I recently took the Court of Master Sommeliers Level 1: Introductory Sommelier Course & Exam at the 2014 TEXSOM conference. You may have seen the movie SOMM which documents the efforts of candidates preparing for the Master Sommelier exam, the fourth and final level of the program. In order to start on the journey to be a Master Sommelier, the first step required is the Introductory Sommelier exam, commonly referred to as Level 1.
I have friends, including other wine bloggers and writers, who in the past few years took Level 1 and then even went to Level 2 where they passed the Certified Sommelier exam and can now call themselves a Certified Sommelier. They aren’t currently working as a sommelier but they have that knowledge and experience where they could. I decided I wanted to at least take Level 1 to gain more knowledge of the wine industry, and then who knows. Everybody I talked to who were now Certified or Advanced Sommeliers said I would have no problem with Level 1. Yeah, right.
The Level 1 class is offered around the world and at TEXSOM every year. The course and exam cost $525 and is taught by Master Sommeliers. After you apply for the course and exam, you are given some items. You receive a complimentary one year membership to the Guild of Sommeliers to both help you study for the exam, engage in forums with other wine industry professionals, and more.
Another is access to a number of downloadable files to help you prepare for the exam. The all-important one is the Introductory Sommelier Course Workbook. The 246 page workbook gives you an introduction to the agenda for the two day class and review material which may be on the exam. I would have liked a printed book to study from so I printed it out and then realized later that I should just use a PDF program on my iPad to read the workbook and make notes, and that turned out to be a lot smaller to carry around and use. The class students received a printed copy of the workbook when we arrived at the class.
One of the downloadable files gave recommended reading to prepare for the Level 1 exam. This included books such as The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil and The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia by Tom Stevenson. These two books are huge with the first being 910 pages and the latter being 736 pages! Was I getting in over my head?
I was currently studying for the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) exam offered by the Society of Wine Educators and the Study Guide for that exam is 300 pages. That seemed a little more reasonable. Besides the addition of deductive tasting, beer, sake, spirits, and food and wine pairing for Level 1 which a sommelier needs to know, the rest of the topics in both exams are similar. That means primarily wine regions around the world including geography, wines, grapes, etc. I decided if I studied the CSW book for the wine regions and added the additional information, I should be good.
Everything I read on the Court of Master Sommeliers’ website and downloadable materials said to pass Level 1, only a theory exam was given. But the material also referred to blind tastings and service instruction, so I was confused exactly what I was to expect. I asked friends who had passed Level 1 before and was still confused at first when they said to practice my blind tasting skills. I then talked to the right friend who clarified everything for me. Hopefully I’ll explain the same things here which will make it easier for future students so there is no confusion. She also suggested I stop using the CSW book to study with and primarily concentrate on the Introductory Sommelier Course Workbook as a guideline.
The Introductory program is two days of a fast-paced review of the world’s wine producing regions, wine service, and several blind tasting exercises. At the end of the second day, a multiple choice exam of 70 questions is given. You must get a minimum score of 60% to pass. It is all theory and no blind tasting or service involved in the exam. Basically, you need to study, study, and study some more before you get to class. The highlights will be hit during class and you will not be taught everything then. If a person comes into the class without any prior studying, there is a very good chance they will not pass the exam.
My Level 1 class had six Master Sommeliers instructing the class. I heard the number is usually smaller but since TEXSOM this year attracted 39 Master Sommeliers, the number was higher. We also had other Masters who showed up during the class to help out, especially during exam time.
Our class had 115 students. The Masters said at the beginning of the class they already had 115 certificates and pins ready and they wanted everybody to pass, but the usual percentage of passing is 90%. That is a number I heard before, but I read elsewhere if you think about who is taking the class and exam, they most likely are people already in the wine industry and possibly working in a restaurant, so they are ready with the knowledge and a strong desire to pass. So the 90% number might be a little skewed.
I talked with one friend on and off in the previous weeks who was also taking my class about what to expect and what we were going to study. When I arrived at the class, I ended up knowing four other people who either I had previously met in person or on Facebook/Twitter.
We were told in the introduction to our class they would be trying something new with us regarding the agenda and the deductive tasting grid. Sure enough, the agenda listed in the workbook was not followed to the letter as the first day we jumped to some topics which were to be presented on the second day. One Master Sommelier also told us they would be going over everything we needed to take the “quiz.” Note they didn’t want to call it an exam and kept true to that fashion the entire class when speaking about the ending.
As previously mentioned, the class included a deductive blind tasting element, actually multiple flights of mostly four wines each. The first flight included describing the deductive process and took 90 minutes to complete which ended with us being 30 minutes behind schedule by noon. I understand this was primarily to help the class learn what is needed for the five parts (sight, nose, palate, initial conclusion, and final conclusion) to prepare for the Level 2 Certified Exam, but personally I think this took too long. I needed to understand the items I was going to be tested on for the Level 1 exam. The next flight later took one hour and then they decided to start a five-minute timer to do all five parts. This is usually what happens in the Certified Exam, so that totally made sense.
Even though the Masters were very helpful in trying to help everybody in their different parts of the deductive process, I was still nervous to stand up and do it even though I have taken multiple courses before to help in the deductive process. Perhaps I don’t smell enough things since I don’t cook or tend a garden (what does honeysuckle taste like?) so I have trouble picking out different aromas and flavors. I would have had a tough time trying to come up with what I smelled or tasted. The microphone was passed around to groups of five and four people and at the end of the first day stopped at the end of our long row. On the second day we picked up where the microphone was left, but it went the other direction instead of toward us. By the end of the class, it never got back to our row and other people in the back were also skipped. Whew! That was certainly understandable though with 115 people in the class.
The Masters teaching the class were great! Most were very enthusiastic speakers and I wish I could have sat there and just listened to them talk because a lot of times they had personal stories. The problem though was in the back of my mind I had to keep remembering the exam at the end of the second day was coming up!
The first day went from 8:30 am until about 6:00 pm. During the day, my friend and I would talk to each other and get a feeling on how we each felt about the upcoming exam. There were times we were like, “Ah, no problem,” and then we went back down to the level of “Oh my, what are we doing?” It seemed this up and down feeling continually happened during the entire class.
It was great to finish the first day, but that meant to grab a quick bite to eat and back to the hotel room to study more. One thing the instructors said was pay attention very closely during class. There were times when an instructor would say “you should remember that,” and sure enough “that” was on the exam. If you weren’t paying attention in class, you may have gotten the question wrong. So the first night ended with me looking over the notes I had taking during the class and adding them to my memory bank of items I had already memorized.
The second day started at 8 am which immediately began with another blind tasting. Even though the timer was set at 4 minutes 10 seconds this time, we still didn’t get to the theory part until 9 am. The rest of the morning went pretty much like the first day. Lunch time meant studying while eating lunch.
After lunch, we did a blind tasting of two wines as a group using the Court’s new tasting grid which will be used for the Certified Exam. It was then back to theory until we finished going through what was in the workbook. Notes were taken on topics discussed and it wasn’t clear until later in the afternoon how long our final break would be before it was then time for the “quiz.” It turned out to be about five minutes long. That meant we needed to remember the extra things we learned during the afternoon and hopefully remember everything from the first day and morning too.
Now it was time for a service demonstration by a few Masters. They did a service of sparkling wine and one with old red wine. The purpose of the demonstration was again to show us what would be required if we took the Certified Exam.
We then had the five minute break which most everybody spent cramming on new items and trying to remember old ones. We were ushered back into the room where the exam papers were and we had 45 minutes to take the 70 question multiple choice exam. As we were done, we would raise our hand and someone would come to take our papers and we were free to leave.
I would love to give you some example questions but of course I cannot. The workbook had 12 or 13 sample questions to be used at the end of each day. After talking with some other people, we all agreed that the questions in the book were fairly easy compared to some of the questions on the exam. They actually gave one a false sense of security.
After the 45 minute time limit for the exam, we had 15 minutes to wait for the results and reception in another room. The tension was high waiting to hear if we passed. I was told prior that if you do not pass the exam, they do not single you out; they just do not call your name. You also do not find out your score in either case as it’s either pass or fail. If you pass, you get a certificate and a pin. They first thanked everybody for attending and said 112 people actually took the exam. They also announced not everyone passed, but did not say how many did not.
Unlike what usually happens to me at the airport when my luggage is always the last one arriving, I was actually the second person called who passed. Whew! What a relief that was! I was next to my friend who was sweating it out and I looked around at my other friends who were waiting to hear, but I could not contain myself when my eyes started getting watery. I’m sure it was the satisfaction that I passed the exam, but it was probably because a lot of stress had just been released too. All evening it seemed I would still breathe a big sigh of relief.
Oh yeah, all my friends ended up passing the exam too.
To summarize what you need to do to pass Level 1, I would say they are:
- Study, study, and study before you get to class
- Do not think the exam is a cakewalk
- If you are feeling comfortable with your knowledge learned prior to class, then you will enjoy the class even more. That again means study before.
- Listen intently to the instructors during the class
- Remember what you learn during class
- Did I say study before the class?
I wish you the best in passing the Level 1 Introductory Sommelier Exam. Cheers!