Masters of the [Wine] Universe

Top-level sommeliers pass stringent exams for the right to add “MS” after their name.

The ability to spell pinot meunier without a dictionary, correctly pronounce cinsault even though you aren’t French, and explain the difference between petite syrah and petit verdot (beyond the extra “e” in the former) won’t get you into the Court of Master Sommeliers without a larger foundation to back up that somewhat esoteric knowledge.

A diploma from the hallowed body indicates an individual has a firm grasp not only on the wine bottle, but also on beverage department management and service, spirits, beer, and even cigars. Candidates undergo a rigorous process that includes three levels of exams.

According to Kathleen Lewis, executive director of the American Chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers in Napa, the least amount of time candidates can take to earn a master sommelier diploma is four years, and the average time is takes is six to seven years. The current total cost for the required courses and exams is $2,485.

The two-day introductory course includes a review of wine-producing regions throughout the world, wine service, and tasting exercises. A passing grade for the multiple-choice exam at the end of instruction is 60 percent, and the pass rate 95 percent. Sounds easy enough, right?

The one-day certified sommelier exam includes a 30-minute, 25-question written exam; a blind tasting of two wines that requires the candidate to fill out a tasting grid in 15 minutes; and a service exam that includes decanting a red wine or opening a bottle of Champagne. A passing grade for each section is 60 percent, and the pass rate 65 percent.

Only upon successful completion of the first two exams may an individual apply for the three-day advanced sommelier course. In addition to completing the introductory course, applicants must have at last five years of experience in the wine/service industry and provide letters of recommendation. The passing grade for each section of the course is 60 percent, but this time the pass rate is only 25 percent. As an example of the knowledge required just to be “prepared” for this course is the ability to recite from memory the grand crus of the Côte de Nuits, AVAs of Sonoma County, and bereiches of the Rheinhessen. If you just said, “The what of the what?” you’re not ready.

Those who do pass the advanced course may — drum roll, please — fork over $800 to take the master sommelier exam held in February or March, typically in Northern California. Over three days, candidates are tested on theory and tasting. They must successfully accomplish such tasks as presenting, preparing, and serving brandies, liqueurs, and cigars; answer questions on international wine laws; explain the process of making beers and ciders (and the reasons for variations in style); and accurately identify in 25 minutes six wines in terms of grape variety, country and district of origin, and vintage. Each section of the exam requires a 75 percent passing grade.

Lewis says the court gets about 45 to 50 applicants for the exam, only 3 to 5 percent of which pass. So the next time you run into someone with an MS after their name, be dutifully impressed.

• To read how to taste wine like a Master Sommelier, click here.

• For more on wine or to find wine dinners, events, and tastings, click here.

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