I've been reading the book "Cork Dork: A Wine-Fuelled Journey into the Art of Sommeliers and the Science of Taste" by Bianca Bosker over the last few days whilst trapped on a plane.
In a very entertaining style, Bianca writes about her journey from tech journalist knowing nothing about wine, to cellar rat, to passing the Certified Sommelier Exam, overseen by the Court of Master Sommeliers (which leads to the Advanced Sommelier Examination and to the pinnacle of Master Sommelier Diploma Examination).
The Certified Sommelier Examination is a one-day test with three separate sections: deductive tasting, theory, and practical service. In order to pass the examination, candidates must achieve a minimum 60% score in each section. Successful candidates will receive a pin signifying their certification as a sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers.
Deductive Tasting Examination: Utilising the Court of Master Sommelier Deductive Tasting Method, candidates must describe and identify four wines (two white and two red) to the best of their ability. This is a written tasting that must be completed in 30 minutes.
Theory Examination: The theory examination tests candidates' knowledge and understanding of the world of wine, beverage, and the sommelier trade. The test consists of multiple choice, short answer, simple math, and matching questions. Candidates must complete the 45-question examination within 35 minutes.
Service Practical Examination: The practical service examination approximates a real restaurant environment, and candidates are expected to demonstrate salesmanship and knowledge while performing a variety of tableside tasks. Candidates may be asked to open still or sparkling wines, to recommend cocktails or spirits, to discuss food and wine paring options, and to generally show their abilities as a restaurant sommelier.
Important principles of service according to top sommeliers: smile, maintain eye contact, no sudden movements, don't lean, don't slouch, don't look stiff, don't point, no names, don't touch the table, face, hair and certainly not the guest, polish the glasses, don't touch anything but the glass stem, don't let the glasses tinkle, don't pour men before women, don't put an ice bucket on the table, offer the cork, pour hosts before guests, make sure everyone gets the same amount of the pour, don't pick up glasses to pour, don't empty the bottle the first time around, don't pour from the left, don't walk clockwise, state the name of the wine and vintage before pouring etc. etc.
In Bianca's book she explores many of the controversies in wine:
- Are expensive wines really worth the money and the disconnect between the price of topend wines to their actual quality
- The hedonism around the wine scene in a city like New York
- The science behind the production of bulk wines
- The identification and exploitation of high worth customers in top end restaurants by sommeliers
- The inappropriate and out of date standards expected by the Court of Master Sommeliers which insist on service/knowledge for visitors to Michelin star restaurants, not everyday wine drinkers
- The lengths that some people will go to as they strive to become Masters of wine (as shown by the movie Somm) - endless blind tastings, change in lifestyles, impacts on their relationships with partners and family etc. Described as "little old men trapped in twentysomethings' bodies. In addition to dressing like they've raided Jay Gatsby's closet, they spend much of their time thinking about the past, mulling over the traditions of a five-hundred-year-old chateau, or mooning over a particularly warm spring 30 years ago."
- The bullshit around wine e.g. use of French language terms in service and the descriptors for wine during tasting (most of which seemed to be derived from a herd behaviour)
As someone who loves wine and has visited many of the great wine producing areas around from the world from Napa to Burgundy, I agree with many of Bianca's sentiments. Though I have to say I have much less acumen in wine tasting that she acquired over the last few years. I guess in somm speak, I'd be described as a "civilian".
Many sommeliers seem to live on a different planet of drinking and recommending super premium wines in many cases priced at hundreds of dollars a bottle in top restaurants in cities where money flows with abandon. Getting money of PX, personne extraordinaire (restaurant code for "spends dough") is the key requirement, professionalism seems a secondary consideration. Check out Victoria in the book!
Another depressing side effect of capitalism and perfectly matched to the lurid stories of the "Wolf of Wall Street", Lehman Brothers and so on.
I think I'll stay a wine civilian! A great read if you're into wine, educational and entertaining. Buy Bianca's book.