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.
As per my previous post, I had taken some time off regular writing in preparation for the Advanced Sommelier Examination.
This was hot on the heels off of graduating with my WSET Diploma, so I was brimming with confidence.
This was short-lived; I heard stories from others who had been in similar situations, only to find themselves falling short.
I resolved to intensify my studies and opened myself to all possibilities – if there was anything that could help me learn, retain and recall more information, I was game.
Three Months Before The Exam
I was fortunate to be part of a small group of around seven people who had signed up for the exam together. We even had a few Advanced Sommeliers who were preparing for the Master Sommelier exam in London joining us occasionally.
Blind tasting was a challenge in the early days. I had become so used to the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting, and now I had to internalize the Court’s Deductive Tasting Grid.
There were many similarities, but also some very key differences:
- CMS Grid has “Brightness”, WSET SAT does not
- More emphasis on “Minerality” in CMS Grid on both Nose and Palate
- No “Flavour Intensity” on the Palate in CMS Grid
- CMS Grid has both “Balance” and “Complexity” on the Palate
- WSET SAT would use these in the Conclusion
Due to these differences I lost valuable seconds when training under the CMS Grid format of six wines in 25 minutes.
But things changed.
Our group met at least every week, with 2-3 tasting sessions per week.
We all gave each other feedback after tasting.
When we started I heard a lot of “don’t do this, you missed that”.
Time passed, and the nature of the feedback changed.
Now there was more “you got this, good job, just a small change here and you’re perfect”.
There were still wines I kept missing, but I was getting closer. And I was nailing wines I had never gotten before.
Slowly but surely my technique got better.
Three months ago I was a fish out of water.
Our group typically sat down for about an hour of theory study before moving on to tasting (it’s a little harder to study after tasting 6-12 wines). This consisted mainly of us going around in a circle and throwing out random questions to the rest of the group.
Bear in mind that this was after I had finished my WSET Diploma, so I was not a complete idiot.
But the questions these guys threw out were hard.
A few of them were training for the Masters, so I could understand the level of questions coming from them.
But I was perhaps a little intimidated at how readily my fellow Advanced students took to the challenge, and were throwing out increasingly difficult questions.
When it was my turn, much of the time I didn’t know what questions to ask. When I did, sometimes even I was unsure of the correct answer.
I did my best to catch up. I did things I never imagined I would do.
After chatting with another Advanced Sommelier, I bought a set of colour pencils and a large artbook.
I began to draw maps. Lots of maps.
To these maps I started to add extra details, like grapes grown, styles of wine made, etc…
For some reason, information took to my mind more readily in this format.
Compared to today, three months ago I knew nothing:
- I live in work in Australia, but I would not have been able to tell you much about the Zones and GIs in various states.
- I had briefly studied California, but I would not have been able to tell you much about it’s AVAs. (Don’t even ask me about Oregon or Washington.)
- South America was all about Malbec and Carmenere. Regions, sub-regions, areas? No clue.
Today? Dramatically different:
- Australian Zones and GI’s
- AVAs of Washington, Oregon and California
- Chilean Regions and Subregions
- Argentina Regions, subregions and DOCs
- New Zealand GIs and sub-regions (official and unofficial)
- Greek regions and indigenous varieties
- South African Regions and Districts
- France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Portugal…
I know it’s all mapped out in my mind somewhere, and I can access most of it at will. The more detailed items I will continue to reinforce until that becomes second nature also.
All of us in the study group work or have worked in well-regarded venues with substantial wine lists.
All of us probably felt competent on the floor, but the Court demands that we follow some quite specific procedures during the examination.
A week or so prior to the exam we set up a mock restaurant environment to polish off those key mechanics.
I found this extremely helpful, because if I was not going to be able to answer some questions that will be asked tableside during the exam, I would be relying on my mechanics to get me over the line.
The entire event would go on for five days.
A number of Master Sommeliers were in attendance and would guide us along during the exams.
For the first two days we went through a series of lectures. This was not really to impart any new knowledge, but more like “this is what you already need to know at this level”.
Or, more bluntly: “If you do not already know this then you should not be here”.
We sat down for tasting workshops. The Masters rotated between groups, so that we were exposed to different views on the finer points of Blind Tasting.
On the third day, we were given a short demonstration of what was expected for the Service exam.
We took a break for lunch, then right after we sat down for the Theory exam.
For the first fifteen minutes, we were given a mock wine list and were tasked with noting down any mistakes we could find and add our suggested corrections.
For the final 45 minutes we were given a series of multiple choice and short answer questions.
I exited that room not feeling very confident. Despite countless hours drawing maps and reading material, perhaps I might have achieved the requisite 60%, but silly mistakes were made, proof of a lack of confidence with the information, amongst other things.
On the fourth day, we arrived in groups at our designated times for the Service exam.
Mechanically, I felt quite comfortable.
Walk clockwise, ladies before gentlemen, host last.
Champagne was opened safely.
I was asked about Rutherglen Muscat, and I immediately had a map of Victoria and it’s GIs projected in my head.
I was asked what the recipe was for a cocktail, and luckily it was one I knew.
Next table was red wine service. I felt I was weaker here.
I was able to perform most of the tasks competently, but pretty much all of the questions asked at this table stumped me. At least now I know what to work on.
The final table was focused on food and wine pairing. Typically we were given a hypothetical entree, main and desert and were asked to provide wine pairings from both the Old and New World.
I also had to identify two fortified wines in two glasses, and offer hypothetical food pairings while giving sound reasons.
Surprisingly there was a math-oriented question incorporated near the end, which I’m sure was on purpose as it included the pressure to do multiplication/division within a few seconds. Basically we have (x) guests, how many magnums do we need if each guest could have (y) glasses of (z) milliliters?
After exiting the room, I felt a little rattled, but more confident than I did after Theory.
The final day was reserved for the Tasting exam.
I had trained intensively with other very serious sommeliers over the past three months.
Would it be enough?
Three white, three red.
4 minutes 10 seconds per wine.
Out of 23 people who sat for the Advanced Sommelier exam, 5 passed.
I was not one of them.
The Masters called us into rooms individually to give feedback on how we did.
As suspected, I had failed Theory.
However, I had passed Service and Tasting.
Some of us were informed of what we got right in terms of varieties and Old/New World calls.
For myself, I was definitely less than perfect, but had done better than I had expected.
Apparently my Aroma and Flavour descriptors were within acceptable ranges, but my Structure was off, which the examiners attributed to my swirling and sloshing too much in my mouth. I had a mildly blocked nose for the past few days, so perhaps I was overcompensating.
I was given a few key points on Service, which I will definitely keep an eye on for next year.
And then Theory… even though I failed I still feel I did better than anyone could reasonably expect.
Now I have twelve months to learn more and consolidate my knowledge in time for the next exam.
People react to setbacks in different ways. Two of the most immediate are self-criticism and self-pity, which can be closely related and far apart at the same time.
Self-pity: “I’m so stupid, I’m never going to be good enough, I should just give up”
Self-criticism: “This is what held me back, now I know what I need to do to overcome it”
After receiving my results and feedback, I bounced between these two extremes for a short period. I feel there were two things that helped me overcome the negatives.
After all of this intensive study and training, I am undoubtedly a better sommelier than before.
I have learned much, and will continue to do so.
I work at a great venue, with a supportive team, an extensive wine list, in one of the most picturesque locations in the world.
I passed Service! I passed Tasting! Next year I’ll blow it out of the water and score even higher!
Much is said about showing kindness to others, but we don’t often consider being kind to ourselves.
Imagine you have a younger brother or sister going through a similar challenge. If you loved them you would not be barraging them with critical and demeaning words. You would be supportive, remind them how far they’ve come, and point out things they can do to improve.
If you support yourself like you would your own younger brother or sister, you would be taking a step in the right direction.
Still Much To Learn
Within our study group, two passed. Congratulations to the both of you, and I hope that I was helpful in that goal.
Overall, after experiencing the expected darker emotions that come with falling short, I do believe that I performed as strongly as anyone could expect, if not better.
If the exam had taken place even three months ago, I do not believe I would have passed tasting; that is how dramatically I believe my ability had evolved during that period.
I am endlessly thankful to all who guided me along the way – my study group, my work colleagues, my peers in the sommelier profession (both here and from other cities), and of course the Masters who coordinated and guided all of us during this period.
A full list of credits follows.
- Franck Moreau MS
- Edouard Oger MS
- Benjamin Hasko MS
- Ronan Sayburn MS
- Jon Ross MS
- Cameron Douglas MS
- Sebastian Crowther MS
- Gerard Bellis
- Kyle Poole
- Shanteh Wong
- Simon Curkovic
- Luke Sullivan
- Richard Healy
- Yuki Hirose
- John Paul Wilkinson
- Toru Takamatsu
- Jean-Charles Mahe
- Mauro Bortolato
- Chris Rose
- Mark Tomczyk
- Alex Kirkwood
- Georgina Larsson
- Jaimee Pollock
- Johnny Lyons
- Bryce Faiella
Read more: Hi, My Name Is Mark Law, And I’m A Certified Sommelier