The Certified Sommelier exam consists of three parts: a blind tasting exam, the theory exam, and the service exam. Much more intimidating to a guy whose restaurant experience involves washing dishes six years ago – and though the average pass rate isn’t too scary, ~60% is enough to have you doubt everything, because even at this level there’s a lot of material. There are brilliant, brilliant people I met this day who’ve spent oodles more time in the wine industry than I have and didn’t pass.
Balance seemed important – there was one intelligent fellow who already had the WSET Diploma, which requires you to know a VAST amount of information on wine (and it’s something I’m only in the middle of) – yet he didn’t pass. Neither did some folks who seemed waist-deep in the restaurant industry (and they’re tall!) for years of their life. It’s a tricky exam, in a folding-a-fitted-sheet-while-drunk sort of way. A crux of mine, for example, is being younger and having less life experience – this means that I’ve tasted a lot less than a lot of other wine students. I endlessly jest about how this gives me an excuse to open more wine all the time, and I really should because I’m 22 and I feel like I’ll skew a statistic if I don’t drink more to keep up with the frat boys.
Compared to WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust), the CMS (Court of Master Sommeliers) is a more verbal and service-oriented type of program, i.e. something horrifyingly dissimilar enough to pique interest yet make me a sweaty and nervous beast. The Certified exam follows the Intro level and is the precursor to the Advanced Sommelier certification (~25% pass rate), which in turn is the precursor to the Master Sommelier certification (~10% pass rate; only 219 globally and only 140 in North America) à la Somm. Each level is mountains more difficult than the previous.
Perhaps I woke up earlier than I needed to at 5:30AM, but there was the unfortunate coincidence that my head needed shaving that day, since my head-shaving schedule is probably one of the only things in life I’m weirdly consistent about. After getting all suited up, I cabbed over to the Art Institute and was led into a waiting area of dapper students in suits and skirts, half of us attempting to study last minute and a small proportion of us wondering if small talk was the greatest idea at 8AM on a Monday. It turns out that most of us weren’t local, with a huge chunk of candidates coming from other parts of Canada or the USA.
Soon the room was full of around twenty people and we lazily checked in while we were given our scheduled times for our service exam. The tasting and theory portions were to be taken together, with a combined 45 minutes to blindly taste two wines and complete a 40-question theory exam. And so we entered the grey and stony test room which was adorned with a few chalkboards on wheels: familiar, since I was in this room no longer than half a year prior, having completed a hellish sparkling and fortified wine exam for the WSET diploma. This time we were facing the other direction, and there were more suits and ties which blanketed the room in a bit of an eerily somber atmosphere. As per almost every exam, there was the one latecomer who arrived just in time. And so we begun.
Tasting was double-edged. After we scribbled our names on the test papers, I had the sudden realization that I forgot to have a swish of wine (Cava from the previous night) before I left the house in an attempt to neutralize my palate which was bastardized with coffee and toothpaste. Remnants of peppermint remained in the corners of my mouth, but the first sniff of the first wine had me cocky. The combination of green apple, lemon, lime, slate, and bits of petrol subjectively equated Riesling to me – if it was sweet on the palate it was most likely a Riesling from Germany; but if dry, a Riesling from the Clare or Eden Valley in Southern Australia. I was sure they wouldn’t trick us further than that. It indeed was sweet, so I filled in the rest of the blanks and went with my gut. I later learned that my answer was popular amongst others, though there were ballsy guesses of Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley, and I think I heard someone say they guessed Pinot Gris.
The red was more cryptic. I tried to break it down into steps: there was black fruit rather than red fruit, some savoury spice, and perhaps some oak. Structure was a bit tricky. Acidity was medium, tannins were in the medium to medium-plus range, and alcohol was medium-plus to high – all hinting towards a new world or warmer region. Later, panicked discussion showed that this was the general consensus for non-flavour parameters, and it definitely made sense for an aged new world Syrah/Shiraz. For some reason my groggy gut told me to go for a moderately-aged old world Syrah, which made less sense in theory because of the oak and structure – though some others ventured guesses of new world Cabernet Sauvignon and Italian Sangiovese. There might have been a guess of Bordeaux here or there. Regardless, I decided that I had most definitely goofed this one.
The sucky part is that at every level, no matter the Certified, Advanced, or Master – the identity of the wines are never revealed. It’s spooky. Afterwards, though, we collectively attempted to figure out the right answer with our exam feedback forms like some sort of difficult and alcoholic newspaper puzzle.
And just like that, I was pretty sure I wasted too much time on tasting, which they warned us about. Luckily, I found theory relatively easy because I think that I prepared well. Memorizing the 73 DOCGs of Italy, for example, was admittedly fun as much as it was a crazy and daunting task. As luck would have it, there was a question asking about the dominant grape variety in the quasi-obscure Gattinara DOCG: it was like bumping into some random acquaintance whose name you definitely don’t remember. Gattinara was familiar enough that I knew it existed, but just fuzzy enough that I was sure it was also some type of pasta noodle. I eventually did my best to recall the DOCGs of Piedmonte in northwestern Italy – which felt like squeezing the last bits of toothpaste out of the tube – and ventured the mostly-sure guess that Gattinara was based on the Nebbiolo grape. I mean, hey. Nebbi-YOLO. Gotta go for it.
The rest of the theory portion was relatively fun in a nerdy sense, like an astronomer naming off stars in the Milky Way or a pianist naming off all the nocturnes written in major keys composed by Chopin. But it wasn’t without some toughies – like not being able to name three Napa Valley AVAs (which I feel like is blasphemous); not knowing the correct declared port vintage given a choice of four; not knowing what region Vega Sicilia came from (uggggGGHHHHH); or not knowing which specific appellation that three listed Loire producers belonged to. But hey – I got the Burgundy appellation questions correct, thanks to the fact that I take the opportunity to talk to invisible people at work while doing Burgundy inventory on slow empty mornings. While dancing.
There was a question on Smaragd, which at this point is an inside joke within the wine industry. Do it. Just throw it into conversation one day. You don’t even have to know what it means, but wine people will be intrigued that you’ve even come across the term somehow and somewhere, like some sort of Austrian equivalent of Valar Morghulis. Just memorize the definition and claim you heard Meryl Streep or Venus Williams use it once.
All in all, theory was relatively painless. You need 60 percent to pass in all sections, which means that you can afford to get 16 questions incorrect on the theory portion. I counted only eight questions that I was unsure of, so I was confident – something to balance out the shitfest that was the tasting portion. Some people felt conversely and thought the tasting went better for them.
I had a break until my service exam at 10:20AM, so I had the opportunity to meet other candidates, including a couple of people from Alberta, some from California, a guy from Kelowna, and another guy from Seattle. I knew a couple of people that were from the Vancouver wine scene, so it was great to see some friendly faces. From what I gathered, most of our group worked in the hospitality industry, as expected. A few weren’t in the trade at all, and it was only another Albertan and I (that I knew of) who represented retail. Most of us went to the local Starbucks to drink coffee, eat muffins, and freak out: decaf for me, because the last thing I wanted to do was feed my clumsiness, because God and everyone knows I’ve definitely broken the most wine bottles out of everyone I work with, so much that if any montage of it existed, it would probably last as long as a single Friends episode.
I think that I prepped well for service. Not having worked on the floor was my biggest weakness to the entire exam, but practicing with my wine mentor Robert (also an Advanced Sommelier) really got my spirits up to the point where I was looking forward to this part of the day. I also know next to nothing about cocktails – so to cover my bases, I memorized the ingredients to what I deemed were the 95 most common cocktails. 95 was probably too much and mostly unnecessary, but it becomes really fun once you convince yourself that cocktails are the alcoholic Harry Potter equivalent to learning about potions.
Robert’s main advice? Smile. And breathe.
Service is definitely the hardest part because it’s action-based, but at the same time, you have control over what happens. You can’t do much about not knowing the answer to something on an exam, but there’s always an opportunity to recover from some sort of blunder during service. Having a strong knowledge base is important, but it’s also important to know what you don’t know. Though I’m sure that makes sense, I wouldn’t be surprised if I accidentally stole that last sentence from a banal motivational seminar in university.
The exam room aimed to emulate a small restaurant: there were three tables, each one with a Master Sommelier and three invisible people. We entered in groups of three: each of us got a main table and a side station with equipment, while the fictional maître d’ gave us instructions – my respective Master Sommelier was Chris Tanghe. Thankfully we were in one of the brighter rooms covered in art, unlike that other modern torture space that was perhaps literally fifty shades of grey.
I was less shaky than I thought I would be, so all that practice involving talking to my broken swivel chair definitely prepped me well for this moment. The meticulous sommelier modus operandi seemed to be going swell, though the first slip-up came when I was delivering the four glasses and underliner to the table: in the midst of putting down the third sparkling wine flute, I realized that they tried to trick me by leaving dirty glasses on the table. So, something came out of my mouth like “sorry, I didn’t realize there were dirty glasses on the table; would you like me to remove them for you?” and just like Neo in the Matrix, bullets – though slow and woollen – were dodged. I removed the dirty glassware, then carried the ice bucket and wine over to the table. All with an ugly and scrunched oh-god-oh-god face, I’m sure, like the first time a doctor has ever performed surgery.
Opening the bottle of sparkling wine (which in the fictional setting, was supposed to be 1996 Krug) was relatively painless, though the corks of the bottles were a bit difficult to remove, with some other candidates in other time slots saying that they needed help from the maître d’. As I was attempting to unleash the cork, Chris commented on how it was a difficult one – I attempted to crack a joke and responded with the very true comment that I wasn’t exactly the biggest jock in high school. The cork released bit of a present sigh as if it was mocking my affinity for wind instruments rather than basketballs, then came the muscle memory: cage in the back pocket, present the cork on the underliner, serviette in the left hand. All throughout the process he asked me what restaurant I work at in order to test my flow and concentration, and I made some stuff up about how this restaurant has been open for 10 years, how I’ve been working here for 5, and we mainly serve American food with some Asian influence, or whatever. For all I know, I probably also blabbered nervously about my life hopes, the colour of my underwear, and my favourite Spice Girl.
Pouring was relatively painless though I forgot to wipe the lip before the first pour (he didn’t seem to notice), and everything else seemed fine. They try to throw wrenches: he told me that four other people were to join him later, so I fetched four other glasses, filled them up at the side table, and was ordered to walk around the room with the tray in one hand as his attempt to examine my poise. I’m glad I borrowed a serving tray from a restaurant near work for practice (apparently they accidentally lent me the best serving tray out of the ones they had), because I’m sure that I’m about as graceful as a Denny’s Grand Slam – and Tyra Banks has prepared me well. Let’s be real here: there really should have been music in that room.
Then came the questions: what would be a nice old world and new world wine pairing of the same grape variety, for a risotto with spring peas? I definitely like to go with a wine that mirrors the creamy texture, I told him, but the spring peas add a bit of a grassier component. During training, Robert advised me to suggest wines that I was personally excited or passionate about, and so I did: I got nerdy about the 2011 Puzelat-Bonhomme Cheverny Blanc from the Loire Valley in France (which also just sounds semi-impressive when you say it fast), which is 90 percent Sauvignon Blanc and 10 percent Menu Pineau, and I explained its typical ripe grapefruit grassiness with the odd but delicious honeyed and textured mid-palate. My new world example was the 2013 Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, for something with more zip and pungency.
After dinner, he’d like a botrytised dessert wine that wasn’t Sauternes, he said, so I went with a Coteaux du Layon: the 2011 Château de la Roulerie. I actually wasn’t sure how much botrytis character it had nor have I actually tasted it, but I fawned over the bottle once or twice, and it was the only thing I could think of in that short moment, so I went for it. He then said he’d like some cream sherry, so I suggested both the Alvear and the El Maestro Sierra, the latter being a smaller producer. “From where?” he asked, and I said southwestern Spain in Jerez. Hair flip and wind machine.
And then of course came the spirits and cocktail portion. We were only told to give the base spirit for the cocktails that we were asked about, but I thought it would be a waste to not do the whole shebang especially after having covered my entire kitchen with cocktail flash cards just the previous night – so I gave the full recipes to both the Gibson and French 75 which seemed easy enough. He then asked me what Campari tasted like and where it was from – I used some ridiculous phrase like “it begins sweet but finishes with a runway of bitterness down the mid-palate” (which I will continue to use by the way). The task of naming an amaro and its place of origin seemed mechanical (Amaro Montenegro, from Italy), but then he quizzed me on Strega, which sounded like it was either an Italian liqueur or a brand of birth control. I decided to be safe and quickly defaulted to “unfortunately I don’t know where that’s from, but I’d be more than happy to ask the bartender for you.” I think that they mark you on flow, tact, and confidence, so I decided that less hesitation was better.
I’m sure that’s all that happened. Before dismissing me, he asked me how to pronounce my last name which I decided was a good sign since – horrifyingly – they read the names of the students that pass at the end of the day out loud. I looked up and saw that the other two students in my group were facing the walls as instructed (what is this, the Blair Wine Project?!) and thusly I realized that I was the last one to have finished in my group – I wasn’t sure what that meant, if anything at all. We exited, went downstairs, and the other students who were waiting for their turn perked up from being melted onto the black and red half-sphere chairs. The students who were finished shared woes: one student accidentally dropped the cork, one mistook Sercial as a cocktail, one had to answer questions about coffee service, and another had no idea what a Cape Codder was. I felt good, but I wasn’t sure if I had already bombed the tasting so much that it didn’t matter if my service score was perfect. “I’ll literally laugh if they call my name”, one student proclaimed. (They ended up calling his name, he indeed laughed, and we all clapped for him wildly.)
The weather was like horrid rain just before a grape harvest, but some of us went to a nearby bar for beers and lunch. We had a couple of hours before we were told to report back for results, and a lower-proofed stout for a cold day and an empty yet non-hungry stomach seemed like the right choice. It was still raining, though less so, on our way back.
We got back to the Art Institute and waited until they brought us into the room where we performed our service exams. There were around twenty large orange envelopes with each candidate’s name on the table to our left, which we would soon learn contained a sheet of results and feedback regardless of whether or not we passed. We were also all given a glass of Franciacorta while the Master Sommeliers stood at the front and began our mini ceremony. Apparently we were consistent with the national average pass rate: only around 60% of us passed. A candidate and I caught a glimpse of a certificate with another candidate’s name on it, and we simultaneously turned to look at him with big grins on our faces, but he didn’t seem to notice what we saw.
Coincidentally, he was the first one that was called. I was called somewhere in the middle and accidentally let out an obnoxious-sounding “yeahhh!” mostly because of the very decent pronunciation of my last name. I went to get my pin, shook some hands, and attempted to absorb some aura from Chris and the two other Master Sommeliers, Brett Zimmerman and Jennifer Huether (!!!).
Eventually we mingled for a bit and took some photos – Chris told me my service was really strong, to my surprise – but much to his surprise, I told him that I’ve never worked the floor before. Indeed, the only substantial service criticism according to my feedback sheet was that I should watch where I point the bottle, but hey – that’s a problem I face in more than one aspect of life, bottles or otherwise. Tasting was my weak point, as per my not-so-psychic prediction.
Some of us exchanged contact information, and we slowly trickled out of the building. A grungy old man stopped in his tracks because he saw a group of us suited folks holding large orange envelopes. He muttered something inaudible, and exclaimed (perhaps drunkenly) that he hoped that we all passed. Thank you, old man.
Thankfully the rain had stopped, and some of us decided to go out for post-exam cocktails, bubbles, and bits and bites at Uva. Soon afterwards I went home (not without falling asleep on the bus in a suit while wearing my pin), took a nap, and had a celebratory half-bottle of Taittinger Nocturne that I had been saving for such an occasion. I was exhausted. But I opened it correctly, of course.