I recently took the Court of Master Sommeliers Level 2: Certified Sommelier Exam at the International Culinary Center in New York and am proud to say that I can officially call myself a sommelier – I’ve been tested for wine theory, tasting skills, as well as skills in service. It has been a year and change since I started the journey from wine newbie to wine expert (can I call myself that yet? #ImposterSyndrome), and I wanted to chronicle the journey here. I hope that this post will be helpful for others who may be looking to take the exam, or who are just curious about the process in general.
For some background: Most working sommeliers in New York have at least a Certified Sommelier certification. There are two more levels after Introductory and Certified: at level 3, you are an Advanced Sommelier, and at level 4, you would hold the coveted Master Sommelier title. As of today, there are only 230 Master Sommeliers in the world. The long journey to Master Sommelier begins at level 1, with the Introductory Sommelier course and exam.
My journey officially began in December of 2014. I was traveling to Chicago weekly for work, and one day in the team room the topic of conversation shifted to “best documentaries you’ve seen lately.” My senior manager raved about this one documentary called “SOMM.”
Sound familiar? SOMM chronicles the lives of four sommeliers as they prepare to take the Master Sommeliers exam, which has a ridiculous pass rate of like 5%. Stress, anxiety, drama, and good looking people makes for good television. It’s a great movie even you aren’t into wine.
Anyways, I watched the movie, enraptured the whole time by the fascinating world of knowledge around wine. The somms were able to look at, smell, and taste a wine and name the grape, the region, and even the year. It seemed like magic. After the movie ended, I turned to my boyfriend and said: “If anyone can do this, it’s me.”
Dramatic presumption aside, I knew that this is something I wanted to do and could do. In terms of theory, I am nerdy enough to sit down for hours and dive into encyclopedias of grapes, wine, and geography. For blind tasting, I have always had a sensitive palate. Service? That’s another issue, but we’ll tackle that one as it comes up later. The Introductory Exam only tests theory anyway.
So I immediately went to my computer and signed up for the next exam. (Actually, the next exam was full due to high demand nowadays, so I had to wait for the next exam date to be posted.) June 2015. Awesome, now I have 6 months to get my wine knowledge in tip top shape.
At this point, I had some basic knowledge of wine: I had worked as a bartender during college and I often take wine and beverage classes at the Astor Center. But unless you are systematic about your studying, it is hard to retain the information necessary to pass the exam. Essentially, I was starting from scratch.
The Prep for Level I: Introductory Sommelier Exam
The Court of Master Sommeliers offers a list of helpful study resources. I found the most helpful resources to be the study guides offered on GuildSomm. GuildSomm is an online community for trained and aspiring sommeliers, and your first year’s membership is free when you sign up for the Introductory Sommelier Exam. Also, isn’t it kind of cool to be a member of a Guild?
I printed all of the 21 study guides on GuildSomm and tried to read through one guide every week. Sometimes I had to go back and re-read a study guide as my understanding of wine expanded. I also ordered the Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil which is an informative and fun read. Another crucial resource is the Introductory Sommelier course workbook, which you get access to when you register for the exam. You can print it now, and you will be given a nicely printed and bound copy on day 1 of the course. You can also print out the white/red wine tasting grid for practice whenever you blind taste wine, but it is not crucial at this step.
I’d like to know a bit more about what you are studying here. Help me understand the Level 1 more.
You should be making flashcards as you read! Sometimes it’s all too easy to let your eyes glaze over and think: “Yeah yeah yeah, I got this already.” But when you actually have to name the seven districts of Chianti, you might draw a blank after the first two!
Finding the time to study was actually the hardest part. I used my travel time to and from Chicago to study, and sometimes skipped my morning workout in favor of studying. Weekends, too, were spent taking wine classes around the city and reading more. Carry your flashcards with you so that you can take advantage of those extra 10 minutes on the subway or standing in line.
Overall, this part takes a whole lot of memorization. It takes time to learn the vocabulary of wine. Even when it gets frustrating, remember this: No one is born knowing a lot about wine! Every wine expert today has gotten to where they are through tons of studying. Cut yourself some slack when you can’t automatically associate primitivo to Puglia, and just keep on keeping at it.
Day of the Exam: Introductory Sommelier Course and Exam
The Introductory Sommelier course and exam is a two-day program. The first 1.5 days are spent in intensive review in a classroom format. On the afternoon of the second day, you take a 70 question multiple choice exam for which you need 60% to pass.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is treating the course like a class that will teach you what you need to know. You need to think of the course as a review only. 90% of the studying should be done ahead of time.
Also, the Introductory Exam is pretty all-encompassing of the world of viticulture, wine, and alcoholic beverages. You may have worked in the industry for 10 years, but your knowledge of wine may be limited to only Italian wines because you’ve worked in only Italian restaurants. Basically, don’t take the exam lightly. You need to study to pass.
There were approximately 80 students in my Introductory course. It seems that people who work together at restaurants will sign up to take the exam together. There was also a large group of students who had taken the 10-week Intensive Sommelier Training at the ICC together. The atmosphere was humming with nervous energy, but the groups of people who knew each other made the environment slightly more relaxed. Most of the people I spoke to worked in the hospitality industry; one exception was an accounting student at Fordham and another was a housewife who recently moved to New York from Korea.
My review course was led by a team of five Master Sommeliers, a few of whom are big names in the New York restaurant scene. One of my instructors was one of the stars of SOMM (#fangirl)! The MS are all dressed nicely in business formal (suits or dresses with a blazer), so you may feel underdressed there without a jacket.
With the assistance of PPT slides, the MS’s take turn to review each chapter of the Introductory Sommelier course workbook. They will tell you important things to note (Hint hint: it might be on the exam), so be sure to bring highlighters to mark down the important stuff.
After a few chapters of review, it is time to practice blind tasting. The MS’s lead you through the blind tasting grid, giving clues as to what to look for, and where/how to look for them. You will be asked to stand up and speak about the fruit families, minerality, initial or final conclusion about a wine. The MS are extremely patient and will gently guide you to the right conclusion. It is okay to get things wrong! The blind tasting portion of the review is good practice for your wine education, and it is not tested on the Introductory exam. I repeat: the Introductory exam is theory, only.
Day 2 is a continuation of Day 1, where you continue to work through the course book and practice more blind tastings. The learning portion of the day wraps up with the MS’s doing a mock service exam for champagne service and decanting service. Service is not required for the Introductory Exam, but is required for the Certified Exam.
In the afternoon of Day 2 you take the exam. The exam is a packet of 70 multiple choice questions, of which you have 45 minutes to take and need to get 60% correct to pass. When you finish the exam, you hand in the packet to the examiners and wait for the pin ceremony.
After the waiting period, you are called back into the exam room and each handed a glass of champagne. The examiners announced that the pass rate for our group was on par with the national average of 90%, and announced the name of the highest scorer in the room (he passed with 100%!). The MS’s proceeded to call out the names of those who passed one by one, and asked those to passed to come up to retrieve their pin and diploma.
As you can imagine, the tension in the room is really freakin’ high, and rises exponentially as each name is called and the stack of diplomas dwindles. I was called somewhere in the middle of the pack, and was able to relax and drink my champagne.
The last diploma was handed out, and some people stuck around to ask questions. The people in the ICC Intensive Sommelier Training had the Certified Exam the next day, so I’m sure they were still all a bundle of nerves. The rest of us were able to relax and not think about wine (at least for a little while!)
The Prep for Level 2: Certified Sommelier Exam
Being the woman of action that I am, I returned home and immediately signed up for the Certified Sommelier exam. I knew that I had a big challenge ahead of me, as the Certified Exam tests three separate components: wine theory, blind tasting, and service. You have to pass all three parts at once in order to pass the exam.
Theory was probably going to be the easiest (comparatively) for me, since it is something I can do on my own (mainly) through reading. For this, I purchased a few more books: Windows on the World Complete Wine Course by Kevin Zraly, and Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine by Justin Hammack and Madeline Puckette. I also made a plan to reread the GuildSomm study guides and take more detailed notes.
I found time to study before work and on the weekends, continuing to make flashcards whenever I read. I also downloaded a few amazing wine knowledge quiz apps, which are super helpful for when you only have a few minutes and want something fun to do. My recommendations are: Wine Quiz by the Society of Wine Educators for general wine/spirits knowledge, and WSET Wine Game for geography and learning about famous wine producers.
Between all the time I was able to squeeze together, I probably studied ~3-6 hours every week, ramping up more as it got closer to the exam date.
Blind Tasting is best practiced in a group, since other people can often pick out different components of a wine you tend to miss. At the same time, you need to be tasting with people who are also studying for the exam, as there is a very structure format you need to follow.
My search for a blind tasting group was difficult. Most people who work in the industry already have a tasting group with their coworkers. At first, I posted on GuildSomm hoping to be adopted into an NYC-based tasting group and sent a few emails, and my outreach was sadly gathering dust for weeks. I did a lot of blind tasting on my own, following the grid and trying my best to challenge myself to pick out more minerality and fruit textures, always pushing for more details than what my mind immediately jumped to. I also found a job working weekends at an awesome wine store that lets you taste the wines. Being able to immerse myself in a wine environment for a few days a week really pushed my learning to the next level. I estimate that I probably tasted 4-6 wines a week, always making note of the tasting markers of each wine.
The most important part of blind tasting is to make note of how a wine tastes to you. How you experience a wine might be different from that of your neighbor. Try to associate very specific descriptors with specific wines Example?. Even though on the exam you will have to use the more common descriptors (crushed red raspberries, cooked black plums…etc), having very specific descriptors will help your brain make the connection between wines you’ve tasted and the wine you are blind tasting, and helps you differentiate between wines that are very similar. Some weird descriptors that work for me are: dried fruit leather for zinfandel, cream cheese for merlot…I have heard of “bug spray” for New Zealand wines…these might not work for you, but you get the idea.
After a few months, I received a response from someone who is looking to form a Certified Level tasting group, and between the 8 people who are on the email chain, we had enough to run a weekly tasting group with 3-4 people. It was amazing to learn from people who are all so focused and dedicated to the exam. Most people in my tasting group work in hospitality: one is a beverage manager at a large hotel, one is a floor manager at a high-end restaurant, one works in retail wine sales, and another person works in compliance but took the 10 week ICC course to break into the wine industry. On breaks between flights of wine, we would pepper each other with theory questions made up from our own studying. I recommend timing yourself as you do blind tasting with the grid, as the blind tasting exam will also be timed. Around 6-8 minutes per wine is what you should aim for at the Certified level.
A few months into my wine store job, I began to teach evening classes on wine tasting. Being a teacher was immensely helpful in my studying process. Not only did I have to know the material like the back of my hand, I also had to think of ways to make the material interesting and easy to remember. I made up acronyms and shapes to help with remembering regions and geography. (BEBE’S Double Ds is still my favorite for remembering the sweetness level of Champagne, which are Brut Zero, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-sec, Doux) I loved passing on my knowledge of wine to my students, which only inspired me to learn even more.
Service was, and still is the part of the exam I am most worried about. I had no previous experience with tableside service, and had always left the champagne popping to other people in fear of losing an eye.
On the service exam, you have to conduct beverage service for a MS examiner and his/her table of imaginary guest in the imaginary environment of an upscale restaurant. Technically either Champagne service or decanting service can be tested, but I have never seen or heard of someone being tested for decanting service. As you perform the Champagne service, you will be asked rapid-fire questions on Champagne houses, tête de cuvées, wine and food pairing, wine producers, beer, spirits, and cocktails.
Here is a list of things I did to practice service:
· Reach out to friends who work as servers to get their help, set up dates to practice service with them.
· Order a round tray, a set of champagne glasses, a stack of cloth serviettes/napkins, coasters
· Order two cases of cava (prosecco is fine, too)
· Watch this awesome video by MS Bobby Stuckey that shows you exactly what champagne service entails.
· Create and memorize a wine list – complete with producer and vintage
· Practice, practice, practice. Practicing with a live audience is best.
I was abysmal at opening bottles at first. The sparkling wine had a mind of its own and would explore out of the bottle! Many kitchen floors were ruined. At one point I was convinced that my hand wasn’t strong enough, and started working with a rubber stress ball to increase finger strength (Later I actually had to switch my technique and use my dominant hand for more strength in holding the cork. In most service demonstrations, people used their dominant hand to twist the body of the bottle. I found it much easier to use my dominant hand to hold/twist the cork). I recommend practicing with room temperature bottles, because once you master those, opening cold bottles would be a breeze.
Be prepared to give recommendations for wine based on a certain dish. I highly recommend getting any opportunity to practice wine service with an audience. Recruit your friends with the promise of free wine! Things always seem a lot calmer and controlled when you are practicing alone, but having an audience best simulates the actual test environment because they can always throw a wrench in your pre-planned answers. Practice setting glasses on the table. Practice pouring even pours into 2, 4, 6, 8, glasses. Always pour less than you think you want to pour. There should always be wine left in the bottle after you have served all your guests in case someone wants to revisit the wine. Practice walking silently with a tray of flutes, you want to look like you’ve done this a hundred times before!
There will be way more opened bottles of wine than you can reasonably drink, which is an unfortunate and wasteful fact of champagne service practice when you don’t work in a restaurant. Don’t fear, we can find a couple uses for the wine: 1. Obvi, drinking it. 2. You can use leftover champagne for cooking, when it goes flat, it is essentially white wine. 3. Also, freezing in mini-cubes could be another use (like ice for a cocktail or sangria). 4. Champagne showers, literally.
Day of the Exam: Certified Sommelier Exam
The Certified Sommelier Exam is a one-day affair that begins at 8am and ends around 3:30pm. I was working off a bad cold that day, and could barely taste anything. I considered not showing up for the exam, but decided to go and make a learning experience out of it. Plus, I had already paid and had slim chances of getting a refund.
Remember to dress nicely! Most people wore suits. I chose to go with a dress with pockets and a blazer. And don’t forget your pin from the Introductory exam.
Everyone waited in the hallway at the ICC for the doors to the exam room to open. I recognized a few faces from my Introductory course, but mainly kept to myself to review my flashcards one last time. It took a while for the group to assemble and check in, and we were let into the exam room around 9am.
Once you enter the room and sit down, there are already two wines poured in front of you. One white and one red. You have 45 minutes to finish both the blind tasting and theory exams, so be sure to allocate your time well. You start with the blind tasting and fill out the grid for both the white and the red, once you finish with the grids, you can raise your hand, and an MS examiner will come bring you your theory exam packet.
We are not allowed to discuss the wines, and the wines will never even be revealed even after the exam. No one will ever know if they were 100% right! I wasn’t able to taste very well, but the characteristics in the two wines were strong enough that I was able to take very good guesses. At the Certified level, the wines will be very typical examples of recognizable wines. The examiners will call out the amount of time that has passed to help you stay on track. I recommend spending ~7-8 minutes on each wine, but if you are very confident about theory, you can always allocate more time to tasting.
I had a little less than 25 minutes to finish the 40 question exam. In addition to multiple choice, there were also short answer and matching questions. There was a good distribution of questions between old world and new world, but I still felt like I studied all the wrong stuff! The exam questions were quite difficult and the people I spoke to after the exam agreed that theory was the hardest part of the exam that day.
I have shared a mini-quiz below. Of course, these are not real exam questions, but they should give you a good sense of the type of questions on the exam (keeping in mind that the test changes regularly).
- Who produces (insert name of prestigious wine) and where?
- What are two mistakes on this wine list?
- Matching a list of grapes to a list of geographic regions. (i.e. Chardonnay – Chablis)
- 1-2 questions on sake, beer, and liquors around the world. (You might get some oddball questions here like: What is the main ingredient in X?)
I filled out all the answers and felt like it wasn’t helpful to over think the answers any longer, so I handed in my exam, but quite a few people stayed for the full duration of time. As you hand in your exam, the MS examiner gives you the time that you should come back for your service exam. Mine was around 11:40am, so I had some time to kill and grabbed lunch.
Based on the fact that I couldn’t taste anything, and the fact the theory exam was such a struggle, I was pretty sure that I had failed already, which, oddly, made me really calm. A group of 6 of us huddled outside the exam room, where an MS gave us information on the setting and the customer. Make sure you have all your supplies ready to do service! The Court of Master Sommeliers conveniently provides a list of all you need in the FAQ section.
I think the thing that helped me the most during this part of the exam was staying so calm. I was asked cocktail and spirits questions right away, which I didn’t expect, but also was not thrown off my feet. I was then asked to bring over the champagne. But wait! Don’t forget to set the table first and put down your coasters.
I still hadn’t gotten the full hang of opening champagne silently, and my bottle popped way louder than it was supposed to. In keeping with the “heart-of-stone” level of calmness, I just pretended like it never happened, and proceed to continue with the rest of service.
After champagne service, I fielded some questions on food and wine pairings and more liquors. Name a producer of X, name another producer, what is the main flavoring ingredient in X? You don’t know? Take a guess. I took a guess. I then missed a few more questions, but I always apologized and offered to come back with an answer. And before I knew it, the MS said: “You’re done.” And only then did I realized that 4/6 of us had already finished and returned to the door, and I was the second-to-last one to wrap up. Doh! I forgot to ask to remove the cork from the table.
As we walked away from the exam room, we traded notes on our service exams. I announced to the group that the absurdly loud pop came from me.
“Oh really? That was so loud, my MS stopped to take a look.” Oops, that really can’t be good.
We were asked to come back at 3pm for the ceremony, so I had a long break. I didn’t want to make my cold worse by going outside, so I just hung out in the ICC hallway and watched other people study and prepare.
The moment of truth came around 3:15pm. We were let into the exam room and handed glasses of champagne. My cold had gotten worse, so I just huddled in the back in my jacket, ready to slip away after they announced the names of those who passed.
The person who received the highest score on the exam was given a scholarship for $500 to continue his pursuit of wine education. The MS’s told us that our group had a pass rate of slightly under 50%, which is below the national average. Then the MS’s announced the names who passed one by one.
Some people screamed when they were called, some people burst out in tears of relief. I just stood silently in the back.
By some stroke of luck, I heard my name! It felt so surreal to me as I walked forward to receive my pin and diploma. I was in such shock that I could barely react, except the hand that was holding my diploma was visibly shaking.
After all the names have been called, everyone (regardless of pass/fail) receives an envelope with notes on how we can improve. For service, I was told to practice opening bottles silently and to walk silently when carrying a tray of glasses – no “clinking noises.” For tasting, I was told to practice identifying grape varieties.
I was elated to say the least, I said thank you to the MS who did my service exam, and sipped away my glass of bubble in celebration (not the best idea for a cold). Other students stuck around, make phone calls, took pictures, and a group went out to celebrate at a bar down the street.
I had to take a long cold walk after exiting the ICC just to wrap my head around what happened. What if this was a mistake and they accidentally read my name? It took a full week for me to accept the fact that I had passed.
After a year and change of studying, drinking, and dropping glasses, I had finally earned my way to a purple pin. So what’s next? I’m still not sure yet myself. But for now, I have been forever designated “person who orders wine for the table.” And it’s not such a bad job so far. 🙂