Of course, a festival there would do that, you say to yourself. What do you expect at a film event in America’s premiere wine-destination district!
Actually Napa Valley’s nascent film festival isn’t as wine-centric as one might imagine. Last year, its first in existence, the fest kicked off with Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” and there followed very few films dealing with the region’s number-one export.
But the 2012 edition did begin Wednesday night with wine front and center.
The world premiere of Jason Wise’s “SOMM” takes a sympathetic though bemused look at the eccentric and little understood world of the sommelier, the wine geek at every top restaurant in the world who guides diners in a selection of just the right wine to pair with the wife’s pork chops and her vegan husband’s tofu supreme.
To be a master sommelier, or Somm in its own slanguage, these talented tasters must pass what is undoubtedly the more rigorous test imaginable, administered once a year over a grueling three days.
It’s the kind of test that forces you to study for years yet comes down to an awful lot of luck in guessing what you’re drinking in a blind tasting.
Wise, a grad of Chapman University’s film school, said in a Q&A after the screening at the Napa Opera House that he spent three years making the film on five continents with very little money.
Mostly, he followed the movie’s four protagonists as they drove themselves nuts prepping for the test, became fast friends and wound up exhilarated — or disheartened.
The odds against passing are formidable.
And given the odds of selecting just the right people for a doc, Wise lives up to his name in his casting four sommeliers — Ian Cauble, Dustin Wilson, Brian McClintic and Dlynn Proctor — whose journey to the big test administered in a frigid Dallas, Texas, exhibits high comedy, stark drama, nerve-wracking tension and the wacky self-absorption that clearly drives wives and girlfriends to despair.
McClintic becomes the film’s viewpoint serving as a kind of narrator, who understands the emotional temperature in the crowded rooms where the four practice with flash cards and blind tastings. But it is Ian Cauble who provides the movie’s emotional roller coaster.
Cauble is so damn good at describing wine down to nuances of hilarious specificity — how on earth can he smell “fresh cut rubber hose?” — that the other three in awe call him “dad.” He is a near father figure yet they are all roughly the same age.
You do feel for his lovely girlfriend who acknowledges the obsessional nature of his occupation and kinda wonders where she fits into that life.
The movie itself is extremely accomplished for a first feature-length film with awesome cinematograph from Jackson Myers and all sorts of devices such as split screens that let an information-jammed movie roll out smoothly and without too much wine geekiness.
But how are non-wine fans going to react to this movie? That’s a good question.
I’m an oenophile so I enjoyed the film despite it being a tad too long and repetitive. But then, I was always surprised how American audiences embraced Alexander Payne’s “Sideways,” a comedy set in the Santa Barbara wine country. It was “inside baseball” yet about universal truths.
The same goes for “SOMM.” (Visit the film’s Facebook page.)
As a comic doc about an obsession and a drama about cramming for a test that reminds you somewhat of James Bridges 1973 comedy-drama about academia, “The Paper Chase,” “SOMM” fits in nicely with the country’s current obsession with TV reality contests.
I think it would do great as a limited release or perhaps even better on a cable network.
For these blogs from Napa’s growing film festival, I will turn to my own wife’s expertise in areas of wine and food to give you her point of view on events at NVFF 2012.
She is a food & wine writer and veteran film festival-goer, who wrote the book “California’s Central Coast, The Ultimate Winery Guide: From Santa Barbara to Paso Robles” (Chronicle Books)
Where else but in Napa Valley would a lobby of a theater be transformed into a House of Cab?
This was opening night and the world premier of “SOMM,” a doc on four sommeliers and the perfect opener for the Napa Valley Film Festival.
Guests were in Cabernet heaven at the pre-screening tasting sponsored by 15 winegrowers from the Stags Leap District (SLD).The one mile wide and three mile long appellation straddles the Silverado Trail and produces powerful and elegant wines layered with complex flavors.
Opening night featured Chimney Rock’s four estate grown wines. In addition to the popular SLD and a Bordeaux style blend, winemaker Elizabeth Vianna was pouring two single vineyard Cabs: the Tomahawk and the luscious Alpine, from hillside vineyards.
The wines paired well with Le Belge chocolate bonbons and Fatted Calf’s selection of charcuterie — duck paté with Sauternes-soaked stone fruit, mortadella studded with pistachio and the garlic-laced salami cotto.
The post-screening party moved over a few blocks away to The Shops at Napa Center.
A sleek Maserati sports car anchored a cluster of shops around an open courtyard and fest-goers braced the chilly evening with more Napa Cabs — from Rutherford Hill and Duckhorn. (We also got to savor its GoldenEye, a Mendocino Pinot Noir).
However, there was more than Cab-celebration going on. At the Benchmark Wine Group showroom/lounge, we savored some Old World wines: Brunello di Montalcino, Frescobaldi’s 1999 Riserva from Castel Giocando; a 2007 Riserva Barbaresco from Muncagota; and a Chateauneuf du Pape from Domaine du Vieux Lazaret.
Not much to eat on opening night but plenty of good vino. But hey, this is just the start of the fest, there’s more to come — film, food and wine!
— Mira Advani Honeycutt