Becoming a Sommelier: More than Just Quaffing Wine

Fashion designers are  celebrities.  Chefs are rock stars.  What about sommeliers?  These wine professionals are getting their 15 minutes of fame too.  They have groupies, books and a reality show.  Instead of going to cooking school, people go to somm school.  Maybe that’s why 100 people signed up to take the Introductory Course and Examination given by the Court of Master Sommeliers on a recent weekend in San Francisco.

If you think becoming a sommelier is all fun and drinking wine, you should know this.  It’s no cake walk.  You have to read and study, study, study, and practice wine service and identifying wines tasted blind.

What was I doing there, about to take the introductory course?

You don’t have to work in a restaurant, wine shop or winery to start a sommelier program. After producing In Wine Country for nine years, I thought, I’ve learned so much about wine, maybe I should get some formal training.  It’s also my backup plan in case I can’t get another job in TV.  I could be a wine educator or consultant.  I met other folks in the class who were not in the business, but  love wine and want to learn more.

The US-based Court of Master Sommeliers educates, trains and certifies wine professionals.  It’s similar to Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), a London-based organization.  You can take both Court of Master Sommelier and WSET classes in the US.  If you go through the entire Court program and pass, you become a Master Sommelier (MS).  For WSET, if you pass the Diploma level, you can work towards a Master of Wine (MW).  These top levels take years to achieve.  It’s like going to a university for a master of wine degree.  Many wine professionals have taken the MW and MS exams more than a few times.  Some folks are both MS and MW.  There are 180 MS and 288 MW in the whole world.

I had no idea the class would be so big, filling a large ballroom at the Hotel Monaco.  Had to be there at 8 am on a Saturday and Sunday (brutal).  Most students are in their 20s and 30s, and work in the restaurant biz.  All of our instructors are Master Sommeliers.  Seems to be a dress code for them – somber dark suits, ties for the men, and the MS lapel pin.  In my opinion, it might help the wine world become less stuffy without the suits.  They need a stylist.  Where’s Rachel Zoe?

We’ll taste 22 wines blind as part of the course.  We’re told this is a “survey” of the major wines and wine regions of the world.  No kidding.  We zipped through Burgundy, flew over Bordeaux and spent a mere 5 minutes going through the 625 miles of the Loire Valley. Felt like being on one of those tours, if it’s Thursday it must be Rome, Europe in 7 days trips.

As we blind tasted the wines, we’re taught how to analyze color, body, intensity, aroma and flavors to help us figure out where the wine comes from and what type of wine is in the glass.  At first the MS help us with that.  But then we were on our own.  Pretty intimidating, right?  When it was my turn, I had a white wine that was very floral, and was a little sweet or “off dry”and had lots of acid (creates intense mouth watering).   I wasn’t sure what it was.  The student after me said it was a Loire Valley Chenin Blanc and he was right (whew).

Lots of time was spent on classic grape varietals and regions where they grow.  Knowing all of this is key to passing the test.  The exam was at the end of Sunday’s session.  I studied at lunch and during each break.  I reviewed notes going home, and at night.  I went back over things on the way to class, and again during breaks and lunch.  Talk about an intense weekend.

Fortunately there was no blind taste test.  I was happy I’d taken and passed the intermediate and advanced levels of the WSET program before this.  My WSET classes were much smaller, and the pace was slower.  It was also a little more informal – no suits, ties or lapel pins.

In the end, everyone passed the 70 question multiple choice test.  You had to get 60% of the questions right to get a certificate, lapel pin, and glass of sparkling rose´.  We were all relieved, especially one student who used his girlfriend’s frequent flier points to fly in and take the course.

The next step?  An all day exam of multiple choice and short answer questions, plus opening a bottle of Champagne or decanting wine correctly.  This I’m told takes lots of practice, especially for someone like me (I was once a restaurant hostess).  The hardest part – tasting wines blind and figuring out what each one is.  If you pass then you become a Certified Sommelier.  Now I’m one step closer to being a sommelier.  Think I’ll go for it.





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