The sommelier challenge

Each year, hundreds of candidates line up to try the Master Sommelier exam. Liza B. Zimmerman wants to know what’s driving them.

Philip, Frost, Balance
Virginia Philip MS, wine buyer, Breakers Hotel, Photo: Lila Photo; Doug Frost MS MW, consultant, Photo: Brandon Cummins; Gillian Balance MS, senior education manager, Treasury Wine Estates, Photo: Treasury

The 2012 documentary Somm focused on four people on their journey to pass the Master Sommelier (MS) examination. A surprise hit, it spawned two sequels following new sets of candidates as they memorised regional maps, quizzed each other, and underwent rigorous blind tasting training. All of them were relentless in their quest to pass one of the wine world’s most difficult exams, regardless of the personal cost. The more they got beaten down, the more they seemed to go for it again.

Just what is the appeal of learning to serve wine?

Winning the pin

The first Master Sommelier (MS) degree was awarded in the UK, then the centre of the wine world, in 1969. Eight years later, in 1977, UK industry groups including the Wine & Spirit Association of Great Britain and the Institute of Masters of Wine created a new formal body, the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), to administer the exam. In the years since, less than 300 candidates have achieved the coveted red and gold lapel pin, the sign that they have achieved MS status. In the US, the course is regulated by the Napa-based Court of Sommeliers and consists of four parts: introductory, certified, advanced and master. Existing MSs are called upon to teach the courses and give the exams in various locations around the country.

The introductory and advanced courses are educational programs, followed by an exam. The certified and master sections are just exams. The master section – testing theory, tasting and service – is conducted over two days and the results are given on the morning of the third day. The costs run from $595.00 for the introductory course to $1,795.00 for the tasting and practical master exams, according to the court’s website. In addition, candidates need to cover the cost of accommodation, airfares and food. Yet once they being working, many are paid mostly in tips – under US employment law, servers are only paid $2.13 an hour, and make up the rest in tips – and hence go without wages for the days they are absent from work. 

The court would not share the average pass rate, but is it low, with dozens taking the exam per seating and only a handful passing each time. Demand for the exams is strong, with candidates often waiting a year or more to take (or retake) their place at the examining table. Berkeley-based David Yoshida – who passed the exam in 2017 and has worked at New York’s Saxon + Parole but is currently not in the business – says applications to sit the exam are evaluated on candidates’ work experience and professional recommendations. 

The apparent dedication of hundreds of wine professionals to retaking this exam is in some ways surprising, as passing it does not automatically lead to the kind of lucrative career that might normally follow such a demanding program. Yoshida suggests that the exam is more enticing than other academic degrees as candidates always learn something from taking it and potentially better themselves as a result of sitting it multiple times. 

All four levels of the exam seek to introduce students to the world’s major wine regions and viticultural styles, as well as food pairings. Extensive wine knowledge and experience on a restaurant floor is expected prior to even sitting the first exam, according to Yoshida. The goal of the classes is to connect people’s tasting associations to their shared vocabulary, he explains. A lot of the interpretation of the information is cultural and often processed by students, he adds, in terms of what they grew up eating. “Bitter for me is like eating a bamboo shoot that is too old,” he notes, adding that this tasting experience probably doesn’t resonate with that of many other candidates. 

The enduring obsession with passing this exam has been equated to winning a baseball game, which along with other sports analogies, is mentioned in the Somm films. In the films, viewers see current and aspiring MSs aggressively swirl, taste and evaluate different wines, often coming to vastly different conclusions. They highlight how stressful and intense it is preparing for the exams and the high cost, both financial and personal. If you pass but lose your wife in the process, it is a less than ideal result, cautions Yoshida. 

Virginia Philip, who is the wine buyer for the prestigious Breakers Hotel in Florida’s Palm Beach and has her own wine shop, was one of the first female wine executives to become an MS in 2002. She said that getting the qualification was only the beginning of the path to greater wine knowledge.

Dustin Wilson, one of the primary subjects in the recently released Somm 3 film, owns two Verve wine shops, in New York and San Francisco. He says that he doesn’t relate passing the exam to a victory. “Passing the MS is more of a beginning rather than an end,” he said. “It’s what you do with it that defines you and your career, not the pin itself.”

It’s also clear that the challenge is what entices many people. Philip sees making the grade as a spiritual experience. “Once you pass it is the complete, total euphoria,” she adds, noting that part of her motivation was trying to prove to her parents that she could make a living by working in wine. She also compares passing the exam to winning the Olympics or climbing a mountain or winning a race. 

Philip is not the only one who thinks the total immersion that the exam demands is akin to a religious awakening. “People spend a lifetime trying to find enlightenment,” said Yoshida, who works as a prison chaplain in the Bay Area. He added that he learned how to approach the hospitality part of the exam from his work in jails and in hospitals. 

“People keep coming back because there is value in being tested again and again,” he says. He adds that when being “tested for the tasting exam, he feels most present in his body and feels his senses most in that moment”. During the tasting portion, he felt as if he was out in the sunshine looking down a particular slope in a vineyard. He cautions, however, that despite the high of that type of out-of-body experience, retaking the test numerous times can be ruinous to both one’s health and finances. 

Helping one another through

In the initial days of the Master Sommelier exam, decades ago, there was no coursework or mentors and protégées. Generally candidates spent at least a decade on a restaurant floor and then sat the exam based on their knowledge of service and having tasted hundreds of wines.

Today, the wine world has become so much more complicated that the exams are much more comprehensive. Yet the reality is that a lot of the exam is quite arbitrary in scope and passing the practical depends on what candidates have been able to taste, and afford to buy, prior to the exam. If candidates don’t have a big expenses account or a nice, fat salary then they may not be able to expose themselves to certain types of expensive wines. Knowing this, those who have managed to pass often feel it’s important to help others get a leg up. Philip says that working together to help others pass the exam “becomes this brotherhood”. She added that knowing that you can train others is an essential part of what drives mentorship. Candidates also study and taste together, forming tight bonds. 

Everyone needs help along the way, according to Brahm Callahan, beverage director at the Boston-based Himmel Hospitality Group, who gained his MS in 2015. “It takes a village, and lifelong friendships are formed in the process of taking exams – and when I passed, the number one priority for me was to help others to move themselves forward in any way that I could as a mentor.”  

Perhaps the most important aspect of mentorship comes from the unusual structure of the hospitality business. “Your colleagues become your family after working so many hours and holidays [together],” Philip adds about the bonding experience of the exam. There is “definitely a community created by the effort required of the exam,” said Doug Frost, a Kansas City-based consultant who is a Master of Wine and passed his Master Sommelier exam in 1991. “People usually have tasting and study groups and within those groups each person tends to push the other to succeed.”

What’s it worth?

Once upon a time, the first dozens of candidates who passed the exam may have been able to write their own professional tickets. David Glancy, founder and chief executive officer of the San Francisco Wine School who became an MS in 2004, added that before passing the exam he was teaching wine and restaurant management at the Cordon Bleu, at the California Culinary Academy. Afterwards, he was able to open his own school. Since he passed, he added, more wine trips and speaking engagements have been offered to him. “These are all because of both my MS credential and what I have done with it.” He added that he doesn’t think he could have “raised the investment money needed to open my school if it weren’t for my MS credential, regardless of my teaching and restaurant background.”

Gillian Balance, the senior education manager, Americas, for Napa-based Treasury Wine Estates, passed her MS in 2012 and says that having the qualification certainly helps “advance your career in wine as it should. But I do think there is a misconception that you immediately land your dream job and your salary triples!” Frost, to the contrary, noted that his pay scale hasn’t changed but that teaching the MS course introducing him to many key people, and gained him writing and speaking opportunities Brian McClintic of Viticole Wine, who passed the exam in 2011, says the MS brings many opportunities.

“You name it: economic opportunities, consulting opportunities, opportunities to teach and mentor. Opportunities to find backers for a business venture. The list is endless.” 

Balance concludes: “The CMS members are some of the most passionate, knowledgeable folks in this biz. It is a family that you want to belong to.” 

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