So I recently changed from calling myself a nonmelier to a sommelier. That’s right, I passed the much feared Certified Sommelier exam from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Like so many who have gone before me, I feel it is only fair to share my experiences to help others achieve this designation.
General Tip: Make Friends – No One Wants To Die Alone
First, everyone was way friendlier than I expected. Stereotypes are often based on fact and I am sure we have all met The Snooty Sommelier. As I looked over the sea of black suits I noticed some eye contact and nervous smiles among the wannabes. One lady was shaking but pleasant. One was trying not to wet her pants but was willing to share that. I chalked it up to the collective boat some of us were thinking of diving from.
Even the Master Somms – perfect suits, red pins, boring day ahead – were making jokes to put people at ease. We were each given our time and examiner name for the service portion and ushered into the room for theory and tasting. The MS’s lined up at the front of the room and were introduced. My examiner may have dressed the part from the neck down, but his crazy beard and long hair were just waiting for the next bonfire beach party. I was pleased.
Tasting Tip: It Won’t Be A Kerner Or Xinomavro
Note the tasting and theory portions happen during the same session. They advise you to complete the tasting portion first, but the choice is yours. I noticed that people get fancy with their tasting answers. Here is a clue: They are not trying to trick you. You will not get a hard to identify esoteric wine, In fact I will bet you a good bottle you will get an unoaked French Chardonnay and an Australian Shiraz. That is what I got. That is what I have heard a lot of people get. That is what you will probably get – unless the Court reads my blog. If they do read this then I bet you will get a Riesling with enough petrol to fire a jet and a Cab Sauv with pyrazine and currant you can smell across the room. Regardless do not make this part harder than it is.
Theory Tip: Crazy People Can Create Online Flashcards Too
The theory is multiple choice and fill in the blank. I was a little surprised at how many fill in the blank there were. I have a Diploma from WSET and teach a college level course on wines of the world, so the theory was not hard for me. Study for this but expect most of the questions will be basic knowledge. You only have to get 60% right to pass. That means you only have to get 24 questions right. Some questions I got were: Name two of the Chianti DOCG satellites; Name a popular varietal from Switzerland; How many Grand Crus AOC’s are there in Chablis. The 750 question set on quizlet.com will scare you to death and was created by a sadist. Don’t look at it, you will turn into a pillar of salt. Cram.com, on the other hand, has useful flashcards and games.
Service Tip: Keep Your Cool And Don’t Cause Injuries
Everyone, including me, dreads the service component. I think this is a mistake. A large percentage of the people who failed the exam actually passed service. It is not that bad and I did not even do that well. My sparkling wine made a noise. My bearded MS’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. I cannot tell you how many bottles of cheap Cava my husband and I had leading up to this exam just so I could expertly avoid the “pop”. But you know what? I did not spill any. No one lost an eye. The feedback form even has a preprinted checkbox, “Practice opening sparkling wine QUIETLY.” This mistake is evidently so common they got tired of writing it.
General Tip: Surprises Are Your Enemy
The best advice I can offer is to learn all you can about the actual day of the exam. I was surprised that so many people did not know the protocol of the day. The Court website prepares you for the basics. There are some good service demo videos online. Several writers have shared their experiences. Eliminate the unknowns so you won’t get flustered. One person was thrown off because they did not know they would pretend a cheap Prosecco was a grower produced Champagne during service. No, the Court is not springing for 40+ bottles of Dom for examinees to open poorly.
Here is what to expect – at least until it changes. Forty five minutes for a combo tasting and theory, both of which must be passed with 60% each. Tasting will be one white and one red. You will be given a time for your service exam, which will last approximately 12 minutes. The maitre d’ will give you instructions and you will go to a four top with one MS and 3 pretend people. Each seat will have a large paper with “Lady” or “Gentleman” written on it. You will open and serve sparkling. Practice 3 oz pours. The MS may tell you after one glass is poured that he wants to share his bottle with four more friends across the room. Be prepared to carry a tray full of filled glasses. Be prepared to make wine pairing recommendations and answer basics about cocktails, aperitifs, and digestifs. You may wait a long time before this portion or get to go early. Either way you won’t get your score until the end of the day. This happens in a big circle standing around a room with a glass of sparkling waiting for your name to be called. If your name is not called, you did not pass. The wine tastes better if you pass.
Life Tip: Pass Or Fail, Make The Most Of It
If you receive an early time to complete your service exam you may wait all day for the results. I waited 6 hours. Some people spent this time trying to figure out if they passed by agonizing over every question and comparing notes with other examinees. Some got online and booked a slot for the next examination – they were that sure they failed. Don’t waste the day. You will be among interesting people who are taking this exam for different reasons. Find someone to have lunch, and dare I say, a beer with. You already have booze in common so you are off to a good start. If you are not at home, go enjoy the city.
Even When Things Look Their Worst – Don’t Lose Hope
One fellow who took the test with me seemed doomed from the start. He took the Intro Course and Certified Sommelier in the same week. Some think this is a risky move. He spilled his wine during the tasting exam and had to get new papers and fresh pours. He was one of the last names called to receive his Certified Somm pin. Another person with his first name was already called and he thought it was a bad sign. He now has a great Somm job at a Seattle restaurant. Oh and he was one of the friendliest people who spent his day making friends and building his network.
Good luck to all of the future Somm applicants.If you are interested in first hand feedback on Society of Wine Educators, Court, and or WSET, email me at email@example.com or find me on social media. I am always happy help, In addition to cram.com to brush up on theory, I also recommend these articles and videos.
Douglas Trapasso says
Thank you for sharing, and congratulations! Unfortunately, I have been left at the alter twice at my #Certified, (Service has been my downfall) but I know several in my study group are planning on going for it in '16, so it would be awesome if we could all pass together. I hope I can debrief my experience with you at some point; perhaps you could suggest some tips for making the best impression possible!
Hi Douglas. Enjoyed chatting with you on FB earlier this week about your wine education goals. I hope my suggestions were helpful. If you would like more feedback then please send me the evaluation form you received from your MS examiner. I will be happy to help.
Erlene Menches says
Hi, Hope you have done with it. and congratulated on it. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks Erlene, Are you currently in a program?
Erlene Menches says
Hi, No I have done already my program. I was reading your article and I like your thoughts. Therefore i comment on your post. Have you done?
Oh. Well congratulations on completing your study. I say I am done, but who knows.
Clelia Basilone says
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You are very welcome Clelia. Thanks for the comment.