When I introduce myself to people with my professional credentials (Advanced Sommelier) I often get questions about what it’s like to study for the Master Sommelier Exam. This is a complex question to answer. People think it is glamorous to study for your Master Sommelier Exam; they are under the impression we drink champagne, talk about all the Grand Cru Burgundy we’ve drank lately and flip through flashcards. Yes, sometimes there is Champagne involved in the studying. However, quite often studying includes lots of stress, way too much coffee, getting up two hours early to read before work in the morning or after staying up late to draw maps after 12+ hour work days.
Why are there only 300-something Master Sommeliers?
This exam is a lot of work and pressure. Some people just don’t want to do it. To be fair, I don’t blame them. There’ve been times I’ve considered not taking the exam again; I took it last year and failed. I knew I had to sit through it at least once to gain a better understanding and get over my fear of failing. I knew I didn’t have enough time to study, but I wanted to understand the exam from a practical and psychological standpoint. I firmly believe many of the people I’ve seen fail the Master Sommelier Exam were capable of passing. You can’t get to this level of study in any subject without being intelligent and driven. Sometimes people give up. Although not everyone studying for the exam works on the floor in a restaurant, most Sommeliers and Wine Directors work 80 hour weeks. It can be challenging to find motivation to open a book when you work such long hours. Working excessive hours is draining but when you add constant studying and a dash of pressure into the mix, I’ve seen people lose relationships, jobs, and their sanity.
So what’s the trade off; why do we do it?
Well, at the end of the day studying for your Master Sommelier Exam leads to learning about wine (duh), and yourself. This exam will push your limits, but it will also help you grow personally and professionally. As I delve deeper into my Sommelier studies I’ve had the opportunity to travel to multiple countries, partake in spectacular wine events, meet amazing humans, and of course drink some crazy rare wine. I live a busy life but it is beautiful. The sacrifice for me personally? The next six months will be devoted to my job, working and studying. Time to delete Tinder and forget about my social life!
Now we’ve discussed the basics, let’s dig deeper; how and what do you study? (Keep in mind everyone’s approach is different.)
There are three different parts to the exam; theory, service and blind tasting.
Theory is the first section, and ou must pass theory before taking the other two sections. Theory is my Achilles heel. Sitting still to study is a huge challenge for me. To combat this, I’ve developed a set way to study each region. When explaining to someone who is new to wine (or not in the wine industry) I tell them to think about Google Maps; take a look at the big picture, then zoom in. For example, first, you are looking at a Google Map of France and memorizing the regions. Next, you are looking at a regions of France, (let’s say the Loire) and memorizing its sub-regions or appellations. Next, you are looking at all the important sub-regions/appellations and memorizing their famous vineyards, favored grape variety, soil type, vine training systems, and history. Phew. That gets exhausting. When you do things in a routine way (studying the same for every region), it gets easier but it’s still not easy.
My study method: Study general region facts, draw outline of region with appellations, draw map of region, research key vintages, key events, relevant geology, key producers, influential wineries, history, and modern wine news.
So why is theory first?
Theory is first because it ties into both of the other sections of the exam. if you don’t know your theory it may be better to sit back and focus on that.
How does theory tie into service?
The Service portion of the exam is awkward and entertaining. You are in a room with 3-4 Master Sommeliers who are pretending they are in a restaurant. Said Master Somms ask you to open and serve wine while they fire questions at you about wineries, vintages and god knows what else. You are supposed to act “natural” and relaxed. I think relaxing and finding a rhythm is the challenging part of Service. That is because service is ALWAYS a strange situation. An example of a service scenario I encountered in my Advanced Exam; I was told by the “host” the bottle on the table was an old bottle of Penfold’s Grange he found while deep sea diving the Great Barrier Reef. Said bottle was in needed of decanting, had been sitting upright for an hour, and he wanted to keep the foil intact from the top of the bottle when I removed it. That was an interesting process but I laughed it off.
So, how can you relax in service?
Study your theory, go work in a restaurant, participate in a mock service and most importantly, find the humor in the situation. If you know your Theory you will have an easier time with the questions they ask you and be much less nervous. I’ve worked in restaurants all of my life so the mechanical aspect of service is second nature to me; my crux here is still just learning Theory. Knowing where you need improvement is the as important as the desire to improve. All you can do is keep learning!
How does Theory tie in to Blind Tasting?
To give a short answer, blind tasting ties into theory because you need to know what grapes come from where and why the grapes have specific flavors, tastes and tactile sensations. When you finish tasting each wine you need to state; variety, region, sub-region, classification, and vintage. Getting to the final conclusion successfully is challenging but possible once you understand the basic properties of grape varieties, the affects of regional climates, geology, wine making techniques and vintages.
Keep in mind, the Court of Master Sommeliers has a grid for blind tasting. If you hit all the points on the grid, you are close to passing. People tend to freeze and when it is time to make the final conclusion. As one of my favorite Master Sommeliers says “sometimes they take a left turn at Albuquerque”. The “left turn” references, (a Loony Tunes reference for you young folk) taking a wild off-the-cuff chance and turning left at the fork in the road EVEN when all signs point right. This translates to guessing a grape varietal that doesn’t make sense when all the clues are in the glass. When you get down to the nitty-gritty of tasting, it is scientific and precise.
If blind tasting is as simple as understanding wine theory why do so many people fail?
People get in their own way, blind tasting is also a mental test. How can you stay calm and present while tasting six wines in 25 minutes with 3 Master Sommeliers watching? Each person must develop their own method. I sit down, pick up the wine and tune out. The room no longer exists for me. I practice “mental yoga”, breathe, listen to the wine and listen to myself talk about the wine. I am a reflexive and intuitive person. This makes blind tasting easier for me. I still guess incorrectly, but I make peace with it and know I will do better next time. I highly recommend finding a physical routine to go along with your tasting practice. Yoga and meditation help me to get in the zone. When I first started blind tasting, I would recite my blind tasting grid in four minute intervals as I jumped rope. To each their own, however, I firmly believe neglecting the body will never help you train the mind.
To end this post; is it worth it to study for your Master Sommelier Exam? I say yes or I wouldn’t take the exam. I’m ready for the challenge. Does that mean it’s the right choice for everyone? No. This test is a personal journey and for some people it ends at Certified or Advanced. It depends heavily on your personal goals. Whether you are new to wine or looking to delve deeper, I encourage anyone with questions about the exam to reach out to me. I don’t have all the answers but I am always happy to share what I know, give suggestions and send study material I’ve built over the years. One of my greatest gains in sitting for these exams is the amazing people I’ve met and the connections I’ve made. I look forward to helping connect the “next generation” of Sommeliers and wine lovers to their passion. – JE