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Sommeliers: The Science and Art of Wine Experts

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Casie Leigh Lukes on the science and art of professional wine-os.

A couple of months ago, my brother recommended the documentary Somm on Netflix. Fully embracing a lazy winter weekend in Minnesota, I plopped on the couch with my roommate, huddled under a big blanket, and pushed play. Somm

It started out so badly that I checked to make sure it was the correct film: My brother’s ravings weren’t matching my expectations. Putting my judgments aside, roomie and I agreed we’d give it at least 30 minutes.

I’m glad we did.

Written and directed by Jason Wise, Somm (2012) follows four sommeliers on their journey as they study, train, and attempt to pass the Master Sommelier exam, which has one of the lowest pass rates in the world at about 10 percent. Just 211 people worldwide have earned the Master Sommelier Diploma — “the ultimate professional credential anyone can attain in the world,” according to the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Before watching Somm, I’d never heard of a sommelier, much less knew that a prestigious test existed. So, what is a sommelier?

According to FreeDictionary.com, a sommelier is:

“A restaurant employee who orders and maintains the wines sold in the restaurant and usually has extensive knowledge about wine and food pairings.”

That may sound like a lackadaisical, fun profession, but I assure you it’s not. To pass the Master Sommelier exam, candidates devote years to studying the theory and taste behind wine. They are not only skilled in locating the exact region and year the wine is from by taking a sip, they are also able to identify the properties of each wine, including its aromas and flavors: apple/pear, stone fruit, citrus fruit, tropical fruit, floral, spice, herbs, earth/mushrooms, the use of oak, the list goes on! (For the “grid” sommeliers use to identify wines in the exam, see the Court of Master Sommeliers.)

This film educated me on the depth of the wine profession, and gave me an even greater appreciation for wine and its intricacies.

It also reminded me of the unique specificities in each of our lives that add to our individuality; the gentle and precise balance of interest, science, art, pursuing, studying, and letting go while we continue to learn and grow in each moment; the importance of finding joy in each task — that overflowing, rooted richness that keeps us grounded and simultaneously helps us to fly higher than we ever have.

The dedication and passion of these sommeliers is intense and inspiring. If you want you to see how they did in their examinations, I highly recommend Somm — I won’t spoil it for you here!

Do you enjoy wine? Don’t miss our articles by James Beard Award-winning food and wine columnist Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, including “The Instant Wine Expert,” in which she shares a fun strategy for selecting and enjoying terrific wines. You might also like “The Art of Mindful Drinking.”

Casie Leigh Lukes is Experience Life‘s digital content specialist.