IT WAS the worst possible thing that could have happened. I was standing in a hotel ballroom on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona, watching as my napkin, along with any hopes I had of passing my Certified Sommelier exam, fluttered to the floor. I was in the third phase of the three-part test, the service exam, and it was the portion I had been dreading most. The task seemed simple enough at face value: Serve Champagne to a table of six in a mock restaurant situation while undergoing an oral exam covering wine, cocktails, spirits and food pairings.
In practice, of course, nothing about the situation was easy.
I dropped a napkin, my bottle of Champagne popped upon opening, I couldn’t name three wineries from the small Bordeaux commune of Pomerol, I didn’t know the English translations for several sake terms, and I forgot the ingredients to James Bond’s classic Vesper martini. When the exam was over, I walked out to the parking lot, where my rental car sat melting in the sun. It would be four hours until my exam results would be announced, so I drove out into the desert, until there was nothing but rock and saguaro, and cried.
My day had started much better than it was ending. The Certified Sommelier exam, as administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers, is a three-part test with a passing score in each required to gain the certification. The morning had started with a flight of four wines, two whites and two reds, and I was expected to deduce the wine’s provenance, its grape, country of origin and approximate age, using only my tactile senses. I sniffed and tasted and felt confident in my final calls: Oregon pinot gris, German riesling, a red Burgundy and an aged Napa cabernet. The second section, a theory exam of short-answer and multiple-choice questions was quick and relatively painless. What soil is found in the French village of Morgon? Easy: granite. What Italian grape’s name is derived from the Italian word for fog? Nebbiolo, of course. But still, regardless of how well the exam started, my Champagne still popped, and my napkin still fell with a slow and devastating grace.
Exams like this are something of a rite of passage for those working in the beverage or hospitality industry, and with the recent popularity of the documentary Somm and its subsequent sequels (Somm: Into The Bottle is currently streaming on Netflix, while Somm 3 is currently available on iTunes and Amazon Prime), the arduous process of becoming a sommelier has become, in the eyes of the casual wine drinker, almost like a sport. The career that just a few decades ago was thought to be fusty and outdated has become unequivocally cool.
In the United States, the two largest wine-certification bodies are the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, and the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET). Think of them as being the equivalent of what the American Bar Association or the American Medical Association are for lawyers or doctors. While each of these wine-certification organizations seeks to uphold wine education and service standards, they vary slightly on their focus and methodology, with WSET prioritizing, among other things, viticulture and vineyard practices, while the Court of Masters Sommeliers stresses the proper steps of restaurant wine service. No matter the differences, the end goal for each is the same: certifications that are the equivalent of a Ph.D. in grape juice, aka the Master Sommelier and the Master of Wine, respectively. Only 274 people have achieved the rank of Master Sommelier, and in the wine world, having the M.S. post-nominal is a gateway to careers across the world in almost any restaurant, retailer or importer of your choice.
The Court of Master Sommeliers offers four exams, with the first level or “introductory” exam designed for those in the hospitality industry who are just beginning their careers in wine. After passing it in 2016, I set my sights on tackling the court’s next level. Sort of. Preparing for an exam whose pass rate is lower than that of the bar exam is a daunting endeavor, so I … didn’t. For two years, I put off the exam, until after being goaded by friends during a night of wine tasting, I signed up for the next available testing date, a date then some four months in the future.
Those four months turned into a whirlwind of flashcards and blind tastings, licking rocks and trying to decipher exactly how Key, Kaffir and Rangpur limes taste differently. In the weeks leading up to the exam, ending a study session earlier than 2 a.m. seemed like a risk not worth taking. But of course, no amount of flashcards can stop a napkin from falling.
Back in Tucson, as my fellow candidates and I were led back into the ballroom to receive our results, the Master Sommelier who’d been grading us gave me a kind smile. She poured us each a glass of Champagne and toasted to everyone who’d attempted the exam, regardless of the results. After we’d all taken a sip from our glasses, we were allowed to open the sealed envelopes that contained our results. Tasting: Pass. Theory: Pass. Service: Pass.
I couldn’t help but laugh when the Master Sommelier who’d been grading told me afterward that she could tell how unaccustomed I was to the steps of service, but that I’d sold her on my wine and food pairings and with my knowledge of small family-owned wineries. “Charming,” she’d written across my grading rubric.
So, You Want to Drink Like a Sommelier?
The wine industry in Arkansas is small but tight-knit, so in lieu of me recommending wines this month, I asked the other Certified Sommeliers and equivalent to share the wines they’re most excited about drinking these days.
Susie Long, Certified Sommelier at Petit & Keet in Little Rock
Bouvet-Ladubay Signature Brut $20
“I’d love to say that I’m living that glamorous sommelier life of drinking Champagne every night, but that would be a lie. More often than not, when I’m looking for something to drink at the end of my day, this is what I’m reaching for—light, bright and zesty, with a hint of green apple.”
Keegan Sparks, Certified Sommelier at O’Looney’s Wine & Liquor in Little Rock
André & Michel Quenard Vin de Savoie Chignin Bergeron “Le Grand Rebossan” $45
“If you ask a hundred people to point to the Savoie on a map, I think you’d be lucky if even three of them pointed to France, but it’s one of my favorite wine regions in the world. There are fewer than 20 cases of this wine imported to the U.S. each year, and I’m so glad a few of them came to Arkansas. It’s rich and lush but so incredibly fresh, like the purest Alpine stream, [which is] also full of whitewater rapids.”
Maggie Walters, WSET Level Three ‘Advanced’ at Colonial Wine & Spirits in Little Rock
Geoffroy Rosé de Saignée Brut Champagne $80
“Two words: Rosé. Champagne. What more do you want? I think more than almost any other wine, this completely made me rethink what sparkling wine can be. A lot of people think of Champagne as this delicate, high-class thing, but this is one of those wines best drunk straight from the bottle, preferably while dancing on top of a table!”