“All I could think of was, please don’t be him, please don’t be him.” But it was. As she walked across the room to where he sat, at one of the four tables in the restaurant, her nerves climbed—not because she’d just seen him in a recent movie—but because she’d rehearsed this moment for months.
“Open the bottle carefully, place the cork on a separate plate, keep the label facing him,” she repeated to herself. At a mock restaurant in the International Culinary Center in Campbell, California, Olivia Mason had made it to the third and final section of her Certified Sommelier Test, the Service Portion.
As soon as she reached the table, a Master Sommelier—the one she had dreaded being assigned to—ordered a bottle of Champagne from her, then began to quiz her. To her, Brian McClintic was a minor celebrity: His own path to taking the Master Sommelier Test, the qualifying test for the highest honor a sommelier can receive, had been documented in the 2012 film, Somm. Olivia removed the Champagne from a nearby bucket and began to carefully dry it off with a serviette, a motion she’d practiced countless times.
“Can you recommend any IPAs?” he asked.
“At that moment,” Olivia, one of my oldest friends, would later recall to me, “my mind went blank—completely blank.” She had studied beer recommendations—along with aperitif, digestif, and classic cocktail suggestions—as part of her preparation for the test, but as she peeled the foil back from the bottle, she could only recall one. “I could have said any solid IPA from any good brewery, but the only thing that came to my mind was Lagunitas’ Hop Stoopid.”
For a brief moment, Brian said nothing as Olivia calculated the points her mention of an off-kilter beer may have cost her, until he—to her immense relief—laughed off her answer. He was amused. Then he launched into another question.
The Certified Sommelier Examination is just the second in a series of four tests that end in the Master Sommelier title, and it's widely considered to be the minimum standard for wine professionals in the service industry. Made up of three sections which take place over one day—a blind tasting, written theory exam, and service practical—the Certified Sommelier test isn’t nearly as difficult as its big brother, the Master Sommelier Test (said to be the hardest test in the world), but is still an enormous undertaking. Taking the test requires a vast knowledge of wine varietals, regions, and makers—and beer, too.
The four levels of certification, which can take as little as four but as many as 20 years to complete (a maximum of five years is allotted between many of the tests), are administered by a group of select wine professionals with the appropriately daunting name The Court of Master Sommeliers. The Court, or CMS, is the most well-respected beverage industry examining body in the world.
Since holding their first Master Sommelier exam in the United Kingdom in 1969, the test has established its headquarters in the United States and has evolved immensely; just last year, they switched to a new tasting grid to guide their blind tasting portion. Now, in addition to characteristics about structure, age, climate, and varietal, the grid requires knowledge of additional fruit characteristics (like “tart, jammy, baked, stewed, and desiccated”) and information on organic and biodynamic wines, among other changes. But the test remains as difficult as it ever was: In the past 40 years, only 230 students (198 men and 32 women) out of thousands have passed the Master Sommelier Test. The theory section alone—the first of three parts—has a pass rate of approximately 10%.
The Certified Examination has a slightly more padded pass rate of 64%, but for many, failing the test isn’t an option. The Level Two Test costs $395—and that's on top of $525 for the introductory exam and, in many cases, travel expenses. Combined, Olivia told me that it’s common for students to pay $1,000 to earn their Certified Sommelier diploma—and that’s only if they pass.
That’s money that could be spent on a flight to visit a vineyard, a month of rent, or, say, four bottles of 1988 Dom Pérignon.
It had only been nine months since Olivia and I had shared a bottle of “I think it’s from France?” but in the time since, we’d moved to opposite coasts and she’d completely immersed herself in the wine industry. She could now call my bluff when I said things like, “I like Spanish wines because they’re generally harsher.” No, she would correct me, Spanish wines tend not to be harsh, in part because they’re aged much longer than any other wines in barrels that impart vanilla and coconut characteristics.
Olivia pointed out to me that the price tag becomes significantly higher when you take into account the cost of studying for the test. In the nine months between passing the Level One introductory test and working towards her certification, Olivia had moved to Sonoma, where she worked at a tasting room and spent her time and money on wine classes, study materials, and, of course, bottles to taste.
For those studying for the test, she explained, the exam can become an obsession—and the desire to pass it stems from something much deeper than a desire to make the cost worthwhile.
“It’s funny,” Olivia told me over the phone, on her way to join her weekly tasting group, “When people ask me how I got into wine, I always tell them it’s because of studying abroad [in Spain one semester, and later in Australia]. It’s true that I fell in love with it because it’s so connected to the history and art of different cultures, but that isn’t the whole story.”
For many, like Olivia, the tests are a gateway to the wine industry, and are ultimately an investment in a successful—and potentially extremely profitable—career. In a meeting with a leading West Coast distributor months before her introductory sommelier exam, Olivia said, “He took a piece of paper and wrote out the difference in pay you get from leveling up [per sommelier test]. The numbers were significant.”
When Olivia walked out of her service practical, her Certified Sommelier test behind her but not yet graded, everything she’d put on the line to pursue a career in wine ran through her head. In rehashing the service portion, she realized she’d made a vital mistake: She’d forgotten to remove the ice bucket from the table.
In the documentary, Somm, five men sit around a table. One of the men takes a thoughtful sip from his glass of wine, then launches into a description of it: “Rubber hose,” he declares, among its other aromas, before landing on the vintage, varietal, and region of the wine. His survey is impressive—almost to the point of hilarity. How could anyone decipher so much information, and so resolutely, from a sip? But that’s exactly what’s required of the first section of the Certified Sommelier test: a blind tasting.
Olivia described it to me this way: You walk into a room where several sets of two wines—a white and a red—are on tables. Each student takes a seat across from their respective glasses, and then a time-keeper tells them to begin. They have exactly 15 minutes to examine each wine and write out its quality, aroma, color, structure, and then their conclusion: what climate the wine was made in, whether it was made in an old world or new world style, and what varietal is. The room is so quiet you could hear a pin drop. “Nobody talks,” Olivia said, “Each person is so focused on their own wine.”
Where Olivia ran into a roadblock was with the varietal of her red—the wine could have been an oak-aged Tempranillo or a Sangiovese. She circled Tempranillo to later discover, after speaking with the other test-takers, that it was in fact more likely a Sangiovese. However, she would never know for sure—the Master Sommeliers never reveal what the wines actually were. All the students can do is guess. She hoped that her thought process would save her. She explained, “You try to point out all the things you're smelling and tasting on the grid to show how you got to your conclusion through deductive reasoning." In the end, points are rewarded not only for correct final answers, but how that conclusion was reached.
The next portion of the exam is on theory, where test-takers are given 30 minutes to complete 40 questions that range from multiple-choice to fill-in-the-blank. This part of the test requires the most knowledge of detail. Olivia explained, "They'll ask for things like how many Grand Cru vineyards there are in Burgundy or to name three different American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in Oregon."
It's also a make or break moment in the exam—people will either pass this section with flying colors, Olivia said, or completely fail. The questions require such a detailed comprehension of the wine industry that it’s difficult to fake your way through it. While many of the people taking the test may be served a wine they happen to know during the blind tasting, or may be able to improvise their way through the service practical, the questions on the written portion are so detailed and varied that a passing score of 60% requires months of studying wine theory. “They can ask you anything," Olivia said.
Immediately after asking Olivia for a beer recommendation, Brian, the Master Sommelier Olivia had been assigned to, asked her to pour Champagne for six people.
The third portion of the test is also the most nerve-wracking and requires knowledge of standard wine service, Champagne service, and decanting service—you never know which one you’re going to be expected to do.
At a New Years celebration swimming in solo cups, pouring Champagne is called “getting the party started”; at a sommelier test, it’s a cripplingly detail-oriented task. It requires that the student divvy the bottle out in six, exactly-equal portions. Olivia told me that she still can’t do this without counting the seconds of each pour, so as Brian asked her questions, she was also counting, “One, two, three…” At the same time, points are marked off for “bumping” into the table guests, who are not actual people but are instead marked by chairs.
"The nerves are what get everyone for this portion—it's so easy to forget the little things, but you have to try to hold it together and remain collected," she said.
After completing the service, which took roughly 15 minutes, Olivia was instructed to face the wall of the room, with the rest of the students who had finished their service. While she stared at the blank wall, she heard the ice bucket being removed by one of the instructors and realized her error.
Some of the students at Olivia’s test already knew they’d failed the theory portions, which made their chances at passing the test impossible. Others quietly debated what vintage the blind tasting wines were.
Finally, they were called into a large room where a Master Sommelier announced the names of those who had passed the test. “Olivia Mason,” he said. Within just a few short hours, Olivia had gone from a wine-lover who had passed the introductory course to a Certified Sommelier. Her beer bumble and tasting errors no longer mattered as she received her certificate and shook Brian’s hand. But in the wine world, that’s the only celebration you get—that, and maybe, just maybe, a glass of Krug Clos d’Ambonnay 1995 (her favorite Champagne)—because passing one test means looking forward to the next.
Almost as soon as Olivia completed her test, she began studying for the next test, the Advanced Sommelier Exam, though she still isn’t sure whether she’ll take it. "The thing about the wine industry," she told me, "is that you never know where you’ll end up."
Would you ever take the Certified Sommelier Test? How about the Master Sommelier Test? Were you drinking a glass while you read this? Tell us in the comments below!