I’d like to break my extremely slow coverage of our trip to Argentina to tell you about exactly what’s been taking me away from writing. As I mentioned a while back, for the last three months I’ve been a student intern in the International Culinary Center’s new intensive sommelier traing program. The program is in collaboration with the Court of Master Sommeliers, and at the end the class got to take the exams for their first two levels—the Intro and Certified exams—back to back.
For the last three months my nose has either been in a book or in a glass of wine. This might sound like I’m complaining about nothing—How bad could it be when you’re drinking wine all the time? It was really fun most of the time, particularly because I love everything that goes with studying wine—the history, geography, and poetry of it all. However, the course was also extremely intensive and preparing for the Court’s Certified Exam in three short months proved a very rigorous process. The exams aren’t easy and the Certified requires you to pass multiple sections requiring very different skills individually.
The Intro Exam, wasn’t too bad. Actually, if I hadn’t been stressing about the harder exam that was to follow the next day, it might have even been fun. It’s a two-day process consisting of a seminar surveying pretty much the entire world of wine in a day and half, ungraded blind tasting practices, and ending in a multiple-choice exam. It was also a good review for the harder test to come.
The Certified Exam is a big leap up from the Intro. It consists of three parts each of which you have to pass individually and studying for each one was like learning a new language. (If one were to continue to the Advanced and Master levels, those are each another world away in terms of difficulty and require years of study in between each.)
I wasn’t too worried about the theory portion of the exam. Seeing as how I’m kind of a nerd and studying isn’t much of a problem for me, I knew this was the section I was most likely to pass. Sure enough, while it was tough test, I was pretty sure that I’d passed that section when I turned it in. My weeks of walking around with my premier and grand crus of France flashcards had paid off!
The other two sections were less of a certainty. There is a blind tasting portion during which you are presented with two wines and a couple of grids. On the grids you analyze the wines for taste descriptors, presence of wood aging, then structural elements such as alcohol, acidity, and tannins. Finally, you try to determine each wine's general age range, country of origin, and varietal. At this level there are about seven white and eight red varietals you can potentially be given—mostly the big classic varietals.
We were taught a specific process to learn to blind taste, but it is not easy and on any given day you're likely to make a mistake that will throw your analysis off. For three months our class tasted around eight wines a day, plus often more tastings after class in order to develop the taste memory and get sufficient blind tasting practice. Greg would pick up bottles to give me tasting practice at home. At the end I got help from the guys at my favorite local wine store, 67wines, who put together blind tasting packages for me that were completely covered up so that I’d have no idea what I was getting.
Luckily, at this level, you don’t have to be completely accurate on both wines to pass. You’re grade is based on you’re whole assessment of the wine rather than just whether or not you nailed the wine. Therefore, even is you make a wrong turn in picking the country or the varietal, you can still pass if you described it well and understood its structure. Still, getting to place where I felt comfortably decent at this process required A LOT of tasting. I constantly had the sneaking suspicion that I was always drinking way too much, and yet nowhere near enough. Additionally, there were definitely days that I would have rather not gone anywhere near a glass of wine—but I had to drink on.
The final section is the service section. In this portion, you are given a simulated restaurant situation. You play the role of sommelier serving a table at which a Master Somm is seated. You are then asked to perform a service task—at this level that is either champagne service or decanting an aged bottle. This may sound easy, but the standard is that of formal fine dining, and there are a lot of details to remember. If you’re interested to see what they’re looking for, you can check out these demonstration videos:
In addition to having to remember all the details of service and concentrating on not breaking or dropping anything, the Master Somm will also grill you with a series of questions asking anything from wine paring suggestions, to cocktail recommendations, to quizzing your knowledge of apéritifs and digestifs, and more.
Never having had any service experience, this was the section I was most nervous about. I was REALLY nervous. We got some practice in class, but as an intern and not a regular student, this was the section I participated least in during class. There were only so many bottles to be opened and it was right that the paying students got to open them. I got some practice, but I definitely had to practice at home as well.
First off, I had to get comfortable carrying things on a tray. Greg benefited here. He also put up with a lot. Despite my culinary education, we had many, many nights of take-out because I needed time to study. His reward for happily going along with this was that he was often presented with glasses of wine upon his arrival home carried on a ridiculous Victorian-esque, faux silver tray I bought for the purpose of practicing. I'm naturally fairly klutzy, however, I got pretty comfortable carrying glasses precariously perched on my tray. Greg understands that this practice will not be continuing.
As far as the rest of it, a few weeks before the exam I got very nervous about my level of comfort with the two possible tasks. I went out and bought a case of super cheap Trader Joe’s bubbles and started popping them open a few nights a week. We drank a lot of mimosas on the weekends. When I couldn’t drink any more cheap bubbles, I bought Belgian ales with the champagne-style toppers and popped those open. To practice the decanting process, I refilled empty bottles with water and used coffee granules, re-corked them and went through the motions of separating sediment with those.
The biggest help of all came thanks to my friend Jen. I’d told her how nervous I was feeling about this section. She put me in touch with a contact of hers who owns a wine bar and had gone through the exam. Alexis very generously let me come into her bar, ABV, and allowed me to practice with her. Running through the scenarios a few times in addition to the mock practices we got in class was a HUGE help.
A week before the exam, I was feeling that I had a fair shot; then I got thrown one last curve ball. Despite my prohibiting him from doing so, two weeks before the exams Greg got a cold. Four days before my certified test, my nose started sniffling and I got one too. I started bombarding myself with cold medicines, homeopathic remedies, and using a neti pot a couple of times a day. I was stuffy, but thankfully these assaults on the offending cold were enough to allow me some small use of my sense of smell.
I passed the Intro pretty confidently, but I was really nervous on the day of the Certified. The worst part of this exam was the waiting. You come in the day of the test and take your blind tasting, immediately followed by your written test. This all takes 45 minutes. When those are all turned in, you’re given a time to return for your service exam. All results are announced once all the exams are over that evening. No matter what time you’re assigned, you spend the majority of your day waiting in some form or another. You don’t find out if you failed or passed the first two sections. You get to spend the whole day thinking about the questions you got wrong on the written test, rethinking the calls you made on the blind tasting, worrying if you’ll walk into the service test and drop all your glasses, thinking about if you’ll completely freeze when the Master Somm asks you a question, and then afterwards, thinking about the hundred little mistakes you realized you made the second it was over. I spent all day with butterflies in my stomach. I couldn’t eat anything more than a few pieces of bread and some French fries.
As a quick side note, one cool thing did happen while we were sitting around waiting for results. A group of us was killing time at the bar at L’Ecole and Chef Jacques Pepin stopped by to congratulate us on the completion of the class. That was pretty freak’n awesome! . . . but then there was more waiting.
I’m super excited to tell you that I passed. When I heard my name called amongst the list of passing candidates, I nearly cried. As more and more of my classmates were called, we definitely got more and more emotional. This was a class of outspoken, opinionated, driven individuals. I think it probably takes a slightly type-A personality in one form or another to want to take on such a rigorous challenge in such a limited amount of time. I’m extremely proud to have gone through it with them.
I’m also incredibly proud of my little certified sommelier pin. I’m giving serious consideration to continuing to study wine . . . after a short break of course. I don’t want to drink anything I have to think about for a week or two. Still, I love really love this stuff. Up next though, I am happy to announce that I’ll soon be heading over to Food Arts Magazine, which is one big step towards my goal of combining my love of media and my love of food and wine.
(By the way, if you have any questions feel free to shoot them my way, and I will happily try my best to answer them.)
I’m now going to indulge myself in a moment of cheesy sentimentality and reflect on this last year for a second. It really is amazing what you can do even in a short amount of time when you're motivated. A year ago I was considering whether to take a turn from my career in production and then debating whether to take on food or wine first. I worked my butt off, but with some luck, and a lot of support from others, I can now call myself both a Chef and a Sommelier. We’ll see what happens next.
As a quick post-script, I can’t be absolutely certain of the varietals we were given on the blind tasting, because they’re never revealed. (God, that kills me!) However, I’m fairly certain that the red was a Malbec. Rather a poetic end to this chapter seeing as it all started with my walking into class straight off the plane from Argentina. And I will take advantage of this hasty transition to turn the subject back toward that trip, more of which will hopefully be coming soon.
I borrowed this pic from Anna. Our class celebrating after the exam.
I got a lot of help from others in taking on this particular challenge. I’d like to take a second to thank those people now.
First off, the Master Sommeliers that taught our often challenging class: Fred Dexheimer, Laura Maniec, Kathy Morgan, and particularly our incredibly knowledgeable lead instructor, Scott Carney. The staff at Laura’s bar, Corkbuzz, in particular Morgan, who broke down many blind tastings for us. I’d also like to thank the staff at ICC that has been so supportive and helpful, including Chef Angela, Tara, Clare, Robert and particularly Jen, for generously sharing her contacts with me. Alexis at ABV, for so kindly allowing me to practice with her. Ben and Dimitri at 67wines, who put together my blind tasting packages and occasionally had a few seconds to geek out with me. My co-interns, Phil and especially, Michelle, who was my bosom buddy through this process. And our classmates -- we all went through a lot, tasted at least a million wines together, and helped each other along the way.
An extra special thank you to Chef Annette Tomei, for her support and for putting me up for the opportunity to intern in the first place.
And as always, my hubby Greg, who was always cool with my nose being shoved in a book, tolerated my frustrations and perfectionism, poured me blind tastings, and analyzed many a wine with me, even if he wasn’t the one who signed up to dissect wines to death.
Useful reference books:
The Wine BibleThe Wine Bible
Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book 2012
Windows on the World Complete Wine Course: 25th Anniversary Edition (Kevin Zraly's Complete Wine Course)
Oz Clarke: Grapes & Wines: A Comprehensive Guide to Varieties and Flavours
Perfect Pairings: A Master Sommelier's Practical Advice for Partnering Wine with Food
Daring Pairings: A Master Sommelier Matches Distinctive Wines with Recipes from His Favorite Chefs
What to Drink with What You Eat: The Definitive Guide to Pairing Food with Wine, Beer, Spirits,
Coffee, Tea - Even Water - Based on Expert Advice from America's Best Sommeliers
The Sommelier Prep Course: An Introduction to the Wines, Beers, and Spirits of the World