It’s a word that strikes fear in the hearts of those who have to pronounce it: Sommelier (SOM mel YAY). French for “wine butler,” this person is in charge of wine at a restaurant and can be your sherpa, guiding you through a dauntingly complicated wine list.
Like so many other professions, sommeliers are a mixed breed. There are poseurs who think reading one book and attending a class creates an expert, and then there are the real sommeliers, who have studied the juice for years, taken the official exams and are the true studs (and studettes).
The Court of Master Sommeliers, an internationally recognized nonprofit organization established in 1969, separates these professional wine geeks with three certification courses and exams: Introductory, Advanced and Master.
Any Joe can sit for the Intro, but you must show years of wine service experience to take the Advanced and Master exams. In addition to demonstrating the right way to clip a Havana cigar and cite obscure wine laws, these exams incorporate a grueling blind tasting of six wines, where you must correctly name (or at least argue your choice) the grape varieties, country, appellation and vintage.
Graham Thomson, Director of Wine and Spirits at Epicurean Life, a culinary center in Sarasota, is in the midst of the Master Sommelier certification process. He has passed all but one section of the highest level – the blind tasting. The Master plateau is the bitch. Oral instead of written, the test gives seconds to answer each question a panel throws at you. If you don’t know the answer, you can’t skip it, then go back and ponder it – you suck it up and take the ego hit.
The difficulty of the exam shows in the numbers. The pass rate for the Advanced is around 10 percent and is even less for the Master level. And there are only 120 Master Sommeliers in the world, identified by the M.S. after their names. So why do it? Thomson said studying for the exams, “forced me to learn about the wine regions of the world that I never really looked at before, like Austria and Portugal… It filled in the gaps of my knowledge.” And he has seen many more opportunities, like being invited to speak at Walt Disney World and at various wine conferences around the country.
So why do we care? It tends to keep the charlatans out of the industry by establishing a common level of professionalism and knowledge, but it also gives people in the wine industry a hard-earned badge of honor. When I meet a Master Sommelier, it’s like Yoda has come to me. I sponge for knowledge.
What about people like myself who don’t test well? In college, I got a D in Psychology 101 – the exams were designed to weed out folks like me. I’ve been scared of standardized tests ever since. So, when it comes to my wine cred, I haven’t exactly been motivated to get abused by a piece of paper.
Ultimately, there are far more professional sommeliers without the magical M.S. than with it. You’ll find these people with their bookcases stacked with Jancis Robinson and Andrea Immer texts, words like “gruner” and “appellation” flowing freely from their mouths, and a smile on their face when you order something other than chardonnay.