

    Is your uncertainty because you think it’s a bad movie, or just not something you thought would draw a crowd?

  6. There was a movie about Garbage Men, it was called “Men at Work”, it starred Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez and was the greatest and truest cinematic display of day to day life for the working class Garbageman ever put to celluloid. Much more interesting than a movie about Somms. Somms are just a bunch of alcoholics who guise their disease with a “passion” for wine. No one really likes wine. Not even garbagemen.

  7. The movie was fantastic! I’m not sure why you wouldn’t support something that would drive more people to be more passionate about, and bring greater understanding to wine as well as the industry. It’s certainly more glamorous and PG 13 than chef life, but there is certainly enough to cover that justifies beautifully made movies that are better than 90% of what’s coming out of Hollywood. Also Jason Wise was inspired by observing Brian in the early stages, he’s done an amazing job with this sequel. I highly recommend that you see this movie and show your support for an industry (wine vs just sommeliers) that little fully respect.

  8. Geoff Kruth says:

    The second film isn’t about Somms at all, it’s about wine itself. So why not see it and have an opinion one way or the other? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  9. Jim B: I don’t think it was a good movie. I remember thinking, when I left the theatre, Wow, that was pretty stupid. I also didn’t think the subject matter would attract very many people. On the other hand it was a well-known director and some fairly famous movie stars.

  10. I used to work in marketing at Sony Pictures Entertainment, so I have some insights into “why” some in Hollywood develop fictional movies and and documentaries and TV shows about wine and food.

    Entertainment industry producers, directors, actors, writers and marketers earn well-above-average incomes. They live luxury lifestyles — and that includes lavishing serious money on wine collections and dining out in top restaurants.

    By developing a movie/documentary/TV show on wine and food, they can write off those expensive wines and meals as “development costs.”

    (In other industries, we would call it “field research.”)

    A classic funding example of what is known in Hollywood as “Other People’s Money.” (In a sense, YOU the taxpayer represent those “other people.”)

    “So why not?,” goes the thinking. “The convoluted tax code is going to underwrite my lifestyle.”

    Steve writes:

    “. . . in the food world, you’d be hard-pressed to think of a movie that seriously dealt with cooking.”

    Let me nominate one such movie: “Big Night.”

    Roger Ebert review:

  11. Dear Geoff, I’m not big on going to the movies, so this probably isn’t a film I’ll go to. I’m sure it’s well done and will entertain and educate lots of people!

  12. Dear Bill Haydon, perhaps what you say is true. But I personally could not pass the M.S. and I have great admiration for those who do. It’s a very tough process, by all accounts, and we shouldn’t disrespect what these men and women have accomplished.

  13. “Haven’t seen it, won’t see it, just want to understand what’s up with this.”

    Watch it and understand.

    I hope to god they never make movies about wine writers.

  14. Dear ugh, I do too.

  15. Somm is a term that is rapidly being debased and made worthless. Now anyone can call themselves a “sommelier” Lately, the tasting room manager at a very upscale joint in Sonoma introduced himself to me as one. Then, a customer on the phone told us that she had taken a two day wine course and had received a certificate as one. Really. So, that word is now about officially meaningless. Sad.

  16. Wine Guy,

    And as a corollary, the term “wine critic” has likewise been debased — as just about anyone can call her-/himself one.

    Witness the rise of “citizen journalist” wine blogs and their questionable bona fides.

    Few meet the Malcolm Gladwell-publicized (“Outliers”) threshold of 10 years or 10,000 hours of study and practice to attain true expertise.

    Quoting this wine column . . .

    Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Off Duty” Section
    (March 29, 2013, Page Unknown):

    “Five Wine Blogs I Really Click With”


    By Lettie Teague
    “On Wine” Column

    “There are about 1,450 wine blogs today, of which ABOUT 1,000 ARE NONPROFESSIONAL ENDEAVORS (the rest are “industry” blogs), according to Allan Wright of the Zephyr Adventures tour operator, who has organized the 2013 Wine Bloggers Conference in North America for the past five years. But most bloggers haven’t been doing it very long: “Only 18% of [wine] bloggers today have been blogging for more than six years,” he said.”

    ~~ Bob

  17. Bob Henry says:

    From Bloomberg BusinessWeek:

    “New Wave of Sommelier Clubs Will Change How You Experience Wine”

    With my apology to Groucho Marx:

    “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.”

  18. The vast majority of Americans when they dine out do so at quick-service (a.k.a. fast food) restaurants and chains like IHOP and Denny’s and Olive Garden.

    Patronizing fine dining restaurants that have sommeliers is perhaps a once or twice a year “special occasion.”

    Consequently, the role of sommeliers as wine “opinion leaders” and “taste makers” is wildly overstated.

    The true “opinion leaders” and “taste makers” are your local wine merchants.

    And the importance of in-store selling is revealed in this news report.

    From MediaPost
    (December 8, 2016):

    “40% Of Alcohol Beverage Buyers Make Their Decisions In-Store”



    “Fully 40% of U.S. consumers who buy alcoholic beverages haven’t decided what they’re going to purchase when they walk into the store, according to a new study from IRI.

    “Of the 60% who do have a planned beverage purchase, 21% end up changing their minds in store, and 50% of those who change their minds ultimately buy a different brand than they originally intended.

    . . .

    “All of which points to ‘immense’ opportunities for alcohol manufacturers to find new pockets of growth by engaging and influencing consumers while they’re in the store, point out IRI’s analysts.

    “Beer, wine and spirits manufacturers are increasingly aware of the importance of working with retailers to win over consumers, according to Robert I. Tomei, president of consumer and shopper marketing for IRI. ‘When you consider how often most shoppers are going to the store, and that 21% of them change their minds during the shopping trip, you realize the impact that in-store signage, creative labeling and other marketing could have on your portfolio,’ he stresses.”

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