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How to Pass the Sommelier Exam - Level One

Tuesday, October 5, 2010
This past weekend, I joined 100 other Sommeliers-in-training to take the Court of Master Sommeliers Level 1 Course and Exam. It culminated with a 75 question test on Sunday evening that determines whether you pass Level One and can continue on to Level Two to become certified as a Master Sommelier. I am thrilled to have passed the test after two grueling days of blind taste evaluations and wine theory taught by Master Sommeliers - a course that easily could have been taught over a semester or two yet was crammed into two 10 hour days, which began at 8:00 am sharp. While I think the Court of Master Sommeliers is a great organization, I was shocked at how difficult it was to find out information about taking the test to get certified. Even the teachers of the course admitted that there is not much information or formal prep courses/classes available out there to offer guidance and preparation for Somm wannabies like myself, so I thought I’d share a general overview of my personal experience and recommendations for preparing for the course here.

The Level One Course is the only level of the Sommelier Certification process that actually offers and also required you to attend a class. Though several certified sommeliers I know told me that the class covers everything you will need to know to pass the first test, I found this to be a fallacy and want to highly advise anyone interested in taking this test to prepare themselves thoroughly in advance of the two-day classand use the classes as a review session. My recommendation is to read all the required reading material then perhaps flashcards or periodically quiz yourself - notably on the specific grape varietals, styles of wine production, country-specific classification system and famous wine producers in each region around the world. I also advise you to seek out classes on your own to practice tasting andidentifying wines (sight, nose, palette, final deduction of what the wine is when conducting a blind tasting).

Our class was held at the Hotel Monaco in San Francisco, and I was fortunate to sign up for as soon as the class became available - the California classes, which are typically offered 2-3 times per year, fill up extremely quickly! Students are required to dress up business casual to attend the classes and the teachers, all Master Sommeliers, take themselves seriously and expect you to take yourself and the class seriously, so it’s not a good idea to plan on going out the night before or during the two-day exam! The class course covers wine theory from countries around the world - France, Italy, Spain and the Unites States (the 4 biggest wine producers inthe world in that order), and then Germany, Portugal, Austria, Hungary, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, and Greece. It also covers beer, spirits and sake, food and wine pairing, and wine service. Be sure to get a good night sleep because this is A LOT of information to learn in two days and you will need to pay attention to and absorb all of it. The class lectures are broken up by blind tastings, which are done four wines at a time intermittently throughout the day. I would recommend taking some classes or doing some blind tasting ahead of time, because you will likely be asked to stand up in front of the class with a microphone and discuss the qualities of the wine you are tasting, so you definitely want to be as comfortable as possible with this prior to arriving at the class! While at first I thought this was a little cruel to make us do without warning, it really helped us to focus and narrow our attention to the task at hand - sometimes being put on the spot is the best motivation to know your stuff!

I would also highly advise getting to know as many white and red grape varietals as possible, where they are primarily grown, and key indicators of the wine produced. When you are doing the deductive blind tastings, you will want as big a “wine theory library” from which to pull from to help you make your final call on what wine it is that you are drinking. You should also get as confident as possible with identifying New World vs. Old World wines and styles. I personally sought out training classes which I took over the summer, and also completed some of the suggested reading for the course, and still found myself a little overwhelmed with the amount of information that was being circulated and by the blind tasting component. Fortunately, the blind tasting component of the class was largely intended as practice for the Level Two Test, and we were not required to do any blind tasting before judges for the Level One. The test itself was not easy either - I heard the same sentiment from many of my fellow classmates and many people were complaining of the lack of preparation and guidance they received during the class and prior to the class - there really isn’t a lot of time to study between Saturday night when the first class adjourns and Sunday when the test is administered. Fortunately, you are allowed to pass the Level One Exam with a 60% or better, so I made it- thanks to some added last minute cramming.

In praise if the course, I will say that I learned so much about so many different countries, production methods, etc. in the two days I attended - probably the most educational wine course I could have envisioned and the fact that it was run so strictly really made me strive to push myself to a higher level. When I went out to dinner with Garrett Sunday night after the test, it was so much more fun to be able to read the wine list and to have some great background knowledge and tasting experience about many of the wines from different parts of the globe instead of just California wines. And what other subject can be so rigorous yet require you to drink so many amazing wines in order to succeed? I am looking forward to beginning my studies for the next level, which will require a lot of practice serving up Champagne in the proper way (anyone want to help me drink the contents of my practice bottles?) and practicing my blind taste test skills. Chin chin! To learn more about the Court Master Sommelier test, you can visit their website: http://www.mastersommeliers.org.

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