What does it take to pass what is perhaps the most daunting and difficult exam in the world? Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth knows. He sat for the Master Sommelier exam twice – as it is rare for anyone to pass on the first go round – and became a Master Sommelier in 2008. Since then he’s been on a mission to aggregate all the information needed to prepare for the exam in one place.
The Master Sommelier (MS) exam is so infamous that a documentary film was made about it called SOMM. It is being given this weekend, May 18 -21, in Aspen, Colorado, the only time the test is being administered this year. So if you don’t pass, you basically have to wait another year to try again. No pressure for the exam candidates, right?
There are 211 Master Sommeliers world wide. The pass rate for the exam is approximately 10%, according the The Court of Master Sommeliers.
New this year for the MS exam – it’s being given in two parts. Theory is now a separate exam and a prerequisite for sitting for the service and blind tasting portions. If you didn’t pass theory this year (back in February), you have to take it again, in another year, if you want to go on to the rest of the exam.
The Court of Master Sommeliers is the organization certifying four levels of sommeliers: Introductory, Certified Sommelier (CS), Advanced Sommelier (AS) and MS. Each of the exams, except for the Introductory, has three parts, theory, service and blind tasting (Introductory is theory only).
Theory includes everything from global wine regions, grape varieties and characteristics and wine laws to grape growing and winemaking techniques. The exams increase in difficulty as you pass through each level. Think of the certified level as college, the advanced level as a graduate degree and the master level as a PhD in wine. It takes years to pass the AS and MS.
Geoff Kruth is the COO of the Guild of Sommeliers, an online community of wine professionals that serves as a resource for up-to-date, in-depth information about the wine world as well as a place for somms to network. He joined the Guild in 2008 after he passed the MS exam.
“Luckily for me in the long run, I did not pass the tasting portion” on his first attempt, he says. “I spent the next year developing a system of blind tasting that would improve my consistency to the point where I wasn’t worried about having a good day or a bad day.”
That blind tasting system is now a cornerstone of the information found on the Guild of Sommeliers website. When Geoff joined the Guild, it was mainly a scholarship foundation for candidates preparing for the AS and MS exams. In fact Geoff was the recipient of one of those scholarships. But Geoff had a vision for what the Guild could become.
“I had the idea to turn the Guild into a membership organization and build a website around it,” he says. “The technology was just about right to enable that, and my background was in software engineering and software design. So I was the right person to take on building this internet community around the sommeliers.”
Before Geoff became a MS, he worked in the high tech world in Silicon Valley during the dot com boom. Wine had become a hobby during his days at Sonoma State University, where he would visit winery tasting rooms on the weekends. He found himself spending his money on wine and traveling to wine growing regions for fun. Realizing that was his passion, he left Silicon Valley for New York City, enrolling in culinary school at the French Culinary Institute (now International Culinary Center). After graduating he worked as a sommelier at Balthazar. In 2005 he returned to California as sommelier at the Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. He still consults on wine for the restaurant.
In 2009 Geoff and the Guild launched the membership program. “We wanted to create a global community where sommeliers could communicate with each other,” Geoff says. To date, there are 8,000 members, a mix of sommeliers of all levels, wine professionals, wineries and even wine enthusiasts. Membership fees start at $100 per year.
The Guild site is chock full of information, including detailed study guides on wine regions, varietals, regional laws, everything an exam candidate or wine professional needs to know. When Geoff took his exams, resources were few and far between, and information was hard to find, limited to a few comprehensive wine books that became dated quickly. “When I was studying for the MS I used to go the INAO offices (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine) in France in the wine regions and say ‘hey can I see your laws can I see the books and ask questions,” he explains. “Now you have one place to get that information, you don’t have to get on a plane.”
There’s a series of podcasts and videos, all to help bring the world of wine to life. The videos are extremely well-produced. The Guild creates its own maps, a big deal because learning about wine means learning geography. Study guides are extensive, and include practice questions. Gathering this vast amount of information falls to Matt Stamp, a Master Sommelier who is the Guild’s Director of Education, and the site’s full time writer.
“What I’m most known for in the wine community is teaching blind tasting,” Geoff says.
He notes one particular document, “The Science of Tasting.” He calls it a great resource for studying at a higher level for blind tasting. “I think it is the best thing ever put on paper for the details of how to blind taste wines, and gets into the science behind it and all the different aromas and chemicals you perceive, and how to use that to deduce a wine in a blind tasting.”
To be clear, the Guild website is not just a tool for exam study. You’ll also find job boards and training manuals for restaurant wait staff.
A compendium drills down into specific wine regions and vineyards, with a helpful pronunciation guide. There are producer profiles and sommelier spotlights. The Guild also posts information about upcoming master classes for wine professionals and scholarships for all-expenses paid trips to wine regions around the world.
It’s everything Geoff wished he had had at his fingertips when studying for the MS exam.
“People ask me if the exams have become harder,” Geoff says. He doesn’t think that’s the case, but compared to 20 years ago, the wine world has grown, and there’s much more information that you need to know now. The Guild of Sommeliers has become that go to resource.
Geoff’s also working on developing an app for the site that will work across all platforms.
Seems like Geoff’s found a great way to blend his high tech background and passion for wine.He’s come to a realization and a prediction for the future. What he’s created at the Guild, he says, is a private social network. Indeed, on the home page is a Facebook-like news feed from Guild members. But Geoff sees a backlash against the big social networks. “What needs to happen are these private social networks where individual industries and individual groups can have this specific information,” he says. “I see this future of private social networks becoming more important than public social networks.” That’s well underway at the Guild of Sommeliers.
Photo Courtesy Geoff Kruth; web page shots and video courtesy Guild of Sommeliers