Behind the Scenes column: Climbing the peak of oenological excellence
Behind the Scenes
Sommeliers are gastronomic matchmakers, helping diners discover the perfect match for a chef’s creation from candidates presented on a restaurant’s wine list. Digging into their gustatory toolboxes of aromas and tastes accumulated from years of tasting repetition and a vast wine knowledge, sommeliers can create happy marriages between wine and food, transforming an otherwise mundane process of eating into joyful gastronomic adventures. Add to that an intriguing story or two about the wine’s origins or its producer and sommeliers can work magic, converting liquid in a glass from a mere drink into to something to savor and remember. The wine comes alive as its tastes and aromas become part of the diner’s own catalogue of dining memories.
The seeds of the profession sprouted in 14th century England. Sommeliers had humble beginnings as wine procurers for royalty and the aristocracy. Although the job description of a sommelier has evolved over time and they are found in all aspects of the wine and spirits industry, sommeliers are still humble servants. At least that’s philosophy of one of the world’s most respected wine education organizations, the Court of Master Sommeliers.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way and attitudes not synergistic with the unifying power of wine seep into the experience. But through the expanding popularity and reach of the Court’s certification program, the humble agrarian beginnings of wine increasingly are reflected in the service demeanor of sommeliers who are charged with connecting the last link in the chain between producer and consumer.
THE ART OF WINE SERVICE
Having been on the supplier side of the wine business but lacking any formal oenology training, I recently decided to pursue my sommelier certification. As a lover of participatory journalism, I thought I’d take my readers along to share the enriching experience with me.
Colorado is home to 12 of America’s 140 master sommeliers. One of those is Sean Razee, beverage director at Vail Resorts Mountain Dining, whom I turned to for advice and insight about the Court.
In February 2008, Razee received his master sommelier diploma. He enjoys being part of a “community of wine” and finds pleasure using his vast wine knowledge developing thoughtful wine programs and crafting wine lists that harmonize wine, food and personality of restaurants and their chefs. His concept of high service standards includes learning backstories that impart information and enhance a guest’s experience. Razee, a born teacher with a humble spirit, values the opportunity to mentor students and participate in the Court’s rapidly expanding wine education program. Masters like Razee inspire sommelier aspirants, particularly those like him who previously were on different career paths, to commit to the certification program. For me, it’s comforting to know such a mentor lives and works in my own backyard.
My first task was to learn more about the Court and its various certification levels.
In 1969, the Court of Master Sommeliers conducted its first successful master diploma exam in England. When I asked Razee to share his perception of the Court’s mission, he thoughtfully responded, “To educate sommeliers, create standards of service and impart humility.” Although many highly talented sommeliers work without certification, the Court filled a need for uniform service standards and opportunities for educational growth for aspiring sommeliers.
The Court’s influence quickly spread. Wine savant Fred Dame — the first American to successfully complete all three parts of the daunting exam in one year — brought the Court to America’s shores in 1977. Ten years later, the American chapter held its first masters diploma exam, establishing the Court’s prowess as a global leader in wine education and certification.
Nearly four decades later, only 140 wine professionals in North America — 119 men and 21 women — have earned the title “master sommelier.” Globally, there are only 220 master sommeliers making this group what I refer to as the “Navy Seals of Wine.” The best of the best. They have trained for years, challenging their mental, emotional and physical endurance to achieve something few in their industry attempt. Each year, on average, approximately 130 candidates attempt the master-level exam. Only 10 percent of those candidates succeed to wear the cherished master sommelier pin.
Fortunately, the Court developed two lower levels of certification plus one introductory course for those on the road to the master diploma. For others, like me, it’s an opportunity to learn from the best while setting realistic certification goals.
MASTERING WINE EDUCATION
The pathway to the Court’s three certification levels begins with the introductory course and exam that all candidates, regardless of experience, must pass. To meet growing demand, the course has grown in frequency from eight in 2003 to 59 two-day courses serving over 4,200 candidates to date in 2014. Many attendees seek basic knowledge to help better perform their jobs in wine and spirits retail and service. Others have loftier goals.
On average, one-third of Level I candidates continue the increasingly difficult climb. Level II, certified sommelier exam, is a one-day, three part exam that tests candidates’ skills in theory, service and the most challenging part for many, blind tasting. Unlike Level I, there is no course preceding the exam. Candidates must fend for themselves as they expand their wine knowledge and hone their deductive wine tasting skills through repetitive practice, best accomplished in groups with other candidates.
At Level III — advanced sommelier — the degree of difficulty exponentially increases. Four days of intense classes are followed two months later by a three-day exam. Candidates have three years to pass the advanced exam after the course. Failure to do so means a return to the four days of intensive course work.
Finally comes the moment-of-truth when sommeliers who successfully completed the Level III exam make the fateful decision to dedicate themselves to the final, most difficult part of the climb, the master diploma exam.
For many, they made their decision before they took their seat on day one of the introductory course. For others, it was a process. In addition to 45-hour work weeks many endure, studying consumes at least another 40 hours. For all candidates, the minuscule number of first-time successes weighs heavy on their minds as they ponder the emotional, physical and monetary costs of the venture. The stakes are higher and so is the minimum passing score. Unlike the 60 percent passing grade for the previous levels, master candidates must score at least 75 percent correct on each of the exam’s three sections to pass.
For mere mortals like me, Level II — certified sommelier — is daunting enough. I needed additional wine education to add a higher level of oenological discourse to my writing, so I decided this autumn to pursue certification. In early November, I attended the first of my official studies with the Court, the introductory sommelier course and exam, and began my certification journey.
Next week, I’ll take you with me into a class where, as one of the oldest of the 105 candidates, I discovered I knew less than the five master instructors have forgotten and received a dose of humility. In the meantime, if you want to witness the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat for master diploma candidates, I highly recommend watching the documentary “SOMM.” It will certainly raise your level of appreciation for dedicated sommeliers such as master Sean Razee.
Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blog is http://www.winefamilies.com.