Secrets of the Sommelier Exams
I have written about the Court of Master Sommeliers a couple of times before. This time, my perspective has changed because I am on the other side. I passed the Level 1 exam! I’d like nothing more than to share the details with you so you can pass too! To re-cap, there are 4 levels to the Court of Master Sommeliers, with level 1 being a mere introductory course, and level 2 establishing your official certification. I like to tell people that level 3 is like achieving a Bachelor’s degree and level 4 is a Masters or even a PhD.

 The level 1 exam supposedly has a very high pass rate (95%??), but even if this statistic is true, it is colored by the type of people who are generally taking this exam. I am 23 and was by far the youngest person in the room. I would guess that the median age was about 35. People came from all walks of life, with just a few taking the class for personal edification, while most had been in the food and beverage industry for some time and many were already managing quite a wine list.

The Experience:

Since I have now taken this course twice, I would consider myself to be more of an expert than most ;) Around 80 people are in a level 1 exam. Attire is business casual, but many were wearing suits. The course I just took was held at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. The course consists of 2 days of all day lecture from 3 or 4 Master Sommeliers, culminating in a written multiple choice exam at the end of day 2. Half of the course will be lecture, but the other half is blind tasting! Level 2 is only an exam with no instruction, and will include a blind tasting, so this is the only chance for the instructors to help you calibrate your palate and learn what tasting format they expect from you. Upon entrance to the room, you will notice 4 glasses filled 1 oz each with wine at each seat. These will be refilled at break times, totaling in about 20 wines tasted between the 2 days. The instructors will start at a corner of the room and have 5 people stand up in a row. Each person will perform one part of a sensory evaluation, including appearance, aroma, taste, initial conclusions of the wine’s region, variety, producer and region, and finally an exact guess. Every person in the room will have to stand up at some point and address the class with one of the points. Not as scary as it sounds! And if you’re a ham, you’ll love it! At the end of the exam on day 2, everyone will leave the room for around 30 minutes while the tests are scored. After reconvening, champagne is poured, and those who passed are announced, while the losers slink out the door after chugging their bubbles (been there, done that).

There are several fantastic resources at your disposal.

1) Guild of Sommeliers - This is your one stop shop for study materials, forums, and current news. When you sign up for your first exam, you automatically receive one free year subscription to the Guild.

2) Join a study group- This is a great Facebook Group to find people in your area who may want to form a study group. Geeking out on wine is a hobby best done with like-minded individuals. Trying to convert random friends doesn’t work too well in my experience, but finding a good study group can help keep you focused and feeling semi-normal ;)

3) Invest in a wine encyclopedia! Introductory course: Tom Stevenson’s The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia or Karen McNeil’s Wine Bible. They suggest reading the intro and the 1st page of every major region. I would suggest getting a little deeper than that. ( I read The Wine Bible straight through page 600 out of 900 and then skimmed the rest)

Tips (Greek to the casual reader):
  • Know 1st & 2nd Growth Bordeauxs
  • Basic beer, liquors, cognac & armanac
  • Name 5 types of Sakes and differences
  • Sweetness levels in Germany & Austria (Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein, Trockenbeerenauslese = Kathleen Smith Always Buys Extravagant Tracksuits. Kathleen is my grandmother, and she really does. For Austria, you replace the “E” with Ausbruch which just reminds me of the word Austria) 
  • Sweetness of Champagnes ( I remember Bebe’S Double D’s….you know how the dresses at the store Bebe are only made for double D’s right? Brut zero, Extra brut, Brut, Extra dry, Sec, Demi sec, Doux)
  • Sizes of large format bottles (Magnum, Jeroboam, Rehoboam, Methuselah, Salmanazar, Balthazar, Nebuchadnezzar, Solomon, Premat = Magnum Johns require mucho sex. Bia, Now! se vou plait…)
Make up whatever works for you! Just realize that there are a million bizillion lists to keep straight. I could write for days about this topic, so please email me with any questions!

4 comments on “Secrets of the Sommelier Exams

  1. This is great, I took level I 5 years ago and am studying Hugh Johnsons World of WIne and tasting a lot….Any ideas I am grateful for.Quizzes are great.
    Thank you

  2. Aloha Madison,
    I am stressing out right now as I am reading the wine bible! How will I remember all of this information?
    The sommelier course/exam is in 2wks.I had read your comments and felt a little more confident however it would be disappointing and a very expensive attempt if I had failed.
    Any suggestions other than what you had posted? I would appreciate any support you can give to me.

    Mahalo
    Tessie

    • It is a pretty monstrous book! Have you joined the Guild of Sommeliers? (http://www.guildsomm.com/About-The-Guild.aspx) Great resource!

      • Yes I have and i’ve been reading the study guide. Very helpful. I thought I was ready but unfortunately I did not pass the introductory exam on my first try. I was dissappointed but I realized I had a lot to learn. I am not in the industry so I cannot be too hard on myself. I have been studying since earlier this year to ayyempt anothet try in November of this year. Wish me luck! Any Tips?

        Mahalo

        Tessie

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