The Test – Taking the Certified Sommelier Exam

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Hello everyone. So in lieu of a video this week (and basically the month) I thought I’d write about my experience with the Certified Sommelier Exam from the Court of Master Sommeliers. And just because it’s a written post, don’t think it won’t take you an hour to read it 😉 I recently took the exam (8/29/13) in Houston and passed. So I’m certifiable 😉

But how did I get there? I started this journey in 2005 when a former General Manager of mine at ESPN Zone told us in a manager meeting that the company would pay for us to take the Introductory Exam if any of us were interested. Now, a sommelier at ESPN Zone doesn’t really make sense, but we were owned by Disney who has more Level 1 sommeliers than any company in the world.

At the time I was starting to enjoy wine other than that thing I was supposed to drink at a nice restaurant with a steak. And this sounded like something pretty cool, AND the company would pay for it? Yes, please. So I met him the next day to find out what to do. He gave me a list of books to get and after I got them, he went through and highlighted some important things to learn. I would get reimbursed for the books once I passed the test. Then he left about a month later.

On my own effectively for studying; I hit the books. I sought out resources online and found a podcast called Wine For Newbies. I started listening to that in addition to reading. The gentleman who produced it was a lawyer out of Indiana and he did this as kind of a hobby. I began learning a lot from him. I then found Wine Library TV and started watching that too. Between these two podcasts and the books I was really getting into it.

However I wasn’t super confident I was on track to take the exam. I had some personal things distracting me during this time which also affected my reading. However, I also came up with an idea for a blog called Sommelier in Training. I actually created a Blogger site for that. I really didn’t do to much with it.

It was also during this time I got introduced to vlogging. Ok, so I really knew about it before then, but Gary on WLTV mentioned a contest that Viddler was having to get an iPhone. You had to create a “Me Today” video everyday for a month. A quick video of what you did that day. I quickly got into the community and really enjoyed it. My video camera was a small Canon 3MP camera that happened to record video too.

While I didn’t win the contest, I did get hooked to doing video. I kept up with the Me Today videos (maybe not on a daily basis) and even had an early wine and cheese review as part of one. I’ll spare you the actual video, but know that I recorded it after going out for dinner and drinks earlier in the evening. I was a little toasty by the time I recorded it.

In 2008 I moved to San Antonio for various reasons. I continued to watch WLTV (Wine for Newbies had stopped at this point), and still had the interest in wine. After being here for several months, the inspiration for this site’s name happened. You can read that story in the About section so I don’t need to rehash it here. I will at least say that the main purpose of this site was to act as a diary of sorts of my studying.

I was relearning everything from my Chicago days during that year (2009-2010). Then I had what could have been a very big mistake in my personal life involving drinking and driving which put me on probation for an entire year. That involved absolutely no wine reviews. However I still studied from books and online, and I continued to produce my Sommelier School videos. This set me up to take two tests. I took the Certified Specialist of Wine Exam from the Society of Wine Educators in June of 2010. Two months later I took the Introductory Sommelier Exam from the Court. I passed both.

For these two exams, they each had a study guide. For the CSW I got the guide prior to the exam. This really helped let me know what was going to be required for the exam. It was also helpful in consolidating information that scouring multiple books didn’t really do.

For the Intro Exam I got my study guide when I arrived on the first day of a two day review session. Now you can get the guide prior to the exam. The review session was great. Taught by Master Sommeliers, you get a whirlwind review of everything on the exam. You can’t come into this without knowing your stuff. It really is a review session. At the end, you take the test and get your results about an hour later. For the CSW you just take the exam and leave. They mail you your results in about 6 weeks.

OK, so now what? Level 1 is great an all, but I’m not Certified. And that’s really the level potential employers really want, or at least prefer. During the review session they encourage you to take the Certified Exam as quickly as possible. It’s really a prep for both exams. During each session you have a deductive tasting exercise where you are grouped with 4-5 people. Each of you take a segment to the process and formulate a conclusion. You are also shown an example of the Service part of the Certified Exam. So having all this fresh in your head is advisable.

Well, I couldn’t take that exam until Spring of 2011 at the earliest due to my probation. I also switched jobs in 2011 which also meant time off was at a premium. And it was reserved for my trip to France. 2012 saw me slipping a bit in true studying and not being confident I was ready for the test. Eventually I joined a study group and that helped in my confidence.

2013 was the year I decided would be it. In order to be as efficient as possible with time and money I planned on taking the exam at TEXSOM. Unfortunately I came to find out it wasn’t being offered. It wasn’t offered the year before either (however it was in prior years), but I had hoped it would this year. Again time (as in vacation time) and money played into my decision as to where and when. I felt I needed to take the exam somewhere in Texas or at least no farther than a day’s drive.

I was able to find out that there were two exam planned after TEXSOM that would fit the bill. Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Houston, TX. Nothing against you all in Tulsa, but I set my sights on Houston. Once the date was announced I really had to finagle time off at work. And even then, both August trips (TEXSOM and Houston) were in danger of being cancelled. But I was able to keep it all intact.

Before we get to the exam itself, what kind of prep did I do? During this entire year I stepped up my blind tasting practice. The study group helped for the first couple months, but it disbanded. So I spent a lot of time at Max’s Wine Dive bugging them to set up blind tastings when I would visit. I also would ask other places to do this if they were able to. I also kept up with the podcast. Not only was I evaluating wine, I was learning about regions. And this is really the driving force behind the many of the wines I purchase. Always looking for something new to me. Plus having an educational segment was kind of like having a mini-Sommelier School post. And winery visits. While the interviews were great, I got a lot of valuable off camera information about wine. Who better to learn from than someone who actually makes the stuff?! Online resources like the Guild of Sommeliers (which I’ve been a member since passing my Level 1 exam) became invaluable. Especially the final month before the exam. Wine Spectator and Sommelier Journal were additional resources. And downloading digital flashcards for my iPad app.

OK, so the test itself. While I had plenty of people talk about what to expect, I still needed to go through the process to fully understand. Let’s start with the beginning. I arrive at the venue at 8:00. Check in. While the Master who checked me in really does know me, he needs to check my ID 🙂 At our check-in we find out our time for report for the Service Exam. 10:50 for me.

We all hang around and wait to enter the exam room. There are rows of tables set up classroom style. Two people per table. There are two wine glasses with a red and white wine each. Plus the exam itself upside-down on the table. In addition to that is our tasting grid and instructions for the deductive tasting part of the exam.

Now I’m a bit confused at this as I though we were going to take our theory first, then taste in front of a Master. Granted I also knew this was going to be pretty difficult to do if a Service Exam was happening later too. We are instructed to start either part first. We have 45 minutes to do both. Technically we have 15 minutes for 2 wines and 30 minutes for Theory. I start with Theory as I know I can blow through the wines in 8 minutes or less since that’s what I’ve been practicing.

First page was pretty simple. None of the questions especially hard. Page two is essentially the same for me, with one question that I skipped since the answer didn’t come quickly to me. I go through the rest of the exam the same way. Somewhere around 4-6 questions are ones I decide to come back too later. None of these are difficult really, but I just didn’t know the answer immediately. And I know I missed at least half of them. Once I was done I turned it in as requested.

I then turn to wine. First the white. I go through the grid and decide that it is at minimum a Sauvignon Blanc. Possibly a Chardonnay from France, but it’s palate and nose pretty much plant it in Sauvignon Blanc territory. This narrows it down to either a Sancerre from France or from New Zealand. At this level they aren’t going to give us one from anywhere else. These are classic wines from classic areas. The tasting grid we fill out also has a list of countries and varietals to choose from, so we know the wines have to come from there anyway. OK, so back to the wine. I decide it’s Sancerre rather than New Zealand. It doesn’t have the acidity and typically obvious gooseberry that I get from New Zealand. Not that Sancerre won’t have this, but it’s different. Also I don’t equate grapefruit with New Zealand like I do from Sancerre.

For the red, it wasn’t as obvious at first. My first reaction in looking at the color was Malbec, but it’s missing this electric red/pink color typical with that wine. I work through the grid and initially conclude either Syrah/Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon. What takes me to Syrah is a savoriness or meatiness to the wine. There is also a dust and leather that takes me to old world rather than Australia. Sometimes the dust and leather will indicate Italy, but it’s just not quite right. There is a good amount of fruit though. But what really narrows it is pepper, specifically white pepper. And this was something I specifically tasted at work just a few days before. This eliminates Cabernet Sauvignon for me. So I concluded Syrah from France, aka Rhone.

I turn in my grid at about the same time as someone else. We are the first two finished. Of course we start discussing the exam, and get right to the wines. As others come out they also talk about the wines. The group is almost evenly split between Chardonnay (France) and Sauvignon Blanc. However the SB group is divided between Sancerre and NZ. There is like one guy saying Alsatian Riesling. For the reds, again a divide between Cab (California not France) and Syrah/Shiraz. And again the Syrah/Shiraz group is divided between the two. One guy says Malbec.

Now we all wait for Service. Some people like me have their exam pretty quickly. I still wait almost two hours at the restaurant we are doing this at. I could go back to my hotel literally across the street, but decide to stay there.

10:50 and it’s time for service. Typically you’ll either do sparkling wine or decanting. The other 10:50 candidate and I get briefed by one of the Masters as to the scenario. A four top with 2 couples is having sparkling wine. We are given the producer and vintage. They will also have 4 friends join later. Ready. Set. Go.

Enter the room and we go to our respective tables each with one Master. I begin my service part. I confirm the choice of wine and start. Ok, wine service is a series of steps. And I mess them up. I know how to do this. Really, I do. I even created a video for my current employer on how to do it. BUT not for fine dining. No matter, there really isn’t any significant difference. I bring the bottle first. Oops, no glasses. Get the glasses. Deliver them correctly except for hitting the imaginary wife in the head with my tray. Pour the wine. Start correctly with the first lady (the same one I hit in the head), but ignore procedure and pour in clockwise order Lady, Gentleman, Lady, Host. Rather than Lady, Lady, Gentleman, Host. To top it off, I forget there are 8 glasses to actually pour and pour as if only 4. Needless to say I only get another 1.25 glasses out of the bottle. Even if it was only four people, I still poured too much for each glass.

Ok, so not a complete disaster. I didn’t spray sparkling wine everywhere. I didn’t spill wine or the glasses, etc. But not the most stellar of starts. At this point I’m pretty convinced I’ve failed. I wouldn’t have passed a training server for their audit if they made the equivalent mistakes. But hey, there’s still a chance for redemption here. I remind myself it’s as much about HOW I conduct myself as hitting each step of service.

Second half of this. I get asked questions. All kinds of questions like what wine would I pair with a specific dish. Why? What producer? What about same grape but different part of the world? What producer? Name a wine in a specific style other than the most well known. Name the base liquor in the follow drinks. What’s the flavor profile and country of origin of these items? And so on. For the most part I answer these correctly. I tripped up on a couple but nothing horrible.

We finish up and I apologize for my mistakes figuring I failed anyway. I head back to the hotel and eventually get my car and head out for lunch. A couple friends in the industry join me for a couple hours. I then head back to the hotel and honestly take a nap. I set the alarm to wake me up with about 15 minutes to get back across the street. My feeling is if I passed, it’s by the skin of my teeth. I get to the restaurant and we all eventually gather in the same room we used to the service part of the exam. On a table are folded pieces of paper with our names on it. I find mine. I don’t look at the top to see if I passed or not. That would have been easy. No, I scan each section to see if I passed or not. I see I pass each. I look at the service section a couple times to make sure I didn’t make a mistake. Yep. Then I look at the top and see PASS.

They announce our names to hand us our certificates and pins. It appears that almost everyone passed. I guessed that there were between 30 and 40 candidates. I only noticed one person that looked like he didn’t pass, but just about everyone else has passed. We congratulate each other and toast with the same sparkling wine we had all poured.

I text the friends I had lunch with and call my Dad. I then text more people and post on Twitter and Facebook of course.

So what does this mean for me now? Well, it’s kind of like the dog chasing the car and finally catching it. What is that dog going to do with the car? Well, this was a professional achievement for me. While it’s good for the podcast/show, it’s also good for me professionally. I hope to use this to advance in the company I work for.

But it’s also a personal achievement. I haven’t done anything like this since College over 20 years ago. I feel like a burden has been lifted. I feel like other people’s expectations are fulfilled. No matter what your friends and colleagues may say, not passing is still a disappointment. But hey, I passed.

Will I continue on the path to Advanced and Master? Right now I don’t think I will. I’m not in a professional environment that lends itself to the time and effort needed to continue. I mean, I really need to be surrounded by wine. Maybe the bug will bite me later to try for Advanced, but I will have to have a mentor who will stand behind me for the application.

If you are considering doing this, it doesn’t have to take 8 years to achieve. It can be done faster, but you still need to put in the effort. Read, taste, and work somewhere that serves wine.

I know my theory knowledge is higher than the Certified level. Or at least it’s broad enough compared to some others. This is a function of this site. I push myself to learn about everything and not concentrate on one country or region. Nothing wrong with that. Those people know waaay more about those areas than I do. My palate is also as strong as anyone my level and almost as strong as those the next level up. My shortfall is experience in some not so obvious wines. But my analysis of wine is strong. Again, I have the advantage over others since that’s what I do here. Others may taste wine as part of their job, but they evaluate in a different way. Service will be my weak spot. However I can work on that too.

I want to thank quite a few people for their support. First, of course, is my parents. My father and late mother were super supportive in so many ways. I can’t begin to thank them enough. I’d also like to thank Keith Landry. My former GM who turned me on to this. I don’t know if he’ll ever know as we lost touch but I thank him for getting me started. The crew at Dublin’s in Chicago from 2001-2008. The bartenders were the ones that actually introduced me to wines that were more than just a beverage.

William Wilson of Wine for Newbies, and Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library TV. You both inspired me to learn about wine and to dive into the podcasting world. Of course Leo Laporte’s is an inspiration for podcasting too.

Many of my friends all over have been very supportive, or at least smiled and nodded when I talked about wine. One person in particular is Ceci Barretto of Vinously Speaking. Her friendship has been great and through her I got to meet a lot of other wine people.

Even though the study group has disbanded, those who were part of the group, especially the weekly regulars, were very helpful in my studies. Thanks Jen, Donovan, Pablo, Scott, Brett, Troy, Brian, Jacob (who also took the test and passed!), etc. Especially in blind tasting. It was great to be able to taste together and debate what we were tasting only to find out some of were wrong and the others were right. But no matter, we evaluated why we were wrong to learn for next time.

Gabriel Howe is another person I’d like to thank. From him finding me on the internet, to asking about being a Sommelier where he worked (ended up not being the right situation for me), to including me in the study group, and all the advice.

To all the wineries I visited in Bordeaux and Texas. The knowledge I gained from those visits was invaluable. And all of you on Twitter and Facebook. The discussions and friendships created have been instrumental. TEXSOM itself the past four years has also been a huge resource.

And Thank You to everyone that comes to this site or watches my shows. You are all an inspiration to me to achieving this accomplishment through providing the shows.

I probably won’t have another posting here in September. Look for the return of 1337 Wine TV in October.

Till then,

Thanks for stopping by.

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