I, Sommelier – My Introductory Sommelier Exam Adventure

Court of Master Sommeliers Introductory Sommelier Pin

Court of Master Sommeliers Introductory Sommelier Pin

I have been largely absent during the past few weeks because I have been studying for the Court of Master Sommeliers Introductory Sommelier exam. Yes, I “overstudied,” as The Wineaux Guy™ would say. And, yes, I passed. I learned a lot of valuable lessons during the course of those two days, and I’d like to share some important things that I learned. Some of the lessons were not only learned during the course of the two days, but I discovered a few things on my way to the actual exam. The exam was moderated and conducted by several Master Sommeliers, including Jason Smith, the Wine Director at the Bellagio.

  1. Flashcards are important. That being said, I discovered that some of the flashcards in some of the flashcard sites weren’t always accurate. For instance, because I know what I know, I realized that a series of flashcards on France – that had started off accurate and promising – suddenly took a 180˚turn and inaccurately put several Right Bank areas of Bordeaux firmly into the Left Bank. Because I know Bordeaux, I caught the errors immediately. Someone who’s studying and trying to learn this information would be horribly misled. That being said, there are also sites that have flashcards/flashcard-like resources that are very accurate and quite valuable. I will share those at the end of the post. So my advice would be to make your own flashcards. It’s the best way to go anyway in order to lock the knowledge into your brain.
  2. You will not pass if you do not study beforehand. Period. If you don’t know more than the basics, you will not do well. While the two-day course led by Master Sommeliers sounds like it would lay a solid foundation for you, that’s only partially true. The foundation that will be laid and focused upon is following the Court’s tasting grid. We went over that again and again, and that seemed to be the main focus of the Masters. That was my main purpose in going because I wanted to get the grid down cold because I will be taking the Certified Sommelier exam in about six months. I can’t emphasize this enough. You have to know your stuff. While they say that this course has a 90% pass rate, I would guess that out of a little over 250 people, only about half actually passed.
  3. There’s a workbook that’s supplied when you sign up for the course/exam. Download it and read through it. It is essentially in an outline and review format and doesn’t provide a ton of information, but it will let you know where you need to study. In addition, the Court supplies resources on its site and lists the books that you need to read for the Certified level. Read them.
  4. The Masters will lie to you. I’m saying this with a smirk, because we all discovered that just because they say that there’s a particular factoid that you “don’t need to know now, but will need to know for the next levels,” doesn’t mean that you won’t find it on the exam anyway. There were a couple of obscure questions about soils that stumped me, (“Dammit! There goes my 100%!”) when I know that they said that we needed to know this stuff later. That means pay attention to everything. I immediately bought a book on vineyard soils. Not only will the information be valuable to me for my future, but I will never be stumped on a soils question again.
  5. Don’t go to the bathroom except during break. I had a very pressing need that I took during the discussion on Spain. I know that I missed two questions on Spain as a result. And yes, I now have a book on Spain (thank you Amazon.com and Kindle!) so that won’t happen again.

While these are my major pointers, there’s a lot more, of course. And the resources are easily available, so there’s no excuse, really. I have a Kindle and an iPad, and I carry one of them with me everywhere. Immediately after the exam and I realized my weak areas, I purchased and installed a couple of books that will be added to the others that I already have. I did that because I tend to have OCD leanings when it comes to reading and studying, and while you may find that it’s not necessary for you, for me it’s essential.

If you know your stuff, you will know where you missed. I know a lot and I know the questions that I got wrong. One was on saké, two on Spain, two on soils (I know I got the other soils question correct), and one on Australia. All of the others I knew cold, but those six kept me out of the top scoring spot. You do not learn your scores or what you got wrong or right, but you have to have 60% of the 70 questions correct in order to pass, which means you have to have 43 correct. My happy over-achiever psyche is gnashing because I really do want to know where I finished. I’m used to 90s and above, so this makes me crazy. But don’t get me wrong…I passed! I’m happy!

When we were standing outside of the ballroom waiting for our exam results – the two-day course took place in the Monet I and Monet II rooms at the Bellagio – I used my Society of Wine Educators Kindle edition to look up answers to questions. For instance, the highest vineyards in the world are located where? Several people had chosen Casablanca, Chile, and I had chosen Mendoza, Argentina. Well, because of my handy little Kindle, we all discovered that it was indeed Mendoza. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

So now that I’m sporting this really neat little pin, what’s next?

Well, in about three months I will be testing for the Certified Specialist of Wine credential through the Society of Wine Educators. In about six months I plan to test for Certified Sommelier. Because the French Wine Scholar through the French Wine Society is self-study, I will decide when to test for that later. There are no courses for that locally, unfortunately.

My ultimate goal, Certified Wine Educator, will probably have to wait until 2015. That will require a lot more focus and knowledge about the minutiae of regions, history, crus, and science than even the Sommelier exams, and has approximately the same pass rate as the Advanced Sommelier level through the Court. I am still toying with taking the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) Level 2 exam, which is a three-day course and testing event. If I do it, I will have to fit it in after the Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Barbara in July, when I will be using all of my personal time from The Day Job™. I think that is a very valuable credential to have because that will lead you on the way to the Master of Wine should you choose to go that route. By the way, there are only about five people who hold both the Master Sommelier and Master of Wine credentials. I can’t even begin to describe the respect I have for these guys.

Okay, as I promised, here are some of the resources that I found valuable. They will only be valuable to you if you use them.

The Reference Books:

World Atlas of Wine
Oxford Companion to Wine
Sotheby’s Wine Encylopedia

None of those are meant to be *read* per se, but are valuable for reference. However, for the CWE, I will need to know them cold, so I will be actually reading them. Argh.

The Readable Books

Grapes & Wines
Sommelier Prep Course
Windows of the World Complete Wine Course
The Wine Bible
Great Wine Made Simple
University Wine Course

These are all readable reference books, and the WofW and Sommelier Prep Course both have questions at the end of each chapter. I didn’t find these books particularly challenging, per se, but I did get a lot of value at the end of the chapters which made me go back and read from the reference guides to fill in the empty spots of my knowledge.

New Purchases, mostly just thumbed through

The Saké Handbook
The Complete Book of Spirits
Understanding Vineyard Soils
Spanish Wine Guide
Wine Faults: Causes, Effects, Cures
Tasting Beer: An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Best Beverage

I have several more books, but can’t tell you their value just yet.

Online

The Bubbly Professor
The Court of Master Sommeliers (tasting grid available)
Society of Wine Educators (some info on reading resources)
The Cal Poly Grapevine
Professional Friends of Wine

There are lots more, of course, but because I have a great deal more study to do, I needed to pare everything down to something that I could reasonably access that held the most value.

This whole thing has been quite humbling. I was already pretty knowledgeable about wines, but along with the course I took last year at the College of Southern Nevada and the California Wine Appellation Specialist course and exam, I quickly realized that while I knew what I knew, I found out that I needed to know a heck of a lot more!

And for those of you who may be wondering, out of approximately 250 candidates, there were only five of us of African descent (one guy from actual Africa!), and we all passed. I was the only black woman. So that makes me challenge myself above and beyond what is sane. That’s okay. I’m good with that.

Stay tuned… there’s a heck of a lot more to come!

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