Disclaimer: The following is purely a recollection of my own experience of preparing and sitting for the Advanced Sommelier exam. The Court of Master Sommeliers may choose to alter the format of the examination in the future. I take no responsibility if you are preparing for any similar examination based on this article and find on exam day that everything has changed.
My first attempt at the Advanced Sommelier Exam was 13 months ago.
At that time I had just graduated from the WSET Diploma course.
I learned quickly that that might not be enough, so I trained hard with a close group of sommeliers who were going for the same qualification.
As a quick reminder, the Advanced Sommelier Exam consists of three parts:
- A written theory paper
- A mock service session
- A blind tasting of six wines in 25 minutes
All three parts must be passed at the same time, with a pass mark of 60%.
In a typical scenario, only about a third of candidates will pass.
So I committed to improving myself in all three facets.
Theory was greatly expanded with maps and notebooks.
Service was drilled with mock sessions.
Tastings were held at least twice a week.
At the end of my first attempt, I had passed Service and Tasting, but failed Theory.
At the time, I wasn’t really surprised. I understood that my theory was superficial, focused on breadth rather than depth. While I had done my best to remedy this in the months coming up to the exam, I had a feeling that I might have come up short.
So I accepted it, moved on, and committed to going deeper into the theory. At the same time, I needed to keep my service and tasting fresh.
Five Months Before The Second Attempt
The time immediately after my first attempt was a blur, as it was coming up to the end of year, which is busy season for any decent restaurant.
I had also accepted a position at a new venue, and it took me many months to become acquainted with the menu, wine list, cellars, procedures, back-of-house systems and day-to-day tasks that were expected of me.
This may have worried me a little, but about five months before my second attempt I was able to get into a groove for studying.
Previously, I felt I crossed a threshold when I began drawing maps.
This year, I think another line had been crossed when I began to use flash-cards.
Here are 10 random flash-cards from my deck of around 500 to illustrate:
- What are some synonyms for the grape Vermentino?
- What are the DO Pagos of La Mancha?
- What is amylase?
- What are the requirements for Clairette de Die?
- Which Chateau are classified for red wines only in Graves?
- What are the grapes for PDO Rapsani?
- What are the declared port vintages for the 1980s?
- What are the single vineyard champagnes of Jacquesson?
- What ingredients are in a Champs-Elysees?
- What are the four communes of Puilly-Fuisse?
You can see how much more detail is needed. Not just grapes and wine, but history, regulations, producers, science, geography, and often in languages that you are not fluent in.
In the final few months, my colleagues on the wine team at work arranged mock service exams for me once a week.
Many weaknesses were revealed and I worked hard to eliminate them:
- Place glassware consistently on the table
- Decanting red wine – don’t disturb the sediment
- Champagne service – don’t pop too loudly
- Cocktail knowledge – know all the ingredients, also some history
- Vintage knowledge – outstanding versus poor vintages
- Tableside manner – be friendly and professional
- Salesmanship – if they ordered a $2000 champagne, don’t sell them a $50 red wine
- Humility – if you don’t know something, confess your ignorance and learn for next time
There were many upsets and frustrations along the way, but in the end they were all important learning experiences.
In the months coming up to the exam, I was taking part in three to four tastings per week.
- One arranged through a new study group of around nine sommeliers from various venues. A few were attempting the exam for the first time, others were second-timers like myself.
- Another tasting arranged by a colleague at work.
- A tasting at a bottle shop hosted by an Advanced or Master Sommelier.
- A tasting hosted by a sommelier at another venue, who was doing one-on-one sessions with many candidates in the first group.
With so many tasting happening, my technique become much sharper, more refined. It was important to eliminate unnecessary words and habits:
- Umm-ing and ahh-ing
- Flowy verbiage
- Conflicting descriptors
- Committing to calls – “No Oak” versus “Maybe Oak”
It came to a point where I would often finish a flight of six wines with around 2 minutes to spare, giving me enough time to nose all the wines again to perform a final check.
I was ready.
The day before the exam, I flew to Melbourne and checked into my hotel room.
I had brought a bottle of my own home-brewed cold-brew coffee. It had become one of my morning habits, and I didn’t want to upset my routine by buying coffee from an unfamiliar source.
I set up the table in my room with my notebooks and flash cards.
I took a walk around the area, making sure I could get to the examination venue with no delays.
This year there were 30 candidates sitting in the room.
The first two-and-a-half days were dedicated to lectures, just like last year.
I paid greater attention; any information that showed up that I was not familiar with could potentially be in the exam.
At the end of each day, if there was any new information, I would verify it through various sources, make a flash card, and drill it in until it was committed to memory.
There were practice tasting sessions hosted by the Masters as well, holding court over 7-8 candidates. My feeling was that I got more things right than wrong.
The Theory Paper
On the third day, we sat for our theory paper.
For the first 10 minutes we would have a wine list correction exercise; the important thing was that this would count towards our Service, not Theory.
After this exercise was finished, we had a Theory paper consisting of 24 multiple choice questions and 62 short answer questions, to be completed within one hour.
If the pass mark is 60%, then you need 51 correct answers to pass.
My suspicion about the lectures was confirmed; there indeed was a question there that I would not have been able to answer, had I not paid attention and made a flashcard. Something really obscure like communes in a general region.
There were a few questions I drew a blank on, but in general my hard work in the past few months had paid off – not only did I know much of the material, it came easily without having to rack my brains, which I attribute to my flashcards helping to develop my random access memory.
I went back to check off any blank spots. I decided to fill them out regardless, hoping some ghost of a memory might find the correct answer. I discovered later that this worked in at least one instance, for some obscure synonym of a grape variety.
Before it was time to hand in our papers, I looked back at all my answers. I was pretty sure that I had answered 21 of the multiple choice answers correctly, and perhaps 40 of the short answers, safely above the needed 60%.
I breathed a sigh of relief.
The Service Test
The first table was red wine decanting.
They ordered a red wine of a particular vintage, and I was able to tell them the grape it was made of, and confirmed the quality of the vintage (excellent).
I stumbled a little when I couldn’t name the owners. But I was able to list a number of other producers that made similarly famous wines.
Preparation for decanting also could have been smoother. I had to make multiple trips between the service station and gueridon for coasters, the candle and decanter.
I was asked the origin for three particular non-wine beverages. Though I answered confidently, I later discovered I had only answered one correctly.
The second table was food and wine pairing. They gave me three dishes and I was asked to give multiple old and new world wines to match with them.
I felt that I was able to answer confidently and quickly, really stumbling just once when I couldn’t recall the exact location of one particular wine I had thrown out in a panic.
At this same table there were three glasses with a measure of a non-wine beverage inside. I was asked to taste them and identify what they where, and to give a food pairing for one of them.
After this was done, I was given a clipboard and a calculator. There was a spreadsheet of figures and percentages, obviously a business exercise, and was asked to calculate and fill in three blank spots.
It took me a minute or two to work out the relationship between the numbers, but because I had finished the previous exercises quickly and confidently I actually had time to work things out. The hardest blank just needed some high-school level algebra to solve, though of course this was a challenge under test conditions.
Sparkling wine service.
I was asked about a particular sparkling wine producer, where they were located, what grapes they used, and other producers of the same style.
I had made flash cards for all of these months ago, so it was a piece of cake.
I was asked to recommend a cocktail that had a particular ingredient. I cited one, which was immediately rejected, then I offered another with a different base spirit, which was accepted.
Flash cards to the rescue once again.
One hiccup was when I was asked where this particular ingredient was produced, and I honestly had no idea. I apologised, confessed my ignorance, offered to look it up for them for later, and moved on.
I walked out of that room feeling pretty good. All that was left was Tasting.
The Blind Tasting
I arrived at my appointed time.
I was then led into a room where there were no fewer than four Master Sommeliers waiting for me.
I was given the usual remarks before I began – your time starts when you touch the first glass, we can only mark you on what you say, not what you don’t say…
I nodded in acknowledgment.
I loosened the tie around my neck, took a deep breath and touched the first glass…
I nosed all six wines, a routine I had developed for many months now…
Perhaps one of the wines were obvious, but the other wines were not speaking to me…
I calmed myself down, focused on the wine in front of me.
I breezed through all six wines with two minutes to spare.
With that time, I went back to one of the wines that had not been speaking to me before.
With the glass to my nose, I actually stood up from my seat and began to pace the room.
I thought I saw something that I hadn’t noticed before, so I changed my final conclusion at the last second.
My time was up. I shook hands with all four Masters, picked up my bags and left.
All 30 candidates returned at the requested time, and we were each called into a room with a Master.
My name was called. We sat on two facing chairs. A new Master stood behind him, observing.
“So, Mark, let’s start with Theory. How do you think you went?”
I took a deep breath.
“I worked very hard in the past few months, and covered a lot of new material. I had time to go back on the paper, and feel quite sure that I passed.”
“Yes, you have shown great improvement from last year. You still have many things you can learn but yes, you passed theory.”
“How do you think you went with service?”
“I know I wasn’t mechanically very smooth on Table One” I confessed. “But I knew the wine, I was able to name other producers, I knew the vintage. Table Two I felt I gave solid wine pairing with the dishes, with maybe one hiccup. I feel I identified the three mystery beverages correctly. Sparkling wine service was good too. On the whole, I think I did better than last year, and I passed back then.”
“Yes, but I would like to comment that all three tables noted that you came across as a little arrogant.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. Perhaps I had tried to cover up my nervousness with some false bravado, or maybe I was just a bit too relieved at being able to answer most of the questions. I merely nodded.
“This is something you can fix, and perhaps you have customers who enjoy that, who want to see someone confident serving them, but I would just like to bring that up for you attention. But yes, you did pass service.”
“And how do you feel about Tasting?”
I let out a long breath. “It was a very challenging flight. Most of the wines did not speak to me, and I ended up changing the conclusion on one of the wines.”
He gave me a long, hard look.
“Yes, I know. You changed your conclusion on one of the wines. Never do that. Because I am afraid you did not pass tasting today. If you had not changed your conclusion on that wine then perhaps…” He waved his hand in the air.
My mind went blank. I was no longer looking at him, but through him. My breathing was not a conscious act, but a function of the autonomic nervous system.
“However” he continued, mercifully overlooking my shock, “now you know that you can pass everything. Especially theory, well done, we can see you have worked hard on it. We look forward to seeing you again.”
I nodded. We stood up. Hands were extended, shaken. I exited the room.
There was whooping, applause and laughter elsewhere, on some other planet.
Someone else had passed. Not me.
I was disoriented. I needed something solid. I found a marble counter-top and held on for dear life.
I broke down.
Before, bitterness was a reference marker found in wine. Grapefruit, chocolate, radish, walnut skin, all were clues to lead you to discovering the wine’s identity.
Now I learned a new flavour of bitterness – to work so hard and come so far, only to fall just short.
When I failed theory last year, I knew I hadn’t put in the time and effort to grasp the deeper level of information, so while I was disappointed I understood what I needed to do. I went harder into the theory, while continuing to refine my tasting technique and polishing my service mechanics.
I really felt I had it.
So I was very, very upset that I hadn’t passed this year.
I was upset that I couldn’t celebrate wholeheartedly with those who had passed.
I was upset that I had let down all the people who supported me.
But that’s tasting. Sometimes it’s the luck of the draw, sometimes your palate isn’t working at 100%, sometimes the wines just don’t speak to you.
Not only in tasting, but in life.
I’m still sore, but now I’m able to look on this experience objectively and with some perspective.
I still work at a great venue with an incredible wine list and a fantastic view, with a team of supportive and highly experienced professionals.
My knowledge has never been better – I have proven that it is at an Advanced level.
I was emotional because I cared. And I count myself fortunate to be working in an industry with so many wonderful people who are as passionate about wine as I am.
I was emotional because I wanted to pass. And to speak of wanting or desiring anything automatically involves emotions.
As with wine; to say you like how a wine tastes like red cherries or coconut means there is an emotion attached to the experience.
As for the comment about arrogance and bravado, after having my ego shredded through this experience, I probably don’t have to worry about that for a while.
Of 30 candidates, there were 12 who passed
In our group of around 9 people, 5 passed, one of whom was the Dux.
I think this speaks volumes about the effectiveness of our study group.
Congratulations to all of you. We all trained and studied hard together, and you all deserve this. I only wish I could have celebrated more enthusiastically with you, and I hope you don’t think that any of this upset is aimed at you.
I will be back again next year, sharper and wiser.
Read more: A Sommelier’s Apology