I am writing this the day of my niece’s graduation. Such a special moment for Sonia! She has worked very hard for today’s moment. You could call this a First Growth Day for her; we all have days that mark special life milestones. A graduation, a wedding, the first day of a new job; all events that allow us to celebrate, to reflect, to learn.
On June 2, I experienced a special day; my first attempt at the Certified Sommelier exam offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers. This is the second in the series of four exams recognized by wine industry and restaurant professionals throughout the world.
I took my Level I (Introductory) course and exam last fall in Kentucky. The Level I involves two days of lectures followed by a seventy question multiple choice exam.
Level I is basically a gift. If you have read a comprehensive wine overview book before the class or highlight the PDF course guide the Court emails you before the class, you should easily pass Level I.
Level II is where the wine studying gets more intense.
Each of the three exams following Level I follow the same format:
Theory: Multiple choice and short answer and matching questions (which is done orally at Level IV – Master Sommelier Exam).
Blind Tasting: One red and one white at Level II; Three reds and three whites at Level III and IV (where you are reciting your analysis out loud, while being timed).
Service: A twelve minute role play where you have to open a bottle of still or (more likely) sparkling wine, pour the contents into flutes on a wine tray and serve it to a Master Sommelier and his/her (imaginary) guests while being asked the most esoteric questions about food and wine pairing, cocktails, wine recommendations, etc.
Over the past year, I have been developing my tasting skills through a weekly study group (thank you Kendall College for hosting!) And from my participation in WSET (a similar wine credentialing program that is very thorough, but de-emphasizes wine service), I was familiar with the types of questions that the Theory portion would include.
But I knew One Section of my test could keep me from achieving my Sommelier Dream. The Tray.
I started to study wine store catalogs like the fancy one that Sherry-Lehmann puts out at Christmas (nice to know hard copy isn’t completely dead.) You are expected to make wine recommendations at your Service exam and they should include name and location of the wine, the vintage, and why you believe in your choice.
And a couple of great friends who have already passed their Certified Exam offered their time to coach me and role play just like at the Real Thing.
You are asked to arrive at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Columbus, Ohio, by eight a.m. Registration starts once there are about half a dozen of us tensely waiting.
There are only fourteen of us. Nine guys, five women. This is a much smaller group than typical for a Level II exam. Perhaps many area wine students who thought they were prepared, took the Level II offered last February in Chicago.
(A quick word about the women at our test. They all looked so sharp; they took the Court’s dress code very seriously. Their suits were pressed, every hair was in place; just having them in the room forced you to bring your “A” game!)
We start promptly at 8:30 with our red and white wine tasting. There’s a form to fill out where you are supposed to check off a certain number of descriptors but you are encouraged to elaborate more on your own (what KIND of stone fruit? How LONG do you think the wine was aged in French oak?)
Technically, you are supposed to start your Theory exam after completing your tasting, but since you are given (I believe) forty-five minutes for both, you can spend more time on tasting if you think you’ll need it. It seemed like enough time for me; I’m pretty sure we all finished both parts with time to spare.
When you turn in your test, you are given a time to return to the hotel ballroom (ever notice that all hotel ballrooms look exactly alike?) to get briefed for your Service exam.
You spend your free time pacing, looking up wine factoids on your Kindle (YES! Salta IS in Argentina!) and debating with others the identity of the mystery wines (there seemed to be solid consensus that the white was Chardonnay and the red was Pinot Noir either from California or Oregon.) But the actual wines will never be revealed by the examiners – a Court policy.
About twenty minutes past our scheduled time, three of us huddle with one of the Master Sommeliers administering the exam. We are given some quick information about our “customer” and the wine he/she will be ordering, along with some last minute logistics about the Service exam.
We hold hands for a second or two, we double check our appearance (Is my suit buttoned? Is my Level One pin on my lapel?) and then we enter the ballroom and report to our respective tables.
While inside, I try to remember everything my coaches taught me. Always line your tray. Always move clockwise around the table. Don’t hit your imaginary guests with your all-too-real tray. Smile, smile, smile!
And hopefully before your twelve minutes runs out, you are told your test is over. You’re examiner tells you “Great Job”, and you can leave the ballroom while he/she writes notes about your performance.
We all return to the same ballroom at 1:30 p.m. There’s some sparkling rose from Oregon waiting for us! All of us are quietly stressing. “If #1 wasn’t a Chardonnay, then WTF was it?” At this point, if anyone in our group thought for sure they passed, they were keeping that to themselves.
The masters gather us in a circle. We are congratulated for our hard work, and courage just for attempting this exam. And then one by one, names of those who passed are revealed. The last name read is always the highest score of the day, and this person receives a monetary gift from the online networking group Guild of Sommeliers.
Once we told there was just one name left to read, I knew my verdict. I joined six of my fourteen colleagues in the “Not Pass” group (curiously, the Court never uses the word “Fail”).
I am disappointed with my test results, but am proud I passed Tasting and Theory on my first attempt. I feel confident that as long as I consistently practice tasting and make new note cards about different wine regions, that I can ace those sections again.
Learning proper Service is my goal for the rest of this year. My judge gave me several helpful nuggets of feedback. The best note he wrote was “Great effort – love the passion!” Hopefully I can moonlight at a wine bar or restaurant with a diverse wine program and can learn the basics of Service and how to move and react on the floor like a true wine professional.
Upon reflection, due to my lack of restaurant experience, I also would have “No Passed” me on my Service exam. Nonetheless, I found the entire process over the last six months of blind tasting, studying, making note cards, even little things like not biting my nails and losing a few pounds so I would look more professional in my suit, I Loved All of It. And I met thirteen very cool, very motivated folks, (one all the way from Vegas!) who took their best swing at this difficult exam. I hope we meet up again, maybe at our Advanced Exam, or a future wine dinner or tasting.