Entering the world of the sommelier

I thought I knew a lot about wine. I mean I’ve worked at a winery, I’ve visited tons of them over the years and I even got married at one. I’ve been writing about the subject for a couple of years and have interviewed dozens of winemakers and industry professionals. I thought I knew a lot about wine, until I joined a sommelier study group last January.

That first meeting I was given a quiz with questions like: “Briefly describe the difference in detection threshold and recognition threshold in regards to wine,” and, “What is the name for the airborne molecules in wine that allow us to smell its aromas.” What?

The next day I ran out and bought a bunch of text books and study guides to prep for the next week’s quiz.

The study group was made up of eight people who were preparing for various exams held by two leading sommelier organizations, the Court of Master Sommeliers and the Society of Wine Educators. It was led by Bill Elsey, Texas’s Best Sommelier in 2011, who was studying for his Advanced Sommelier exam, the third of four levels in the Court of Master Sommeliers education process.

The interesting thing about the group is that half of the members were not employed in the beverage industry. Two of us were food and drink writers, one a wine PR professional and one just a really interested wine drinker. That’s not your typical make-up for a group studying for this kind of specialized education.

Why would I — or anyone not in the wine business for that matter, go to the trouble — time and expense of studying for and taking a sommelier exam? It came down to curiosity, passion for the topic and an intense interest in learning more about the subject about which I so frequently write. The reality is that I had no idea what I was getting into. It was far more than just learning a little about wine.

Over the six months of weekly study groups, blind tastings, quizzes and lots of independent study, I learned all about viticulture, wine production and the geography and grape varieties in major wine producing regions. I also learned the art of discerning where a wine is from, what grape it’s made of and when it was produce with descent accuracy just by looking at it, smelling it, tasting it and deductive reasoning.

I even learned that a puttonyos is the measurement of the sweetness level of Hungarian Tokaji Aszú, which is made from botrytised grapes.

What I also learned is that there is a close fraternity among sommeliers. It turns out that beverage professionals are a tightly knit, highly dedicated and incredibly supportive group of people. Many of them are motivated by the same things that motivated me to join that study group: passion for the topic and an intense interest in learning more about it. In fact, they approach continuing education like a shark constantly on the move.

This was on grand display at TEXSOM, an industry conference dedicated to the education of top beverage professionals in Texas and around the world. The three day conference presented by the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas and the Texas Sommelier Association featured more than a dozen educational sessions, the annual Texas’ Best Sommelier competition and the Court of Master Sommeliers Introductory Course and Exam.

TEXSOM was founded in 2005 by James Tidwell MS, CWE, beverage manager at the Four Seasons Resort and Club in Las Colinas; Drew Hendricks MS, CWE, director of beverage education for Pappas Restaurants in Houston and Guy Stout MS, CWE, with Glazer’s Distributors. In its first year, TEXSOM had around 110 attendees; This year there were almost 700.

“James [Tidwell] and I noticed that a lot of people were studying wine, but not taking exams,” Hendricks said. “We decided to start TEXSOM with an education focus. The star of the conference was and the Texas’ Best Sommelier competition, which gives people a free look at what it is like to take sommelier exams. In the second year we started offering the Court’s Intro Exam and since then around 2,700 people have taken it at TEXSOM.”

I was one of those 2,700 people. Aspiring sommeliers, retailers and wholesalers and even members of the general public take the Court’s Intro Exam to get a solid foundation of wine knowledge. The course covered a mind-numbing amount of material in two days.

Master Sommeliers from around the country, including Austin’s own  Devin Broglie and Craig Collins, lectured on wine regions, proper wine service, beer, spirits and sake. The fun part was the blind tastings and determining what wines we were drinking. It was a little intimidating to stand in front of 80 people and say what country and region the wine was produced in, the grape it was made from and the year it was made, but it was also thrilling to get it right.

Tim Gaiser, MS, the lead instructor for the course, has been teaching wine education since 1993. According to Gaiser, TEXSOM is a perfect place to teach the Court’s Intro Exam, “It’s easy for us to teach at TEXSOM because we have 25 Master Sommeliers here. We usually have three Master Sommeliers teach the class, but at TEXSOM we have nine. That’s a one of a kind deal.”

At the end of the second day of lectures and tasting, we took the exam: 70 questions to complete in 45 minutes. While I knew I was well prepared for the test, my hands started to sweat and I had to pee. Test anxiety hit! Never fear, I’m thrilled to be one of the few non-beverage industry people in the room to pass the test. All of the hours spent studying were worth it in many ways. In a small way, I just joined the fraternity of professionals that care deeply about sharing information about wine with anyone who is interested.

Would I do it again? Yes, in a heart-beat. Will I go on to take the Court’s Level II Certified Exam? I haven’t decided yet. Maybe if the study group gets back together. You should do it. It was a ton of fun.

What about you? Have you taken a sommelier course? What did you think? If not, are you thinking about taking one?

This story was previously published on CultureMap.

Disclosure: While I paid the $525 to participate in the Intro course, I received a complimentary press pass for TEXSOM. 

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Matt McGinnis

As a marketing strategist for Pen & Tell Us, Matt McGinnis provides marketing, branding and communications counsel to food and beverage as well as other clients globally. He is also an avid beverage enthusiast, chronicling his interests as a Food & Drink contributing writer for CultureMap, as the Food & Drink columnist for Austin Man Magazine, and as a blogger for What Are You Drinking?. He is passionate about the wine industry having previously worked at a winery in Oregon and in wine sales. He has served as Guest Host of Sommelier Cinema at the Alamo Drafthouse, and is a Certified Sommelier in the Court of Master Sommeliers. His writing has been recognized as a Top 10 Food Blog by the Austin Chronicle in 2013 and 2014, with a 2011 Texas Social Media Award from the Austin American-Statesman.

6 thoughts on “Entering the world of the sommelier”

  1. so… what are the answers?

    “Briefly describe the difference in detection threshold and recognition threshold in regards to wine,” and, “What is the name for the airborne molecules in wine that allow us to smell its aromas.”….?

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