A couple of weeks ago my sister and I took a two-day Master Sommelier Introductory Course together. I was planning to blog about it as it happened, but realized that studying for the exam was going to take all of my focus. The Wednesday of that first day of class, I barely skimmed over what the first day had been like on the blog before collapsing on my bed to get some sleep. But I promised that I’d be back to tell more about it, so here I am!
First of all, I’ll explain more about the Master Sommelier courses.
What are the Master Sommelier Courses?
The Master Sommelier Introductory Course & Exam is the first of four levels that Master Sommelier candidates must pass in order to earn the title of Master Sommelier. A Master Sommelier Diploma is considered to be one of the highest professional credentials that anyone can achieve in the wine industry. It is similar to the Master of Wine title, in that both titles indicate that the person who has earned them has gone through a rigorous examination process which tests them on in-depth international wine knowledge and their ability to accurately determine multiple wines’ varietal make-up, style, vintage, and country and region of origin during blind tastings. The two differ in that the Master Sommelier exam also tests candidates on fine wine and beverage service, while the Master of Wine tests more theoretical knowledge about viticulture, winemaking, the business of wine and contemporary issues in the wine industry.
People who’ve earned their Master Sommelier title have finished a rigorous examination process consisting of the four levels of courses and exams offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers: the Introductory Course and Exam, the Certified Sommelier Examination, the Advanced Sommelier Course and Exam, and the Master Sommelier Diploma Exam. The more advanced the exam is, the more difficult it is to pass. Usually only two or three people in North America pass the Diploma Exam per year, and there are currently only 174 people around the world who have earned a Master Sommelier title.
Of course, not everyone taking the Introductory Course is planning to go on to the higher levels. Like me, many of the people in my class just wanted a solid foundation in wine. Other people were taking the class in order to qualify for the second level exam. Once that exam, the Certified Sommelier exam, is passed, you can officially call yourself a Certified Sommelier.
So, now that I’ve given you that background information, I can tell you about my class!
We started the first day of class at 8:00am. The first thing I noticed when sitting down was that each place was set with four wine glasses. We soon put them to use, because after an introduction to the Master Sommelier courses, our instructors poured our first four wines of the day, two whites and two reds, and led us through our first blind tasting analysis.
I absolutely loved this part of the class! The instructors were so knowledgeable about tasting, and they were very generous with their knowledge. They patiently answered all of our questions, and were quick to offer tips on how to improve our tasting skills. I also really appreciated how thorough we were in our analysis of each wine. Between how thoroughly we discussed each wine and the number of wines that we tasted, I found the tastings very effective. I think that even somebody who had hardly ever tasted before would feel competent in their wine tasting abilities by the end of this course!
We started with the absolute basics. Our instructors took us through the five stages of the Deductive Tasting process that the Court of Master Sommeliers has developed to analyze wine. Going around the room, each person was assigned one of the five deductive tasting stages, and had to talk about that stage in front of this class. First we analyzed the wine’s appearance, looking at things like the brightness of the wine, its color, and its clarity. Next we moved on to the nose of the wine, paying attention to what fruit aromas we picked up on and also mentioning if we noticed other characteristics, such as earthiness, oak, toast, spices, herbal characteristics, or anything that smelled off (such as wet newspaper, which would indicate cork taint, or burnt matches, which would indicate high levels of sulfur). And then, we analyzed the way the wine tasted and felt in our mouths, paying attention not only to flavors, but also to textural qualities such as the wine’s tannin levels, its acidity, and its alcohol level.
The final two stages were the most intimidating – the initial conclusion and the final conclusion. During the initial conclusion, we had to take a guess at whether the wine was from the Old World or New World, approximate how old it was, and guess which varietal (or blend of varietals) it was made with, taking into account the characteristics that we’d noted before. Then, for the final conclusion, we had to be even more decisive in our statements, giving a precise vintage for the wine, state the varietals, and then pick its region and country of origin, backing up all of our guesses with evidence. I felt lucky that I wasn’t selected to do either of these stages during the course, and had to do appearance and aromas instead!
The lectures were just as educational as the tastings. After our first tasting flight, our instructors started right into their first round of lectures, briefly touching upon grape-growing and winemaking before jumping straight into lectures on international wine regions. That first day we talked primarily about French wine regions, focusing particularly on Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Alsace, before moving on to North American wine regions, particularly regions in California, Oregon, Washington and New York. The lectures were fascinating! They went into each region in a degree of depth that I had never encountered before, and they made me hungry to learn as much as I possibly could.
The second day of our MS course was a lot like the first. We covered the major wine-producing countries that we hadn’t yet talked about yet, including regions in Spain, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Hungary, Greece, Australia, and New Zealand. More tastings were interspersed with our lectures, although we only had a couple, as opposed to the six tasting flights that we did the first day, probably because we needed to be totally sharp for our exam. We finished up the class with lectures on Champagne and other sparkling wines, Port, Sherry, and Madeira, as well as very short lectures on beer and spirits. We went outside for a brief tutorial on the proper way to serve wine in a restaurant. And then, we came to the culmination of our class – the thing that had been keeping me up at night, the reason that when I did sleep I dreamt of wine regions in Germany, the reason that words like “Puttonyos” and “Trockenbeerenauslese” and “Assyrtiko” kept popping into my head -
the Level I Exam. (Dum dum dum!)
I was thrilled by my score, because surprisingly I ended up being one of the top three scorers on the exam! The MS instructors don’t tell you what your score is unless you earn 100%, but they will tell you if you had one of the highest scores in the class. I’d had no idea that I’d have one of them, so I was very excited!
Most of the people that I talked to after the exam told me that they’d found the test easier than they’d thought it would be, and I’d definitely agree. I’d started the class very confident that I’d pass, because I’d heard that the test has a 90% pass rate, but after the two days of lectures, I had started to worry about digesting all of the information we’d covered. As it turns out, I shouldn’t have been worried. The instructors did an excellent job of preparing us for the exam, and as long as we had paid attention in class, and had taken notes when they gave us hints, the exam would have turned out fine.
After class, Julia and I celebrated earning our certificates:
Then we enjoyed a glass of Champagne with our classmates – before heading out to celebrate my birthday! It was the first night in a week that we hadn’t spent the evening studying, and it felt good!
Taking the MS Introductory Course
I would definitely recommend this class to anyone who is seriously interested in wine! For those in the wine industry who want to fill in any gaps in their wine knowledge, this course is perfect, because it covers a lot of material in two days, and gives a good solid foundation for learning more in the future. And for those who want to improve their tasting skills, the deductive tasting method is great. I wouldn’t recommend this if you are totally new to wine and just want a basic introduction, because this course is much too detailed for that. But if wine is your passion, or your work, or both, I can’t imagine a better way to learn a lot about it in a short amount of time.
If you are planning to take this class, there are definitely some things that you should have handy beforehand. The most important would be a comprehensive book on wine. The most important would be a comprehensive book on wine. The Court of Master Sommeliers provides a great list of recommendations. Another good resource is the book that my sister and I read before the exam, Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course:
This book was perfect for intro exam prep. It was very informative, fun and easy to read, and it covered practically everything. What’s more, the 25th anniversary edition even contains quizzes at the end of each chapter, making studying that much easier. I started reading it a couple of weeks before class, taking lots of notes and quizzing myself as I read, and I’d definitely recommend doing that. Taking in all of the information that they present you with during your two-day survey course can be overwhelming, and you will definitely appreciate knowing the basics before you get there.
Some other good things to have on hand are some good old-fashioned 3 x 5 index cards. Almost everyone I talked to who had already taken this class told me that it is helpful to use a stack of index cards to study, and I definitely agree! I filled out about one hundred of these in the weeks before class, and would flip through some of them every night before I went to bed. Very helpful in remembering which five chateaux are the Premiers Grands Crus in Bordeaux, or for memorizing the ten Beaujolais Crus!
But last of all, prepare to have fun! Between all of the interesting wine trivia you’ll pick up and the series of blind tastings, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the class as much as I did!