Though I have been working with wine and spirits since the 90’s, I had never taken the sommelier test. In December of 2013 I passed the introductory Sommelier test. I’m glad I did and wasn’t sure if I would go further. I ran into a former co-worker, Joshua at the mall last December who said “Wish me luck, I’m taking level II this Friday”. Though level I or the Introductory test was an accomplishment, you aren’t really a sommelier until you pass level II, or Certified. Level II involved a blind tasting and service portion, as well a test or “theory”. You must pass all three portions to pass.
I was a little bummed because I didn’t realize the test would be in Seattle and felt I was missing out on an opportunity. I was reunited with Joshua in the workplace soon after. He hadn’t passed, but was determined to take it again. I was inspired by his passion. I looked into the course schedule this February; he was heading to Portland to take the test on April 1st. That didn’t seem like enough time for me to study and work on my blind tasting skills. The next soonest would be May 1st in Colorado. The test is over $300, and if I tack on airfare and lodging, Colorado would add up, especially if I walk away empty handed. On February 23rd 2015, I decided to sign up for the next level test in Portland, leaving me 5 weeks to study and taste.
Time to hit the books! I began studying daily sometimes just for a few minutes, other days for hours. I joined a tasting group at work and another outside of work. Of course I ‘blind tasted’ at home nightly. My blind tasting was going well and felt this might be my natural strength. The studying was daunting because there is SO much to cover, all over the globe in six different languages. It’s like the Germans have a different word for everything!
As it turns out, someone I met in both tastings, Tom, was also going to Portland to take the test. He is from Portland and we planned on staying with his parents. On March 31st we loaded up in Joshua’s VW, and headed to Portland, quizzing each other the entire time, using flashcards, and flashcard apps. It was clear that Joshua had been studying a lot more and longer than Tom and I. After arriving at his folks place we continued to study the rest of the night. I was making flashcards until after 2:00 a.m.
We awoke at 6 and left a little after 7 after tasting a high acid white to calibrate our palates. We ran into a bit of traffic and arrived just minutes before the test began.
The blind tasting was first, one white and one red. It was a timed test. I started filling out my tasting grid for the white. What seemed just moments later, one of the Master Sommeliers said “You should be about finished with both wines by now”. What?! I hadn’t even finished with the white. Poor time management on my part. I rushed through the red and handed in my tasting grids.
The test or theory was next. I finished that fairly quickly. Afterwards, I met up with Tom and Joshua in the lobby. We all called the white something different and the red we agreed upon. Happily, we all felt good about the test. We had some time to prepare for the service part. Tom was at 10:00 a.m. and Josh and I were at 11:00.
Though I was confident about my performance on the first two parts, I was still nervous about service. We had to pretend to serve a group of 4 guests at a table, though there is just the Master Sommelier there. I approached the table, he ordered a bottle of Prestige Cuvee, I asked him whether he wanted the bottle in an ice bucket or on the table, he said “on the table”. I served the Champagne, he then said ”Six of my friends just arrived at the bar, would you take a tray of champagne, circulate the room and place the full glasses on that table, then return the tray to where you picked it up”. I said, “With pleasure”. I picked the tray up and was immediately distracted by another test taker who was walking close to me with his tray of glasses. I’m not exactly sure what happened but one of my flutes tipped completely over and spilled all over the tray and my heart sank, thinking this must be an immediate fail. I was so humiliated, how could this happen? I’ve done this a thousand times, and never spill drinks. Unsure of what to do next, I pretended like nothing happened.
I returned to the table. The Master Sommelier began asking me food pairing and about a dozen other questions about wine and spirits. It was like an out of body experience, as I didn’t remember what he asked me until later. Things kept coming back to me, piece by piece, including the fact that I never put the champagne bottle on the table, I put it in the ice bucket! Obviously, the service was a catastrophe. I was upset, but kept trying to look on the bright side. As the questions he asked me came back to me, I realized I answered correctly to all his questions except one.
C’est la vie! I’m glad I went for it and challenged myself. I relaxed a little knowing I could take it again after 3 months. The commencement ceremony was at 4:30 p.m. and we were all done by 11:15. Time for adult beverages! The test takers, most quite tipsy, reconvened at the hotel for news. I hid in the back. Apparently not everyone passed; 50% by my count. They began reading the names of the people who would be receiving their pins. After a few names were read, the Master Sommelier read mine.
I now proudly wear the purple pin and am a Certified Sommelier.
At Breaux Freres Vineyard
Bud Break at Beaux Freres Vineyard
With Master Sommelier Rob Bigelow