By JOHN HAGARTY
Love of Wine is only the Start to Becoming a Member of this Elite Profession
You’ve spent ten minutes perusing the wine list at a high-end restaurant and still can’t come to closure. Simply too many wines. So how do you easily select a bottle that will best accompany your party’s dinner?
Ask to see the sommelier. That is, if he, and increasingly she, hasn’t already visited your table.
A sommelier (say ‘some-mel-yea’) is a trained professional whose job includes selecting wines for a restaurant’s list and then managing the purchase, storage, sales and service of the inventory. At moderately priced restaurants, the wait staff often will serve as a wine guide, helping diners choose a bottle based on stated preferences. But the gap between a helpful waiter and a certified sommelier is Grand Canyon in size.
Whether the position is called wine manager, wine steward, director of wine or sommelier, the numero uno task of these pros is providing you the best advice on a wine that will take your dinner to the next level of enjoyment.
Sommelier is French for “wine butler.” The name dates to the Middle Ages and denoted a court official responsible for the transportation of supplies. Exactly how it morphed into wine expert is a bit vague as is often the case with language. Today, the meaning is unequivocal; a person who has their wine act together in the extreme. And if you are a Master Sommelier, the act is all Broadway, bright lights and applause.
So let’s flip roles for a moment and pull you out of your comfortable dining chair and place you in front of a couple eager to hear your cogent wine advice. What skills and training would provide you the authority to counsel a table on the merits of a 2003 Left Bank Bordeaux over a 1999 Chateauneuf-du-Pape?
First, you must have an acute ability to accurately smell and identify blind a host of foods and beverages – coupled with a gifted memory. Of course, this basic criterion has already eliminated the majority of possible candidates. But wait. Don’t sit down. For the sake of our exercise, we’re going to assume you possess both of these traits in abundance. It’s called raw talent and it’s waiting to take you to the next step on your sommelier journey.
With a love of wine and the physical attributes to suss out aromas and flavors from food and drink, you’ve decided to become a certified sommelier. And not just a run-of-the-mill one. Your goal is to become a Master. In other words, you want to be a wine rock star.
Four levels of mastery
There are four levels of examination in becoming a Master. The exams are administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers in the United Kingdom, and are held in both Europe and the United States. Levels I & II are courses with exams given after one and two day sessions and include a small blind tasting.
Level III is where the fun begins. The course requires three days of intensive lectures and tastings conducted by a team of Masters followed by a two-day exam. It includes written theory on wine knowledge and a blind tasting of six wines using the Deductive Tasting format. So far, so good. You’ve passed all three levels and there is nothing wrong with taking any of your certified ratings and going to work. But since center stage is calling you, the real challenge commences.
Level IV consists of three parts and can only be undertaken after passing the first three. The exam includes practical restaurant wine service and sales; detailed theory on serving of aperitifs, their ingredients and production methods; proper selection and use of stemware; menu content and pairing, and demonstrating a high degree of efficiency in serving wines, brandies, liqueurs and other spirits.
Part two requires the candidate to speak with authority on wine regions around the world; know the principal grape varieties; answer questions on international wine law; display expertise on fortified wines, beers, ciders and cigar production and understand the proper storing and serving of wine.
Part three involves the blind tasting of six different wines and identifying the grape variety, country of origin and vintage. This requirement by itself can often be a showstopper. “Wait a minute. Do you mean I need to say the wine I tasted was a 2004 French Northern Rhone Syrah?” Yep. Except you have to do it six times in a row with different wines.
The Court of Master Sommeliers Diploma was introduced in 1969 and only 171 people worldwide have been awarded the title in 42 years. Today, there are 74 active Masters in the Americas and 25 in Europe. In February 2011, six of the newest members were welcomed into the ranks of this prestigious organization.
Listen to just one of the honorees, Anthony Anselmi, as he discusses his preparation for the test: “In the two months leading up to the exam, I did a blind tasting every day to hone my skills. When I learned that my exam was scheduled for 9 a.m. in Texas, I had to change my studying schedule accordingly. I woke up at 5 a.m. in California so that I could begin my practice tasting sessions at 7 a.m. sharp, so I would be properly prepared for the exam itself,” Anselmi explains.
The six professionals who were awarded the honors in Irving, TX, spent a collective 35 years in preparing for the exam. You can’t pull an all-nighter with this test.
OK. By now you’ve realized you’re unlikely to become a vino rock star and are permitted to return to your dining seat. In reality, it would be rare to even encounter one of these über tasters at a restaurant because of the rarity of the title, so don’t take your failure too hard.
Whether practiced at the highest level or simply as a knowledgeable waiter providing straightforward advice, all of us can appreciate the skill and commitment of anyone trained to say with confidence something like, “I would recommend the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon.”
Our thanks to the experts.
John Hagarty works at Rappahannock Cellars in Huntly, VA. Visit him at Hagarty-on-Wine.com .