Sommeliers spend years studying, tasting and traveling to reach the pinnacle of their profession | SummitDaily.com

Sommeliers spend years studying, tasting and traveling to reach the pinnacle of their profession

Kirsten Dobroth
Special to the Daily

The life of a sommelier is often far more complex than the ritualistic dance between palate and drink of see, smell, slurp and swish; it's hard to depict the years of studying, tasting and traveling that have helped mold the palates of sommeliers at every level of certification.

Often described more as a journey than a career, the road to becoming a master sommelier is paved in a myriad of hours, days and years of continuing education, and countless sommeliers around the world are already immersed in the path.

The process

There are different governing bodies that offer certifications for wine, but the Court of Master Sommeliers is regarded as the gold standard for service professionals, as it touches on every aspect of wine, liquor, beer and table service. Test-takers not only have to blind taste and correctly identify classic varietals for each level of certification but must be versed in the nuances of Champagne service and ready for the curve ball of properly preparing and pouring the most obscure of liquors.

A master sommelier has passed all four levels of the court's programming, which include the Introductory Sommelier Course and Exam, the Certified Sommelier Exam, the Advanced Sommelier Course and Exam, and the Master Sommelier Diploma Exam, with a corresponding pin to be worn for each level. A master sommelier marks the top tier of certification and holds a distinction bestowed to only 230 others worldwide.

From Certified to Advanced

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Matty Pauls, of Root & Flower, and Andreas Harl, of Matsuhisa, are both certified sommeliers in Vail, with Pauls preparing to take his advanced course in March and Harl testing for his advanced pin in Portland shortly thereafter. Both agree that the desire to embark upon the path of being "the somm" is one born of a zealous interest in wine and years in the restaurant industry.

"I realized that my interest in wine from working in restaurants had become a passion, and it was something I wanted to pursue," Harl said.

Pauls added that the tourism swings in the Vail Valley are particularly helpful for immersion into wine culture.

"It's not just book studying," he said. "It's about working in wineries and traveling to the wine regions you're tasting from. The offseason here is accommodating for that."

However nontraditional a career as a sommelier can be, the amount of time spent hitting the books makes for a profession that can hardly be considered all fun and games. Applicants for each level spend an average of 25 to 30 hours per week pouring over the more academic side of wine culture.

"The studying alone is like a part-time job," Harl said.

From Advanced to Master

Jeremy Campbell, co-owner of Root & Flower, will be testing for his master's diploma this March in Dallas and equated the process to Olympic training.

"Nobody goes to the Olympics by accident," he said, "It's about constantly preparing and, more importantly, performing at the exact moment."

Along with a written theory portion of the exam, much of the performance comes down to the tasting, one of the more remarkable parts of the examination, at least to those on the outside. Participants have 25 minutes to go through six wines — three white, three red — and correctly identify the varietal, region and age.

"Most people fall apart on wines four and five," Campbell said. "You're talking continuously for 25 minutes to a panel of master sommeliers about what you're seeing and smelling and tasting; it gets exhausting."

Life at the top

Sean Razee, beverage director for Vail Resorts, obtained his master's diploma in 2008, after beginning his journey five years before when he realized his calling was in wine. He explained the wealth of knowledge encompassed by a sommelier of any level of certification as one that largely goes unnoticed to most restaurant-goers.

"Most guests simply get a high level of service and rarely realize the amount of time a sommelier has committed to learning their craft," he said, "A good sommelier needs to have an incredible amount of knowledge about wine regions, vintages, producers, service, food and wine pairing, how to run a profitable business and a host of other details."

While Razee has reached the pinnacle in terms of accreditation for his field, he hopes to act as a guide for others aspiring to the same level.

"As a master sommelier, mentorship is very important," he said. "I was given countless hours of training by several master sommeliers, and now I have the privilege of paying that forward."

Campbell agreed that the masters all have a pass-it-on kind of attitude that has helped him in his quest for the master pin. While it might sound unattainable to some, Campbell simply sees it as the next step.

"I'm not doing it because it's impossible," he said, "Going for my master's pushes me as an individual in my career. It just makes me better at what I do."

Levels of the sommelier

The Court of Master Sommeliers has four required steps to becoming a Master Sommelier.

• Introductory Sommelier Course & Exam — The intent of this course is to provide wine and hospitality professionals with a thorough review of the world of wines and spirits at the highest professional standards. The course is followed by a multiple-choice theory exam consisting of 70 questions.

• Certified Sommelier Exam — This exam recognizes an individual who has shown proficiency in essential service skills; has a general understanding of wine, beer, spirits and cocktails; and has the ability to articulate that information on demand.

• Advanced Sommelier Course & Exam — This course is designed to give candidates a template for upper-level examination study and a clear understanding of expectations at both the Advanced Sommelier Examination and Master Sommelier Diploma Examination. It’s recommended that candidates have a minimum five years’ experience in beverage hospitality before applying for the Advanced Sommelier Course.

• Master Sommelier Diploma Exam — This test consists of three parts: theory, practical and tasting. Candidates who are unable to pass the theory portion in three successive attempts are required to take a one-year hiatus from sitting the examination.

For more information about the testing process and the Court of Master Sommeliers, visit http://www.mastersommeliers.org.