What It’s Like to Try to Become a Master Somm as a Woman


3 minute Read

What It’s Like to Try to Become a Master Somm as a Woman

People are getting more and more interested in the work of the sommelier. The highest level of the service industry, the sommelier is in charge of everything from the wine program to pairing your meal with wine to making sure you have an incredible night. But achieving this level of service is not easy. It requires years of study and tests administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Recently, filmmakers Lani Chan and Bianca Holman went on a deep dive into the work it takes to become a sommelier with “Somm State of Mind.” They found that becoming a Master Somm is especially challenging if you’re a woman. Beyond breaking into what’s been traditionally a boys’ club, women training to be sommeliers face questions about having a family and gaining respect in a male-dominated world. The film focuses on the journey of Nicole Hakli, ACME’s wine director.

“Somm State of Mind” will be shown in the Sonoma Film Festival in April.

We caught up with Bianca and Lani to ask them about their film. But first, a clip:

VinePair: Did you know anything about wine going into this? What was your background/experience with wine?

Bianca: Yes. I had a brief overview of wine. I worked in restaurants and hotels since being a teen. I was a casual consumer of wine, having visited two vineyards a few years ago.

Lani: I’d studied a bit as part of my former job as a bartender/server at a couple of wine-centric restaurants in the Bay Area, but nothing as in-depth as what you’ll see in the film. I studied the Wine Bible like crazy for the Intro, but everyone in my class passed, so it wasn’t a huge feat to get that tiny red pin. I toyed briefly with the idea of going for the Certified, but ended up moving to New York to pursue a career in documentary film.

What made you interested in the topic?

Bianca: The topic interested me because of my previous experience in hospitality and knowing it was still heavily dominated by men. Talking with Lani and seeing her passion for the subject and how she took the Intro really drew me in also. I knew there would be a lot to share if we had the right characters.

Lani: I’ve always been interested in pursuing sociocultural stories that can be told through food. I wanted to do a film on the female sommelier experience because, as a woman working in the restaurant industry for a handful of years, I feel the career trajectory can be so much different when you’re female. There’s a lot of inherent sexism in the industry that I’d encountered and I wanted to explore that more from an academic perspective.

How did you select your main character?

Lani: We actually wanted to follow several characters originally, one lady for each level of the CMS exam and also one or two outside of the CMS crowd to illustrate the growth at each level while also raising questions about whether or not the test was necessary for success in the New York restaurant world. Naturally though, we had some hiccups in production, and a lot was left on the cutting-room floor. We felt our footage with Nicole was the strongest in terms of narrative and so focusing our film on her story turned out to be the ultimate direction we went in.

Have you seen ‘Somm’ and “Into the Bottle”? What did you seek to replicate? What did you want to do differently?

Bianca: Yes, we saw both. We wanted to share the world of a female sommelier perspective. The average person doesn’t know how deep the industry is and how much it takes to be a top sommelier. I believe our film is easier to access for those who know nothing about wine. We tried to ensure the film was shot well, just like “Into the Bottle.” I think we also tried to match how important the Court is, just like the “Somm” film.

Lani: I loved the “Somm” documentary. And I would love to talk to Jason Wise personally about how he pulled it off. But my initial confusion was about why it featured an all-male cast, when in my experience, each of my mentors in the wine world was female. As much as I enjoyed it, it just didn’t pass the Bechdel test and it made for an easy school project proposal to produce a film that would. Beyond that, I think there’s also so much more to the studying process than flash cards. I think our studying scenes are some of the strongest in our film, because they really show the minute details in the material that Nicole is poring over day in and day out, but there are so many more things that make that lifestyle a challenge. The lack of social benefits in New York restaurants is a big one. In the future, I’d like to flesh that issue out more in-depth if we ever get the opportunity to produce an extended version.

What did you learn about wine?

Bianca: I learned that those involved are lovers of learning and building community.

Lani: I learned that there was such a thing as wine that is “hip.”

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