The Wall Street Journal engages filmmaker Jason Wise on the challenges associated with getting his feature documentary, SOMM, off the ground and into the opening slot of the Napa Valley Film Festival.
As I previously wrote about several months ago, alumnus Jason Wise was receiving some great press for his feature film “SOMM,” which opened the Napa Valley Wine Festival last week.
Now, the Wall Street Journal, clearly enchanted with his novel subject and creative approach, has delved little deeper into the high-walled garden of the master sommelier exam, and the lengths Jason had to undertake to get access to this never-before-filmed test.
“The secret about this movie is that it’s not about wine,” says Mr. Wise.
The making of ‘SOMM,’ a documentary that premiered Thursday on opening night of the Napa Valley Film Festival, was nearly as demanding as its subject, the Master Sommelier exam.
Three years ago, the film’s 32-year-old director, Jason Wise, asked the Court of Master Sommeliers to allow him to film four candidates trying to pass the famously difficult examination, which has four stages and can take six to eight years to complete.
The Court, a U.K.-based organization with a branch in the U.S. since 1986, had never permitted any sort of filming of its grueling test, which only 8% of candidates pass in any given year. Although the exam has now been offered for more than four decades, there are still only 129 Master Sommeliers in North America and 197 world-wide.
Brian McClintic, a friend of Mr. Wise’s from film school, had applied to take the Master Sommelier test. In preparation, he attended a blind wine tasting at Disneyland’s Napa Rose restaurant, supervised by a Master Sommelier named Michael Jordan, and invited Mr. Wise to come along.
Then 29 years old, Mr. Wise had recently quit his job as a bartender following his graduation from Chapman University’s film program. He was working as a freelance cameraman for underwater documentaries and had never directed a feature film before.
His next stroke of luck was a call from Marc Lhormer, co-founder of the Napa Valley Film Festival, last spring. He asked Mr. Wise when “SOMM” would be done and whether he could see it. Mr. Wise sent him a rough cut in May.
Choosing an unknown director’s first film to lead off a festival with 115 films and more than 150 wineries involved was a risk, Mr. Lhormer says. But he was convinced that “SOMM” would appeal to more than just wine aficionados, in the same way that the surprise 2004 hit “Sideways” did.
Don’t forget to check out the film’s Facebook page and give them a like!