There are eight points that all master somms must be able to accomplish when tasting wine.
- Understand varietal fingerprints.
- Master regional fingerprints of wine.
- Understand local laws in regard to the wine at hand.
- Recognize harvest variations, more commonly known as vintage.
- Understand how bottle and barrel age will effect specific wines.
- Understand how winemaking effects the final product.
- Recognize the tastes and aroma of all winemaking and harvesting techniques.
When we talk about “Master Somms” we are technically talking about Court of Master Sommeliers, since they own the copyright to the term Master Sommelier. However, in common parlance that means any Level V Graduate, which includes the Master of Wine from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and the Diplôme Oenotropae from the National Wine School.
For the current scandals plaguing the CMS –including charges of racism and sexual violence– please refer to this page: Master Sommelier Scandals
The Exclusive Club of the World’s Master Sommeliers
There are very few sommeliers in the world that ever achieve the prestigious designation of Master Sommelier. Earning this title is by no means easy since it requires passing a very rigorous test called the Master Sommelier Exam. About two hundred highly trained sommeliers from all parts of the world take this very rigorous three-part exam every year, testing their level of wine expertise.
The first part of the exam is done orally and tests the examinees’ knowledge of wine theory, requiring them to display encyclopedic-like knowledge of everything having to do with wine. They are asked detailed questions about the wine-growing regions of the world and their styles. Once that ordeal is finished and done with, the sommeliers are tested on their ability to properly serve wine to tables of judges asking trick questions. While the judges are posing as very fussy and demanding patrons, they expect to see impeccable manners, charm and skilled salesmanship from the sommeliers.
Next, the most dreaded section of the test is administered, the blind tasting, known as being an utter and complete nightmare. The test takers must correctly identify three different white and three different red wines based only on taste and look with no other clues given. Of the thousands of different wines in the world, you can see why the Master Sommelier Exam is nearly impossible to pass, no matter how much experience you have and how much you’ve studied.
The sommeliers that do pass are the very best in the wine industry, and instantly recognized as such. Being given the title Master Sommelier is like being knighted by the Queen as far as the wine world is concerned, because the vast majority of professional sommeliers who take the exam fail miserably. The test has been administered every year for forty-five years to approximately two hundred wine pros each year. In the exam’s entire history, only two hundred and thirty sommeliers worldwide have ever passed the test and had the title Master Sommelier bestowed on them.
Master Sommeliers are Becoming Famous
The movie industry along with the recent proliferation of realty TV has largely shifted the perception of sommeliers in the minds of the public. In years past, sommeliers were seen as stuck up old white men parading around in snooty French restaurants whose duties were to carefully ferry bottles up from the wine cellar for the approval of wealthy patrons.
As the public’s obsession with celebrities is stronger than ever, with the creation of celebrity chefs and celebrity bakers, sommeliers have gotten in on the action as well. We now have “sommeliers to watch” along with “superstar sommeliers” and of course “Instagram sommeliers” with thousands of followers. There are even people calling themselves “sommeliers” who consider themselves connoisseurs of water, hot sauce and even mustard. Apparently “sommelier” has become a trendy profession to be in.
Some of the world’s leading wine professionals are actually becoming celebrities, having leveraged their personal style and flair enough to attract endorsements, investors for new restaurants, book deals, invites to international conferences and a bevy of devoted fans and followers on social media. Many of these celebrity sommeliers fit the mold of the temperamental celebrity chef. In today’s world, casual dining is acceptable, which has spawned a certain attitude.
The Real World of the Sommelier
The perception among the public of a sommelier has dramatically changed in recent years, largely as a result of the film “Somm,” which put a spotlight on the profession.
The actual reality of being a sommelier is far less glamorous than that portrayed in movies. The job requires them to stand for long periods of time, lug huge cases of wine up and down stairs many times a day, and work long hours with unremarkable pay. In truth, the word “sommelier” comes from the French word “saumalier,” which is the person who runs a pack of animals (not a pretty picture). In smaller establishments, the sommelier does double duty as the maître d’ and/or restaurant manager.
Those who aspire to become sommeliers frequently ignore the gritty aspects of the job. Newbies seem to be busy posting selfies on Instagram holding trophy wines and Tweeting about their prestigious new job. The harsh reality is that this job is pretty much anonymous because sommeliers actually spend most of their time stressing over spreadsheets viewed on a screen in the bowels of the back office because there is a great deal of financial responsibility in their role at the restaurant.
Many professional sommeliers seek additional work that consists of consulting with clients who collect wines and hosting wine tastings and/or dinners. This enhances their image and provides them with an additional income stream, since the typical sommelier does not command a large salary. The lead sommelier at a 5-star restaurant might make $150,000, but the starting salary would be no more than $50,000 a year and often less.
Many former sommeliers transition into the lucrative world of e-commerce, landing executive-level positions as organizations like SommSelect, WineAccess and other e-commerce sites that need their expertise.
What Your Certification as a Master Sommelier Will Cost You
The International Culinary Center offers a fast-track 10-week course to apprentice sommeliers with the promise of turning them into true professional sommeliers. The center has campuses in New York City as well as in the San Francisco Bay Area. Throughout the course, students are lectured by pros in the industry while experiencing wine tastings of up to 350 different wines. The price for enrollment is a hefty $10,000, according to Scott Carney, the New York campuses’ Dean of Wine Studies. The Center offers a 10-week day course at both New York and San Francisco campuses four times throughout the year. They also offer a night class that spans 17 weeks, offered just twice a year and only at the New York campus. According to Carney, 14 to 15 students pay the full tuition each session to enroll.
Some of their students already have jobs in restaurants while others get restaurant jobs while enrolled in classes. Some students continue on with their wine studies at the Court of Master Sommeliers, which administers its own exams, with the most grueling being the Master Sommelier exam, which has 4 parts to it. This exam is so difficult that it takes most sommeliers several years of study before taking the test and several more to pass, with some never able to pass all 4 parts.
The number of students enrolled at the Court of Master Sommeliers has been going up 125% year after year in recent years. In addition to the tuition, the cost of studying materials can run $15,000 to $20,000 per year, including wines and travel, according to Mr. Bjornholm, spokesman for the Court.