This is the first of two posts on the successful completion of wine certifications. Make no mistake; the participation in our weekly wine group has been key to our successes. Enjoy Shannon’s story!

“My debt to you, my God,
Is one I cannot pay
In any coin of any realm
On any reckoning day.” – Jessie Rittenhouse

It is interesting to write this now, when passing the exam on March 29th.  I should have written my story within days. The dazed rapture of joy finally disappeared and the reality of knowing all my hard work paid off finally kicked in. After a long reflection, one should be grateful of failures than successes because they embolden one’s passion for what he or she loves to do in life, aid to create new strategies, and cement discipline in his or her character. Fail Forward.

“Failure should be our teacher,
Not our undertaker, It is a delay.
Not defeat, but it is a temporary
Detour, not a dead-end street.” -William A Ward

Disappointment in Vegas

First, the journey of failure in taking the sommelier exam in Las Vegas, Nevada, in November 2018, was, in a nutshell, a military aptitude test where only the brightest and fittest person will pass. The Master Sommeliers were extremely professional and sharp. We all arrived as scheduled to show our proof of I.D. by 8:00 a.m. A Master Sommelier gives you service test time. There were approximately 35 people there to take the three-part exam. Only 11 passed if my memory serves me correctly.

That session went well, so I thought.

Around 8:25 a.m. Blind tasting of whites and reds began. They gave each person two glasses of whites, two glasses of reds, and four sheets of wine deduction analysis.  A person had 30 minutes to fill out everything on the four sheets. As we waited for instructions, I noticed one man taking selfies of himself, images of the Master Sommeliers, and several of the testers. I thought to myself, this guy needed a guide on etiquette on when not to take pictures. Because who in his right mind would take pictures of himself and maybe others who look like they were about to vomit because the pressure to pass was so intense. A gentleman to my right side wished me good luck on this challenge. I responded the same.

If any federal prison posted job openings for correctional officers, I would write him a letter of recommendation because he scared the hell out of me.

Now, what I won’t forget on the blind tastings was not the wines, but the Master Sommelier, who was walking around acting like a drill sergeant from Fort Bragg Air Bourne Division looking at young recruits who just got off the bus from Idaho. He was commanding and authoritative in his nature; he kept talking to remind us to fill out everything and don’t forget to write your name on the four sheets of paper.  He noticed that people were not placing their names on the sheets of paper and forgetting to write the sales pitch in advocating which foods will pair well with this particular wine. “Put your name on the papers. Aren’t I being nice!”, the Master Sommelier satirically commented as he walked around the tables. When time expired, he ordered pens down; however, some people kept writing. He immediately snatched the sheets underneath them as they kept writing. If any federal prison posted job openings for correctional officers, I would write him a letter of recommendation because he scared the hell out of me. 

Certified Sommelier Pin

Next, the theory exam was distributed. A person had thirty-five minutes to answer a myriad of questions from wines, spirits, wine regions, grapes varietals, the process of wine fermentation, images of appellations and fill in the blanks. That session went well, so I thought. Last, was the wine and champagne service. They allotted time for candidates to have lunch. My time was 3:00 p.m. My wine and champagne service to the Master Sommelier was terrible. Repeat, terrible. I could barely remember anything because Ms. Anxiety was driving like a maniac while I sat in the passenger’s seat who ingested pills of Demerol and chase it down with Red Bull. Needless, to say, I failed. 


Before the announcement of who passed, everyone who participated in the session received a glass of champagne, and one of the Master Sommeliers explained how we were courageous and brave to take the exam because it is difficult and challenging. They commended all of us for doing a good job and they will call out the name who passed. People applauded as names were called. We raised our glasses and congratulated them on a job well done. I believe 11 passed out of 35 participants, but don’t quote me on this. 

For days, I was unhappy with myself because I’d studied for 11 months and still failed. Furthermore, I was sad for others who were there and failed because this was their second or third time taking the Certified Sommelier exam. 

“The key to success is to focus on goals, not obstacles.”-

Corks and Corkscrew

The best part of failing was picking up the evaluation sheets from the Master Sommeliers handwritten comments on what one must improve upon to pass the next time. A word of advice: DON’T WALK AWAY WITHOUT TAKING THE EVALUATION PAPERS THE MASTER SOMMELIERS GRADED YOU.  I read my evaluation sheets several times and created a new strategy: study alone to focus on what Master Sommeliers mentioned, have a great wine group who can give you a plethora of supplemental materials, volunteer at a restaurant to practice service skills, and talk to and be mentored by Certified Sommeliers. Oh, don’t forget to take a day off or two to allow the mind, body, and spirit to find peace. 

Mentally Regrouping

As Christmas passed and New Year rang its bells to expel 2018’s ghosts, I envisioned passing the exam and receiving my pin. In the month of February, I practiced in the mirror my tone of voice and studied two hours a day by using the Guild Somm website and reading the backgrounds of new and old-world wine countries. I studied different types of ports, Madeiras, Sherries, and at least 25 different cocktails.  In March, I gained guidance from Luis de Santos, a Master Sommelier and owner of Mordeo, a restaurant on Spring Mountain in Las Vegas, Nevada. It is a classy and welcoming environment that caters to business people and patrons for casual dining. He refined my skills in champagne service and gave me great advice on how to pour and what to say when Master Sommeliers asked questions. Carl Dillehay, a certified sommelier and an Educateur for the Commanderie de Bordeaux in Las Vegas drilled me for two days in blind tasting, theory, and service.

Restaurant with Wine

In addition, I volunteer at the restaurant Rhythm Kitchen on Decatur and Sunset in Las Vegas. It specializes in Southern, Cajon, and Creole food. The atmosphere has a strong southern ambiance with rich and flavorful foods.  Once a week, I practice my wine and champagne service with customers. Christopher Walker, Event Planner and Manager, is wonderful. He took a risk in allowing me to work with his staff. He trusts his employees to give high-quality service and it shows. The two sommeliers, Patty and Richard, mentor me any chance we can talk. Patty is a professional shark. She is highly sophisticated in knowing her wines and highly versed in anticipating the customers’ needs before they ask. Richard is a natural born teacher, savvy on wines and managing restaurants. Both tutored me days before the exam.

My Wine Group

Yay, Shannon!

Finally, and most importantly, my wine group. In 2017 I joined this small group who are wise in wines and a joy to have in my life.  They nurture my mind and palate with hundreds of wines, ports, and champagne (Note from Irene: and more wines and yelling. Lots of yelling.) This group encourages me to push myself every day. We do blind tasting every Monday and dinners on Sundays to pair wines with the food. I strongly recommend anyone who is thinking about becoming a certified sommelier, to join a wine group. It is fundamental. Without it, one will struggle in passing the exam. From the bottom of my heart thank you, Irene, Richard, Jarlene, Tom, Shuwanda, Carmine, Cecelia, and Andras.  


On March 29th, I passed the Certified Sommelier exam. Only 14 people passed out of 33. I went to the San Jose area in California for a change of venue and to clear my mind. It worked.

On March 29th, I passed the Certified Sommelier exam. Only 14 people passed out of 33.

In short, this test will humble you. I discovered that failure is a great tool to extract the best mental character within to overcome obstacles and reach your objectives. With failures, one is more tolerant of people’s mistakes and can share solid information to people who are making a similar journey and believe they too will achieve their goals. Success has a short shelf life in memory, but failure permeates deeper in memory to help you struggle and grow into a new person and hopefully improve one’s disposition. 


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