So you want to be a Master Sommelier …
- Candidates for Master Sommelier are required to analyse, assess, explain and identify the origin of six wines to a panel of examiners.
- There is a set methodology called ‘the grid’ that candidates must follow and answer.
- Years of training and discipline can make for the heady release of success or the bitter disappointment of failure.
Everyone who enjoys a glass of wine also takes a certain intellectual pleasure from analyzing the contents of their glass.
The honing of one’s critical faculties is an important step towards a deeper enjoyment, a more profound engagement, a more satisfying relationship with wine.
But have you ever wondered just how far you can take it, how extreme it can be?
The Court of Master Sommeliers has devised a fiendishly difficult practical exam for those wishing to attain their highest qualification, the highly respected Master Sommelier.
Candidates are required to analyze, assess, explain and identify the origin of six wines to a panel of examiners, three or four experts who are themselves Master Sommeliers. They are allowed just 25 minutes.
The wines are in unmarked decanters: there are no clues. That’s four minutes per wine, to scrutinize every aspect of it, with nothing to go on but your own senses and knowledge.
Kavita Faiella embarked on the Master Sommelier journey in 2006, while working as a sommelier in Hong Kong. Nine years later she passed the theory and practical segments of the qualification, and is currently in training for the tasting exam, which she intends to sit in 2016.
She elaborates. “There is a set methodology called ‘the grid’ that you follow and must provide an answer for every point before coming to an initial and final conclusion; Sight, Nose, Palate, Overall, Initial Conclusion and Final Conclusion.”
“Overall” consists of factors like balance or complexity. The “Initial Conclusion” includes assessments of old or new world origin, cool or warm climate, age, blend and so forth, the ordering and analysis of which should lead you to the “Final Conclusion”; grape variety, country, region, appellation, classification and vintage.
All this in four minutes, remember, six times in rapid succession.
If the thought of that is mind warping, what must the actual preparation require?
Franck Moreau is a French Master Sommelier working in Australia. He likens the process to training for an elite sports event. “You should know your grid by heart so you don’t have to think about it, so you can concentrate on the wine, like you’re going to run in the Olympics, like it’s a sport. You have to be at one with what you’re going to do.”
Taste more, learn more
There is, of course, only one sure way to become an expert at tasting wine, and that is by tasting a lot of wine. Kavita Faiella was swamped with wine as she got ready for the exams. “My lounge room in Hong Kong, while not very big, was covered from one end to the other with sample bottles, arranged by varietal, country and region and every second day my best friend would arrange a blind tasting that I would have scheduled on Skype with an MS from somewhere in the world.”
It’s important to taste the right wines, to access a broad cross section of regions, styles and varieties. Franck Moreau explains: “You try to do as many tasting as you can but the important thing is to plan, and to look at the wine you need to taste. And you do that two or three times a week, every second day and then sometimes at home as well. It’s important to taste with the right people too.”
Moreau even recorded his answers as he was practicing in the lead up to his exams. He said it gave him more awareness of whether he was repeating himself, or dwelling on issues that were only obliquely related to the task at hand; describing precisely and decisively what is in the glass, and nothing more.
This alludes to a deeper element of this type of exam, the state of mind of the student. Kavita Faiella expresses it directly. “I spent a lot of time doing self-visualization, meditating and nerve control exercises.”
Clearly then, for MS aspirants, the stakes are high. Years of training and discipline can make for the heady release of success or the bitter disappointment of failure.
Sacrifice vs achievement
Asked about sacrifices, Kavita Faiella agrees, spending every spare moment and every spare cent in preparation. Perhaps understandably, Moreau has a slightly different perspective. “It’s not about sacrifice, it’s about achievement. It’s about what you want for yourself.”
These days, Franck Moreau is on the other side, on the verge of completing his training to become an examiner. He says it has given him more perspective on the exams, that now he sees just how fair they are.
So what is his advice to MS candidates? “Try not to worry about failing, everyone has good days and bad days. Focus, be confident in your tasting, and enjoy it, otherwise there’s no point.”
The Master Sommelier qualification is the highest of four that the Court of Master Sommeliers offers, but all are designed for candidates wishing to devote themselves to the hospitality industries. Exams involve significant practical components, while vivas reflect the interactive nature of such employment.
By Sophie Otton on May 15, 2015 – LE*PAN