Being Put To The Test
On the afternoon of May 1st I found out I got into the heavily waitlisted Level 1 sommelier exam. After about five minutes of being excited, the nerves overtook and I started to panic. I really didn’t know what was on the test or if I needed more time to study. I assumed and hoped that my method of last minute cramming that worked in college and my four years of experience in the wine world would suffice. In addition, I had some time to study, so I opened up Karen MacNeils Wine Bible and started reading. Also, when you sign up for the first test, the Guild of Sommeliers gives you access to their website (normally $100 per year) but is included in $525 to take the test. I would say its pricey, but the website is pretty amazing and the cost includes the two days of classes which prepares you for the test as well as a lot of tasting. The website also has tons of notes on the areas you are quizzed on so going back and forth is helpful. I also had the Sothebys encyclopedia which I didn’t use as much for the first test but I am now for the second.
I did a bit of research and asked around how the test was and heard mixed reviews. People who had a fair amount of wine experience said it was not too bad, people who just started studying (within the year) said it was hard, people who had already passed the first or second said is was a piece of cake. I had mixed emotions about all three responses. I thought I fell into the first group as I had a fair amount of wine experience but more on the sales side. I was nervous for the people who just started studying and didn’t know much about wine, but good for them, there is no better way to learn. As for the third group, this one freaked me out since I had no intention of stopping at level 1.
The course started at the bright and early hour of 8am where they served coffee and tea which was a nice touch and was hosted at the hotel Monaco right in the Tenderloin of SF (not the best neighborhood) but the inside was cozy, comfortable, clean and perfect for the large group of eager and excited soon to be level 1 sommeliers.
The course is led by two different sets of Master Sommeliers, one for the first day and one for the second. There was the course director who was there both days, but each Master Sommelier led different topics. Breaking each subject up with a different person kept it pretty interesting.
I think its important to know how specialized and talented these people are. Each one of them are the top Sommeliers in the world. There have been less than 200 people to ever achieve this status. It is quite an experience to have four or five in the room at the same time both days. There are four levels; Level 1, Level 2 – a certified sommelier, Level 3 an advanced sommelier and Level 4 – the master sommelier. Each test gets exponentially harder. In order to even get to Level 3, you have to be invited as well as have a sponsor. Level 4 means they are pretty much wine gods.
You also will receive a 207 page introductory course workbook which outlines the course so you don’t have to take violently aggressive notes that hurt your hand and are illegible, so that part worked well for me. You can still highlight, doodle and underline all you want since you get your very own workbook to keep.
They start with a welcome introduction and move right into a flight so it’s a good idea to drink coffee ahead of time so as to not destroy your taste buds and have a chance at guessing what the wines are. They talk about winemaking and move right into France which is probably the most important country to know a lot about. This was and is my problem; I have never sold French wines nor spent a lot of time reading about them, I just know I love them. It made me a little bummed to think about how much French wine I have drunk in my life yet still couldn’t name most of the regions or the varietals grown in them or even be able to ramble off the names of villages and chateaus that some serious wine snobs are able to do so effortlessly. My coping mechanism as to not feel regret is to know that I have a lot more tasting to do! They divide up the regions and break it up with flights of wine. The nice thing is the tasting flights are solely for your benefit to educate you and prepare you for the second exam as there is no blind tasting on the first exam. The course covers France, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, North America, Italy, Germany, Austria/ Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Chile, Argentina, Beer, Spirits, some food and wine pairing and some wine service.
It sounds like too much to cover in two days and it is! That’s why it’s just an introductory course. They give you an overview of everything. It is helpful and you learn a lot, but it goes by really fast. If you have no wine knowledge and go into the two-day course expecting it to be enough to get you to pass, I would think again. If you have a pretty solid background of wine, this should be enough to help you pass. The passing rate is 60% so that should make you feel a bit less intimidated and the master Sommeliers want you to pass this test!
Its multiple choice questions that you don’t get to take home, nor do you find out how many right or wrong or which ones they were. It makes cheating pretty hard. I would say study regions, the main grape varietals, basic wine geography, history of wine laws in France, Italy, the U.S., AVA info, some beer/ spirits/ sake (though this is a very small portion), apertif/ digestiv (also a really small portion) and some overall history. It sounds pretty vast but really focus on France, Italy, U.S., Spain and then some Australia/ New Zealand. You will have some questions on Germany, Chile, Argentine, South Africa and Austria but these are by far outweighed by the first bunch.
At the end of day two they read off the people who passed because the Master Sommeliers grade this 75 multiple-choice question on the spot. It looked like most of the class passed and you are rewarded with a glass of bubbles, a hand shake, a pin, a certificate and the ability to sign up for the next course.
After I was done, I drank some champagne, had a wonderful dinner and signed up for Level 2!