There are fewer people who have taken this test versus the Level One Sommellier Exam, that’s for sure. With each test the success rate goes down exponentially. A side effect of this is that there are less people you can use as a good reference for any questions you may have. I was lucky and able to tap into the network of people I used to work with. In addition to that I was able to tap into a group of people I met through the Guild of Sommeliers website. We formed a few tasting and study groups which were immensely helpful. Check out my guide to setting up a tasting group to help get you started. I was able to ask my network some questions; however, I always got mixed messages on what to expect.
The test seems to be constantly changing, or at least people’s memories of what to expect keep changing. What I experienced and I took the test in Campbell, CA on June 20th was a three part test: tasting, theory ( the written portion) and service. The whole test really doesn’t take that long. You have one hour to complete together both the tasting section first and the theory section second. I completed the test at the culinary institute which was a very nice facility in the middle of nowhere, and perfect for this test. Each seat had its own water fountain and an area for glasses waiting to be analyzed with great lighting. It was the standard tasting grid that you can get on the website and you are tested on their standard wines (the wines on the list I cover in my how to set up a tasting group post). For the tasting part, having formed a tasting group and practicing a lot over the last month was helpful. Use the skills you have hopefully learned and don’t second guess yourself, your first instinct is usually correct. (I passed the tasting section!)
Then, as soon as you finish the tasting section, raise your hand and a master sommelier takes your two pieces of paper with your best guess of what the wines are. Its time to quickly move on to the theory portion. So, forget what just happened, hope for the best and start remembering everything that used to be so esoteric but now comes second nature (You know your third growth Bordeaux like the back of your hand, right?) Also remember: you must pass each section with 60% or better. It’s not 60% overall, it’s on each section. There are no grades but they do call out the person who did the best and reward them.
The theory section is when it’s time to show what you know and quickly (remember you only have one hour to do both tasting and written exam). It is mostly multiple choice but there is a significant part of fill in the blank and matching. They tell you not to tell anyone what was on it and I don’t want to abuse their secrecy by any means. I am merely going to lay out what to expect so you can mentally prepare for it. There are some matching sections where you can use an answer twice so process of elimination goes out the window! The multiple choice wasn’t hard (I think: I did pass this section, but who knows what I missed). You do not get a grade, or a list of what you got right and wrong or anything really; which is why people are not able to help you much on what is going to be on the exam. The second I walked out of the room, everything was erased from memory and I had to work hard to recall what was on the test. It’s a bunch of random questions, some seem incredibly easy, some require a bit of thinking and others are merely an shot in the dark since I had never heard of the terms in some of the questions (luckily that was only a couple of questions).
The next section of the test is service. I felt inept in this area ahead of time and while I was taking it I was pretty sure this was the section that could keep me from passing. I felt pretty confident in the other sections, maybe even a little too much. There is a long gap between the first part of the test and the service part. I had my Tasting and Theory test at 8:20 am though they request arrival at 8am. That part lasts from 8:20-9:20 and then is following by a one to two hour gap which maybe changes based on your class size. After sitting outside and talking with peers about what the test was about, what the wines were, some last minute totally not beneficial cramming, you are then required to meet in a room where a master sommelier will summon you onward. You stand in a hallway for a few minutes, a master sommelier tells you what restaurant you are pretending to be in, what wine you are serving, and then it’s ready set go! Five of us, five master sommeliers and just like that you are waiting tables at a 5 star restaurant, no joke. You prepare the wine, practice the right levels of what is in the glass, remember to line your tray with a linen, put the glasses in the right order, walk with a tray of glasses, don’t bump the invisible guests and always walk clockwise! It seems ridiculous since there is only one person sitting there, but that’s what is expected. Know your cocktails, know your spirits, know food pairings and why, and sell everything you recommend. I found this part difficult since I have been on the sales side of wines and not service. As wine sales reps, we open bottles and pour – thats it! No fine dining, no linens, no order of putting down glasses and picking them up, carrying trays, having an extensive wine list of different price points in the back of your mind ready to regurgitate with a perfect pairing. Now I know…. I don’t want to stress anyone out at all as the other parts for me were not that difficult. If you have restaurant experience – it really is an extreme advantage on this section. The people in my class who had a service background passed this section. After completing your service there is a long gap of waiting and stressing. It was about five hours after the test when I came back to hear the result. The test on the website says its from 8-5:30, that is not the case. It is a lot of waiting. until your fate is called out in front of everyone. Unfortunately, I did not get to celebrate with the small group of people who passed. You receive a feedback card and mine highlighted my lack of serving experience.
So in the end, I passed two sections and failed one – therefore I did not pass. I am signing up for the next one and have some practicing to do! Next time I will get my Certified Sommelier Pin. Good luck to everyone else! 🙂