Restaurant guests always ask me where I studied wine. It’s an understandable inquiry; they are, after all, about to let me help them spend hundreds of dollars on alcohol. While there are plenty of “schools” that claim to teach one how to become a sommelier, it is only the Court of Master Sommeliers that carries the international reputation necessary to enhance your resume.
This Society is not a school, but rather four levels of testing, ending in the coveted master sommelier diploma. In order to acquire the knowledge necessary to pass all four levels, candidates must spend years in independent study, with mentoring by masters throughout. Many restaurant professionals pass the introductory course. A fraction move forward to the second tier and earn the title of certified sommelier. But the advanced sommelier level and master diploma have less than 1,000 members worldwide. Here’s how I cracked that exclusive club.
You walk into a banquet room at some five-star hotel. The massive space has been cleared of all furniture, save a lone table in the center. Placed on the table are six wine glasses with varying shades of red and white wine. Three individuals are seated on one side awaiting your arrival. All three are master sommeliers, there to administer your blind tasting examination. There are only 172 masters in the world and the gravity of the situation hits you fast. As you sit on the opposite side, glasses before you, a master breaks the silence: “You know the drill; we will start the clock when you touch the first glass.”
You do know the drill, which is why your hand is shaking when you begin a visual analysis of wine number one. You now have exactly 25 minutes to tell these masters everything about the mystery wines: vintage, region, grape varietal, quality level—all of it. Miss one wine and you might have just wasted a week’s worth of work. This is day five, the final day of your advanced sommelier exam.
On day four you arrive at the testing site on schedule to take the service portion of the exam, held in the same room as the blind tasting segment, but with three tables instead of one. After the test begins, you walk up to the first table where two masters are seated. Acting like restaurant patrons they grill you on cocktail recipes before attacking food and wine pairing ideology. Ingredients of old-school cocktails like the Negroni, Sidecar, Scorpion…gotta know them all. Afterwards, you are given two minutes to correctly identify twelve mystery glasses of spirits by nose only. You reply: “Number one is Islay Scotch; number two is XO Cognac…”
You are ushered to a second table and another set of masters. They study your every movement as you open a bottle of champagne, all the while quizzing you on obscure wine regions and cult producers. The final table is more of the same, masters observing as you decant a bottle of old red wine and quizzing you on vintage knowledge: “This is the 1995 vintage, but I also hear the ’90 and ’96 are good, can you explain the differences between the ’90s vintages in Bordeaux, France?” Your answer is quickly followed by their retort: “Now let’s discuss the ’80s of Tuscany, Italy.” Good grief.
You wake up scared as hell on day three, knowing this is when the fun begins. In the late afternoon you will take the theory portion of the exam, considered by many to be the most difficult segment. After sitting through some morning lectures and practice tastings, the test begins. Over 100 of the hardest questions you have ever seen:
1. What is the minimum yield for Grand Cru Champagne in hectoliters per hectare?
2. List all the DOCGs of Piedmont, Italy, in order from East to West.
3. What are the grapes used in Spanish Cava production?
That last question was a gimme, so you struggle through the rest, all the while wishing you’d just gone to law school like your parents wanted. The masters throw in a separate wine-list critique test intended to display your in-the-field experience. Afterward, they hand you a piece of paper with the appointment times for the next two sections of the test, coming tomorrow and the next day. Day three is over and you’re already exhausted. Right now an ice cold beer sounds great, but there is no time for that. Back to the hotel instead, time to pull another all-nighter.
Day two is a continuation of day one. From eight in the morning to six at night you sit through a series of lectures that remind you of the infamous professor who writes on the blackboard with his right hand while holding an eraser in his left. You now take notes in shorthand code just to keep pace. Interspersed throughout the day are blind tasting practice sessions with different masters. You start to take notice of the candidates who don’t have what it takes to pass, despite the fact that most are on their second or third attempt. Such a small consolation as you return to your lonely hotel room to hit the books.
It’s day one and 60 men and women file into a conference room clad in suits.
This is the same room you will soon know intimately over the course of a week. These candidates represent the top professionals in the wine business, selected from hundreds of certified sommelier applicants. All have letters of recommendation from masters and all have already paid the $1,000 examination fee, as well as the additional thousands necessary to take a week off work and fly to the exam site. Everyone begins nervously writing notes as they listen to lectures provided by the two dozen masters who have flown in to proctor the exam. Two and a half days of lecture and blind tasting practice before actual testing begins. You wonder if you are good enough, knowing already that only ten people will make it out of this bright and talented field.
On day six you sit on the long flight home. The test is over. The advanced sommelier pin is newly minted and emblazoned on your suit’s lapel. Drained, you try to get back into the swing of things at your restaurant. The first table of guests requests the sommelier and asks if you have any wine recommendations. You smile. “Sure. Red or white?”