When you dine at a fine restaurant, you expect your server to provide you with wonderful guidance about the wines he or she recommends. Truth be told, if your server is a wine steward, you are likely to get fairly lightweight guidance. If your server is a sommelier, you are likely to get good to very good guidance. If your server is a master sommelier, you are likely to get great guidance.
So how do these wine server designations differ?
The first level is the wine steward, defined by American Heritage Dictionary as “one who is employed to serve wine, as at a restaurant or wine tasting.” Most waitpeople at a restaurant or bar have a basic understanding of the wines served at their establishment, and the restaurant itself likely furnished their training.
If you decide to get more serious about your wine knowledge, you embark on the sommelier path.
According to Martha Barksdale in “How to Become a Sommelier,” one challenge with the sommelier designation is that “… the path to becoming a sommelier isn’t clearly marked. There are no set standards for using the title. Anyone who pours wine can call himself a sommelier. That doesn’t mean that any wine lover can just … get a job in a fancy restaurant. Most employers will want you to show that you have passed competency examinations administered by one of the many organizations for professional sommeliers. To get to the point of taking the competency exam, a prospective sommelier will need lots of experience with wine or preparation through self-education or through courses in wine.”
A number of institutions offer courses for sommeliers. As an example, The Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley offers certification programs for wine professionals — a foundation level certification and an advanced level. After passing both exams, a graduate can add the initials C.W.P. for Certified Wine Professional to his or her name.
Earning the C.W.P. designation (or a similar designation) is a big accomplishment, and most people stop there.
Just a few brave souls venture to the next level – the Master Sommelier designation. According to mastersommeliers.org, “Achieving the distinction of Master Sommelier takes years of preparation and an unwavering commitment. The Court’s intensive educational program guides aspiring Masters through four increasingly rigorous levels of coursework and examination, culminating in the Master Sommelier Diploma Examination.”
The world of the Master Sommelier has been in the news lately due to the most recent addition to its ranks. Roland Micu, 28, whose life story is in and of itself worthy of Hollywood, is now the youngest Master Sommelier ever. According to Jessica Yadegaran, “Master sommeliers are expected to know everything about wine, from its history to how and where it is made. They must also be experts on the rituals of service.” There are only 196 Master Sommeliers in the entire world.
What does it take to attain this prestigious title? The impressive requirements are listed on the website for the Court of Master Sommeliers.
At a high level, the exam consists of three parts: an oral theory examination, a blind tasting of six wines, and a practical wine service examination. The pass rate for the exam is approximately 10 percent.
To give you a flavor for the exam’s difficulty, here is the writeup on the tasting portion: “The tasting examination is scored on the candidate’s verbal abilities to clearly and accurately describe six different wines. Within twenty-five minutes he or she must identify, where appropriate, grape varieties, country of origin, district and appellation of origin, and vintages of the wines tasted.”
Not for the faint of heart!
I applaud everybody who pursues sommelier designations of any kind. But I think that for most people, enjoying many different wines is a perfect way to develop your knowledge and love of the grape.
If you’ve participated, or considered participating in any wine certification programs, please share your experiences here.