The Road to Becoming a Certified Sommelier
After 11 weeks of non-stop study, tasting of 100′s of wines, and the most nerve racking test I have ever been a part of, I can now call myself a Certified Sommelier. This journey was not like anything I have ever experienced in my life. Thankfully, I was able to put my roller coaster of positive and negative attitudes aside and pass the Court of Master Sommeliers exam. Hit the link below to read all about my experiences.For those of you unaware, about two years ago I found myself becoming more and more interested in what it meant to be a Sommelier and just how someone goes about becoming one. It spurred from a curiosity to a passion. Soon I was researching schools, tuition, and everything in between as I became more confident this was the road I wanted to take. Everything about it seemed to be the right choice for me. It wasn’t until I found the Professional Culinary Institute (now a branch of the French Culinary Institute), that I felt my dream of becoming a sommelier was possible.
The course would take 11 weeks, and in that 11 weeks we would learn the entire world of wine. It was hard to imagine the sheer volume of knowledge I would have to learn, or how, in merely 11 weeks, I would be able to successfully blind taste wine so I could identify things such as the grape, country of origin, and vintage. The truly amazing fact was that over 80% of those who took the course, passed the Certified Sommelier exam, a test that has a 60% national pass rate. I was confident that if others before me could handle it, so could I.
After picking up and heading out West, I was not disappointed upon arrival. PCI’s facilities were amazing, but more importantly the teachers were the unbelievable. Currently the Court of Master Sommeliers has 106 active members who hold the title of Master Sommelier in North America, and we were lucky enough to have four of them teach our class through the 11 weeks. It never ceased to amaze me just how much knowledge these individuals had about the entire world of wine. Each day there were two parts to each class: a theory portion and a tasting portion. During the theory portion, we would learn all about the different wine regions of the world, their grapes, and what makes each great. Then, following the theory portion, we would have a tasting of wines from the country or region we had learned about earlier that day. Every day we had the opportunity to taste around eight wines, with other days having as much as 10 or even 12 different wines.
As we pushed along in the course, it was unbelievable seeing the transformation of our classes tastes. We began to notice more, getting more specific with each discriptor we found in the wine. My class was amazing. Whether it was out of class blind tastings, trips to Napa (Click here for pictures), dinners, lunches, you name it we did anything and everything together. No matter where each classmate was from, their political beliefs, their race, gender, etc., we all had one thing in common. We loved wine and strived to learn all we could. I am so lucky to have met all of them and can’t wait to see them again soon.
Finally, after weeks of exhaustive blind tasting, study groups, and studying three or four hours a day outside of our four hours of class Monday through Friday, the final test had arrived. To reach my goal of becoming a Certified Sommelier, I first had to complete the Court of Master Sommeliers Level I exam, the Introductory Sommelier exam. For this, we had a day and a half (8am-5:30pm & 8am-4pm) of lectures where we sped through the entire world of wine. This turned out to be a great review, helping me see what all I needed to brush up on before the big test. The test, made up of multiple choice questions, was anything but simple. Thankfully, I had put in my time studying and was able to successfully pass the first portion (Test grades are not given, you are simple told whether you Passed or Failed on all of the Court’s exams). With two days of none stop lectures and a test to wrap it up, the next day I awoke for the test I had been preparing for everyday over the last 11 weeks.
Dressed in my suit, required attire for all the exams, I made my way to PCI and I tried not to get nervous. The Certified Sommelier exam has a very different format from the day before. On this exam there are three separate parts: a blind tasting, theory exam, and service portion. For all of the Court’s exams you are at no time allowed to discuss what was asked in addition to anything that was on the test, so I will simply give you all I knew before arriving.
The blind tasting and theory portion are done together with a one hour time limit. I had to described the wine (Fruit, Non-Fruit, Alcohol, Acidity, etc) and take that description to determine things such as the country, grape, and vintage. Then I had to complete the theory portion which comprised of questions about wine, beer, and spirits in multiple choice, short answer, and matching format questions. Before walking in, the theory was by far the portion I was the most nervous about, but upon completion of those I was just happy to have it behind me no matter what happened.
Finally, the service portion tested our ability to properly pair wine and food, serve wine, and generally just answer any questions you would be asked when working on a restaurant floor by a customer. I felt confident about this one, but the amount of nerves I faced upon entering the room was unimaginable. Being hard of myself, I thought of all the things I should have done to better prepare myself when I completed the portion. I put it all behind me and knew that whatever happened, it was all going to be okay.
Upon returning later in the afternoon to receive our results, we stood around a room with all the Masters in the middle with the pins and certificates. One-by-one they called the names of those who had passed out loud in no particular order. It was nerve racking to say the least, but thankfully my name was one of the first to be called. It didnt seem real, and I couldnt believe that I had actually done it. All those countless hours of studying had paid off. Even today, it doesn’t seem real. Above you can see the picture of the two pins we were given for completing each level. The one of the left is the Introductory pin and the one on the right is the Certified Sommelier pin (Thanks Garrett for the picture!)
In ending, I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who wished me luck on this journey and believed in me. You’re what got me through those hard times.