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Documentary 'SOMM' Takes on World's Toughest Wine Exam

Documentary 'SOMM' Takes on World's Toughest Wine Exam


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A movie about studying wine might sound a bit dull on its face — flash cards anyone? But the movie SOMM proves that prepping to become a Master Sommelier is an all-consuming adventure.

The documentary, which will be uncorked Nov. 7 at the Napa Valley Film Festival, captures the wine tasting, sweat, and tears that go into attempting to become a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers.

"The most intriguing part for the camera is the blind taste test," says Jackson Myers, director of photography for SOMM. "It's such a magical thing. But as we got to know them, we realized these people are fascinating subjects as well because they're so passionate about grape juice."

As the somms prep for an exam with a 95 percent failure rate, director/producer Jason Wise introduces viewers to four friends: Brian, a restaurant sommelier in San Francisco; Ian, then the sommelier at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay; Dustin, who worked for Treasury Wine Estates' Heirloom Group in San Francisco; and DLynnn, education director for Treasury Wine Estates who flew in from Dallas to study.

Things get tense as the quartet juggles studying, working, family life, and more studying. The Master Sommelier exam has three parts: service and sales, blind tasting, and oral theory that all draw on different skills. The somms visited six countries including Germany, Italy, and Chile as they tried to absorb the nuances of soil types and significant vineyards.

"For non-wine people especially, we’d like them to understand what we do and how intense we are in our preparations. We are as intense as people going for their PhD or CPA," says DLynn Proctor, who now lives in Napa.

Ian Cauble, who’s now U.S. ambassador for Champagne Krug, hopes the movie inspires other young sommeliers to pursue their Master’s pin.

"If you decide you want to follow this path, it's one of the most gratifying paths you can take in the wine business," says Cauble. "Every moment you put into it, you will get back in terms of success toward your goal."

Whether you are a budding somm or someone whose only wine studies involve the wine list at dinnertime, you’ll find SOMM as entertaining as any reality show.


SOMM Reveals Secret World of the Master Sommeliers

It's not easy to make a film or a video around the subject of wine. I should know, I produced the TV show In Wine Country on NBC for nine seasons. Wine on the big or little screen gets super boring. Our challenge was always 'how do we make wine interesting? How do we make it less intimidating?'

One way to do it is to tell stories about the people and not focus on the wine. And that's what SOMM, a documentary film directed by Jason Wise does. SOMM opened the 2nd annual Napa Valley Film Festival Wednesday night to a packed house and standing ovation. While I'd venture to say our crowd was very wine savvy, SOMM does something that makes it worth seeing. SOMM takes you into the world of The Court of Master Sommeliers, an organization that is notoriously secretive. That they let Jason's camera capture what it is like to prepare for an exam that only 200 or so people have ever passed is extraordinary.

The Court of Master Sommeliers is an organization that certifies wine professionals, based on a series of exams where candidates demonstrate a depth and breadth of knowledge about everything wine. That means being able to blind taste wines and not only describe them but also call the correct varietal, country and region of origin and vintage. That alone is no easy feat. Candidates also have to demonstrate proper service in a restaurant setting and they are also tested on their knowledge of wine throughout the world.

There are four levels of certification that lead to the Master Sommelier diploma: Introductory, Certified Sommelier, Advanced Sommelier and Master Sommelier (MS). You must pass each level before moving on to the next. Of course the exams get harder and longer at each level. It can take years to earn the MS, if at all.

SOMM tells the story of four master somm candidates, Brian, Ian, Dustin and D'Lynn. We see them studying with each other and also with mentors who are Master Sommeliers. You might think it would be fun to get together with friends and taste lots of wine every night, but it becomes a chore that the guys have to be up for. Having a camera around doesn't help. We see how little sleep they get and how relationships with their significant others come second to wine. As Ian put it in after the movie, "You have to become a little obsessed and if you're not, you're probably not going to pass."

I recently passed the Certified Sommelier exam, which was a challenging and harrowing experience. Watching SOMM brought all of that home to me. I can relate to Ian reading flash cards while driving or on the treadmill at the gym, because I did that too. There's a scene where two of the guys are skyping at 2 am, holding flash cards up to the computer screen. Opened half full bottles are all over their apartments. The spouses/girlfriends complain about the spit buckets left out after tasting sessions that they have to clean up. "They're disgusting."

There are many funny moments in the film. We feel the pressure. We also see the struggles. During one of Ian's tasting sessions, he doesn't believe the wine he tasted is what is really in his glass. He challenges the MS mentor, and just can't let it go. The wine? Not a fancy French wine, but an inexpensive California Chardonnay. He thinks he's been duped.

Then there is the "grid." The grid is the template, a list for tasting wine and being able to describe it accurately. I know the grid, but I have to wonder how many folks will understand it because the guys talk a mile a minute and it's hard to pick up on what they say. And we wonder why wine can still be so intimidating?

Spoiler alert: You will not see an actual exam session in action. We see the candidates go behind closed doors. So the Court still keeps some secrets. However we do see the guys get their final results. I'll just say that before I took the certified somm exam, I didn't understand why people were crying if they passed. Well, that's exactly what I did when my name was called out to get my certificate and lapel pin. SOMM captures the moment and the emotions very well. You'll have to see the movie to find out how the guys did.

Jason Wise says this movie, which is his first film, took three years to make. "I don't know which was harder, finding money or getting permission from the Court of or keeping my marriage together." He was friends with Brian McClintic who decided to go for the master somm title. He invited Jason to watch a practice tasting session. "Naively I thought well that's cool I can make a movie about it," Jason says. "It just floored me. I'd never seen anything like this in my life." So it became, in his words, "a fusion of somebody who dared to take the test to somebody who was stupid enough to make a movie about it." We're glad he did make the film.

The photography is very good, and the custom score for the movie enhances the experience on the screen. Chapter breaks are shots of wine glasses full of wine exploding, which I thought was clever. I wonder how many glasses of wine were sacrificed for each take? I noticed there was a credit for pyrotechnics at the end of the movie.

That being said, 100 minutes for the movie is, in my opinion, too long. There were a lot of tasting sessions, and they kind of dragged on. Instead I would have loved to have seen more about practicing for the service portion of the exam, which for me in the certified somm exam was the most difficult part of the test.

Preparing the Master Sommelier exam is not an inexpensive undertaking. I would have liked to have seen how much it cost the guys -- the exam fees, how much they spent on wine. I would have also liked to have seen one woman in the study group. I think the film itself tried not to be too insider baseball, but at times falls short. Again, this audience was very wine savvy, but I wonder how it will play for people not in the wine industry.

Bravo to the Court for being willing to let us all take a peek into the organization and see how they train wine professionals. Now maybe you can understand why somms tend to be geeky. When the guys were asked about advice for aspiring sommeliers they said "trade stamps." SOMM is funny, sad and inspirational. If you dream of becoming a sommelier, just have a love of wine, or are curious about what's deemed the toughest exam in the world, this movie is a must see.


A Captain’s Culinary Guide to Pairing and Preparing

Thankfully for you, the boss probably hired you for your ability to put him on fish and not because of your knowledge of fine dining. That said, there will be times when the boss and his family and friends will appreciate the finer touches in the culinary department. While the boss may not can you for serving an overdone, char-grilled hunk of tuna with a warm glass of Cabernet Sauvignon that has been open for a few days…but he’d probably be glad if you didn’t.

Our Captain’s Guide to pairing and preparing is a sportfishing culinary blueprint that focuses on how to best prepare fresh fish and how to optimize the dinner experience by pairing it with the best wine. A sportfishing boat makes catching fresh fish for dinner easy. In fact, the yellowfin or wahoo that hit the deck are the envy of chefs the world over—even the best restaurant in the world can’t get fresher fish than you can. The information below then provides you with the tools you need pair this fresh catch with the right type of wine. Whether you utilize this information for a surprise dinner for the boss or a romantic occasion with your significant other, it is a winning proposition.

The Experts

We have enlisted some of the top minds in the world of fine dining to help us. Here they are:

Wesley True is headliner of the American culinary scene. He is a two-time semifinalist for the James Beard Award for best Chef in the South. The James Beard Award is the highest award for chefs in the United States. Wesley has been featured on the Food Network extensively. A native of Alabama, True’s specialty is southern coastal cuisine.

Ian Cauble is one of only 236 Master Sommeliers in the history of the world (the master sommelier exam was first given in 1969). In 2011, Ian won the gold medal for the ‘Best Young Sommelier in the World,’ taking first place as the TOP|SOMM in the United States the same year. In short, when it comes to wine Ian is an internationally renowned expert of the highest order.

Manny Frias is the sales and marketing director at Napa Valley’s Frias Family Winery. He is a competitive bass fisherman and expert in the mingling of wine with fishing experiences. He is also a very nice guy and knows how to create a good time.

Captain’s Guide to Wine Pairing

I can hear the questions now: How am I supposed to get the wine out of the box? Do you mean rum and Coke doesn’t go with everything? Are you sure I can’t drink this out of a Solo Cup?

Wine has the tendency to scare people off. Unlike cold beer, there are a few basic rules that govern how to drink it and what to pair it with. Without knowing this background, wine can be intimidating. These rules, however, are not difficult to learn or to execute. Knowing a bit about the basics can provide dinner guests not only with more enjoyment during their meal, but leave them impressed with your knowledge and your consideration.

Manny Frias Breaks down The Basics

The general rule about wine and fish is that you want to pair the acids in the wine to the fats in the fish. Say what? When talking to Manny Frias of Frias Family Vineyards – he broke it down so that even the deckhand can’t mess this up. Manny and his family have owned their property in Napa, California since 1977. In 1985, they planted five acres of vines. The Frias Family Winery has grown to include perhaps the finest Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, a small production red blend and the ever so popular Rose (the trendy pink-colored elixir that is pronounced “Rosay”).

Manny is a particularly engaging person to speak with. This became apparent when I had the pleasure of meeting him at the Emeril Lagasse Foundation’s Line, Vine and Dine Fishing/ Culinary event in Fort Lauderdale. Manny refers to fish that you can eat – regardless of species – as “edibles.” (Insert reference to the legalization of marijuana in California here).

He speaks swiftly and knowledgably about the challenge that most have with wine. “It can be intimidating – many people just never get that basic introduction to wine and get scared off,” Frias says. “How then, do you propose, creating a wine list for InTheBite readers whose wine knowledge runs the entire spectrum,” I asked. I thought I stumped him on that one. Nope. Manny eased into the conversation with a fluid answer. An answer that I wish I had tape recorded so I don’t have to reference my six pages of illegible notes that I took while on the phone.

Here is Manny Frias’ DIY Boat Wine List. Difficulty Level: Reely Easy. The next time you are provisioning the boat, keep this list in mind. It provides the basics for your very own sportfishing wine cellar. This list is a breakdown of particularly versatile wines that generally pair well with most anything from the sea.

  • Rose – white wine made with red grapes, can have bubbles for your heavier fish (i.e. swordfish, mahi mahi, wahoo—big, meaty fish generally. Grilled octopus and rose is awesome). Recommendations: Azur Rose $32, Frias Rose, Lorenza Rose
  • Champagne – universal, goes with everything!
  • Chardonnay (in US)/ White Burgundy (French Chardonnay) – goes great with lighter fish that’s not really fatty: redfish, speckled trout, grouper, snapper and raw tuna, can be full-bodied and okay with a buttery or vanilla flavor.

Recommendations: Peter Michael Chardonnay, $130, Moon Tsai Chardonnay, $63

  • Sauvignon Blanc – crisp, tastes of green apple and citrus—goes well with oysters, tuna, dorado—in its food application, Sauvignon Blanc is generally similar to Chardonnay.

Recommendations: Frias Sauvignon Blanc, $35, Azur Sauvignon Blanc $32, Matua Sauvignon Blanc, $12

  • Montrachet – French white, more expensive chardonnay, similar in its pairing abilities.
  • Pinot Noir/Red Burgundy – light bodied red wine tasting of earth, spice and black cherry—goes with nearly everything from the sea, except for oysters.

Recommendations: Peay Family Wines, $58, Freeman Wines, $50, Lando, $65

With all the beautiful wine options, no one will ask for a Bud. There is always one poor soul, however, that may make the honest, yet unforgivable mistake of asking for a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. Manny boldly states that this is not a culture he is comfortable with.

The Advanced Course – Ian Cauble, Master Sommelier

If you have ever wanted to know what it is like to speak a wine savant, talk to Ian Cauble. Ian has quite the resume. It includes the credentials of MS (Master Sommilier) – this is the highest level of wine mastery possible. Ian is one of just over 200 master sommeliers in the entire world. In 2011 Ian was named ‘The Best Young Sommelier in the World under 35’ and was the star of the 2013 documentary “Somm.”

Ian co-owns the revolutionary web-based company Somm Select. The site sends out daily wine picks with a description and tasting notes written by Ian himself. The email also lists the price of the wine. Somm Select takes all the leg work out of wine selection for anyone and would be excellent for the captain or boat owner. You could even subscribe to the service without telling anyone and claim that all of the great wine pairings were your, or the deck hand’s, inspiration.

This ingenious company can create a custom wine list for your boat, gather the wines and hold them for you at your port of choice. Somm Select also allows for several membership options, including a blind tasting club, to receive sommelier-selected wines each month right to your doorstep. If it seems that this business is tailormade for the fishing industry, it very well may be. Ian’s business partner in Somm Select is Larry Drivon, a principal in the Maverick Boat and charter company in Costa Rica.

When it comes to enjoyment of drinking wine, Ian stressed the absolute importance of temperature and proper glass. He concludes that most red wine is served too warm and most white wine is too cold and with the improper glassware. When a Master Sommelier gives you a lesson on wine service, you really should listen.

A red must be served at 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit. A big, fruity red may be appropriate for service on the boat. Because the temperature is more likely to rise due to the summer sun, it is best to ensure that if you will be serving a red it is at proper temperature. Serving wine at the right temperature allows to it to taste the way it was made to taste. Using an ice bucket to keep your red chilled is perfectly acceptable. When drinking white wine, it must be cold, but not too cold – 45-55 degrees Fahrenheit to be exact. Ian suggests putting your white in the freezer for 10-12 minutes before service.

Captain’s Guide to Fish Preparation

Chef True was born and raised on the Gulf Coast. After studying and mastering his craft in NYC – Chef True worked in several of the top restaurants in The City. He then returned to Alabama where he opened a southern cuisine-style restaurant for which he was twice semi-finalist for the James Beard Award (the Emmy Awards for cooking) in 2011 and 2012. Wesley appeared on Bravo’s respected show Top Chef Season 13.

Chef True is a down-to-earth guy. He speaks with just a hint of a southern accent and has an obvious passion for his craft. He talked swiftly while explaining that there are a few basic rules that can make or break your preparation experience. Central to Wesley’s approach is the Japanese tradition of treating the fish gently and with respect. He highlighted that the preparation is not only about the seasonings and the temperature of the grill, but encompasses the holistic treatment of the fish from the time of catch to the time it is eaten.

Chef True recommends handling the fish with care, keeping it as cold as possible, and minimizing movement. Once the fish is in the boat and in the box, ice it thoroughly and keep it from bouncing all over the place on the ride in. Try not to beat it up when you are processing it, either.

When it comes to preparing fresh, high-quality seafood (like the contents of your fish box), True’s philosophy is marked by simplicity. He recommends letting the quality of the fish speak for itself. When you have a fresh tuna or dorado steak, you don’t need an intricate recipe or lots of marinades. True recommends using olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon juice. He recommends leaving the complex recipes to those with professional culinary training and a commercial kitchen – the same way a first-time fisherman might not want to deploy the kites.

True explains the importance of simplicity. “Cooking at home and cooking in restaurants are different animals,” he explains. From the power outputs of the burners and the ovens to the endless array of equipment, restaurants are equipped to do things that you simply can’t do cooking at home, much less on a sportfisher. “Keep it simple and easy. There is a lot of over-complication—marinades and the like, which really aren’t necessary.”

True prefers grilling his fish. Chef True reminds us that there is flavor in the char of the grill. This provides yet another reason to avoid getting too fancy. Serve the grilled fish with simple sides like steamed or grilled veggies and play off the flavors of the fish.

In conversation with Chef, it became apparent that many people, fishermen included, are never given proper knowledge or training on how to prepare a fish. If you plan to freeze the fish, do so as soon as possible (rather than eating as much as you can and freezing what you have left after four days). Frozen fish should be stored in clean, ready to use portions in vacuum-sealed packages. Chef True recommends keeping fish for a maximum of one month.

Captain’s Guide to Preparing – Pro Tips

  • If you’re just learning to grill, you can apply a light coat of mayonnaise to help keep the fish from sticking.
  • Don’t get too fancy – salt, pepper, extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice – that’s all you need. He also recommends fresh lemons, not the yellow lemon-shaped jar.
  • Cook when the fish is at room temperature – high heat with a quick sear.

Chef Wesley True’s tip on how to season food – make plain mashed potatoes. Add salt, taste, add salt, taste – repeat until you can taste the flavor of the salt. Once you can master this technique and flavor by understanding the ratio of seasoning vs. portion of the food – you are ready for your own cooking show – or at least ready to serve and elegantly simple dinner for your guests.

Your boat gives you access to the best seafood you can get. The boat’s credit card, when properly harnessed, gives you access to the wines necessary to creating a dinner experience like no other. With fish and budget in hand, we hope that the Captain’s Guide to Pairing and Preparing will do the rest.


There will be a pop quiz! Sommeliers prepare for the toughest wine challenge in the world in Esquire series ‘Uncorked’

Studying for this test involves lots of wine — but it's far from fun.

In fact, it's said to be about as tough as getting into Harvard.

It's the entrance exam for the Court of Master Sommeliers. And for wine pros, there's no greater glory than passing. And no more impossible challenge.

"Yes, the exam is that hard," says Eleven Madison Park sommelier Jane Lopes, 30, one of six New Yorkers who took a crack at becoming a master sommelier earlier this year. "It requires a vast ocean of knowledge."

Plus nerves of steel. And a nose and tongue that can tell where the grapes were grown that are now in your glass of wine.

No spoilers on how these local wine aficionados fared on the notoriously badass exam. But you can find out in the new Esquire reality series "Uncorked," launching Nov. 10.

The show follows the cork dorks as they lived, breathed, gargled, spit and tasted wine.

The series was filmed mostly from January to June, when the exam was given in Aspen, Colo.

"I did nothing else for a year but prepare for the exam," adds Lopes, who lives in Nolita with her cat, Botrytis, the name of a grape fungus.

That's what it takes for admission to this elite club.

To pass the master sommelier test, you need to be a triple threat. You must have extensive knowledge of wine theory, skills to perfectly present and serve wine to the snootiest palates and the ability to figure out the year, grape variety and precise region of a wine from smell and taste alone.

Talk about grape expectations. About 50 people take the test each year in the U.S., and in 40 years, only 232 have aced the test that covers every nuance of wine. Which is why many wine pros take it multiple times before passing after years of study and training.

Jack Mason, 28, wine director at Marta on E. 29th St., has taken the test three times. For his latest go, he'd rise at 8 a.m. to sniff, swish and slurp rieslings and pinots to perfect his palate.

Mason made every minute count. Even subway rides to work from the Bronx and home again. "I was often on the train with a bagfuls of wine," he says, adding that he'd pore over notes and labels. "I got my share of weird looks from other riders."

In the reality show, inspired by the 2012 wine documentary "Somm," test-takers endured looks from steely judges.

Like other vinophiles, Mason can name the moment he became fascinated with wine and mastering it.

It was an encounter with a 1989 Chateau Rayas Chateauneuf du Pape. "I thought, 'Wow, it's so pretty and has so much depth,'" he shares.

It was love at first sight, sniff and swish. Until he opened that bottle, he'd planned to cook for a living.

Then, a game-changer. "This wine was like a work of art," Mason adds. "It was an experience."

After years of viewers being served steady diets of cooking shows, "Uncorked" offers its own unique experience — shedding insight into the world of wine and high achievers that even casual wine drinkers and teetotalers can appreciate.

"I get why there's a focus on cooking, and not on wine on TV competitions," says Morgan Harris, 29, who lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and is sommelier at the upscale Aureole on 42nd St. "When it comes to wine, there's no visual — no money shot. How to you make it sexy? It's about the people."

In the series, personality quirks quickly emerge, along with surprises that come when people are under extreme pressure.

"The hardest thing was finding time to film," says Harris, who, like the other somms chasing the MS title, works long hours. "There's no extra time in your day. The pressure's on."

Yannick Benjamin, 37, sommelier at the University Club in Midtown, relates — and then some. Benjamin is on his final attempt to pass the test. That's because the sommeliers must pass all three parts (theory, service and blind tasting) in three years or they will have to start from square one.

"Most people who take this test are working full-time jobs," he says, "unlike many who are studying to get into law school or med school. Finding a reserve of time and energy was a steep challenge."

He has an added challenge of being in a wheelchair since a 2003 car accident left him paralyzed. "I'm old school when it comes to studying," he says, adding that he's got loads of index cards and spreadsheets and has put in countless hours. He and his fellow test-takers put their lives on hold before the test.

"I didn't make plans to see a movie or to have coffee or to do anything," says Lopes. "I studied before and after work and on days off. I studied all day. Every day."


Documentary 'SOMM' Takes on World's Toughest Wine Exam - Recipes

Would you spend years studying for a test if you knew there was only a pass rate of less than 10%? The Master Sommelier examination is viewed as the toughest test in the world – only 236 people have passed. Many people on the outside wonder, “what’s the point? Why is it worth it?” But for those who are looking to become a Master Somm, they are in it for the long haul.

Becoming a Master Somm means achieving a dream long in the making. “The journey to become a MS is something you do for yourself, never for someone else,” says Sally Mohr, M.S. and leadership team member of the Wine Ring app. Sally became a Master Sommelier after purchasing a wine retail business and coming to the realization she need to take her wine knowledge to the next level.

If you’re a female looking to break into the business, don’t let that deter you, but rather fuel you. As Mohr tells us, “Becoming a M.S. gave me credibility and helped to pave the way for other females in the profession. Now there are 24 of us in the North America!” It’s a years long process that takes dedication and the willingness to learn.

Photo Credit: courtofmastersommeliers.org

A Master Sommelier is the highest achievement one can make in the wine world but also in the hospitality industry. Before you can take the Master Sommelier examination, there are some other steps in between. In order to become a Master Sommelier or even just get your Sommelier certification, you must go through the Court of Master Sommeliers, which is different than SommGuild or the Master of Wine program.

The road to becoming a Master Somm starts with taking the Introductory Course and Examination. This is an intensive two-day course overview for those in the hospitality industry students will learn deductive tasting as well as beverage service (that’s right – becoming a sommelier isn’t limited to just wine knowledge). But as Mohr points out, “If you don’t find the process of learning about every beverage in the world fascinating, you may be in the wrong business.

There is always something new to learn, so don’t expect the process to ever stop.” It ends with a multiple choice exam and should you pass, you’ll be ready for the next step: the Certified Sommelier Examination. The exam was created 11 years ago to help people perpare for the Advanced Sommelier Examination. Taking this exam (and passing) ensures the title of Sommelier. It is a more extensive exam than the first still containing tasting, service, and theory. However, you need to take the Certified Sommelier Examination within three years of taking the Introductory Course.

Even just taking the Certified Exam and becoming a Sommelier is something to be proud of. It’s no easy task to make it that far. But to continue your pursuit of the Master Sommelier diploma, the next step is the Advanced Sommelier Course and Examination. In order to take the Advanced Examination, you have to complete the course first. Once you take the course, you can take the exam. The exam is three days and contains the same sections first introduced in the Certified Course: service, deductive tasting, and theory. You must pass all three sections in order to be able to take the Master Somm exam. It is possible to pass one section and then take the two tests again (within the timeframe) but if you can’t pass all three sections after three successive attempts, you must wait one year before re-applying.

Should you pass all three parts of the Advanced Sommelier Examination, then you’ve made yourself eligible for the Master Sommelier diploma. Those who go after the diploma devote everything to it. They sacrifice relationships, spend thousands of dollars, and spend years working toward their goal.

Like the Advanced Examination, there are three parts to the Master Sommelier exam. However, students must first pass the theory portion, before they can take the other two sections. Should you not pass service or tasting on the first try, you can re-take both of these sections again. Students have a three year period to pass all parts of the exam.

The theory portion of the test is verbal, not multiple choice, and is fifty minutes long. You must know all about the different wine regions throughout the world and the wine that comes from them different grape varieties and where they are grown wine laws as well as knowledge about spirits and liqueur and cigars. Like Sally says, “don’t just learn about the wine/beer/sake/liquor learn the history, the food, and the culture associated with that beverage. You’ll have more stories to tell and a better understanding of the subject.” Once you’ve passed the theory section, you are able to take service and tasting. As far as service goes, it’s not just about serving wine or other alcohol. It’s about recommending the right wine with the right food preparing and serving the wine correctly and displaying a knowledge and class while serving.

Last but certainly not least is a blind taste. When taking the blind tasting portion of the exam, there are three whites and three reds to taste. In the twenty-five minutes allotted, the student must uncover possible grape varieties, the country of origin, and region of origin. “Taste wines with purpose don’t just blind taste everything, every day. Compare and contrast similar wines until YOU can discern the differences between them,” Mohr advises. Over the course of their preparation, students will drink hundreds of bottles of wine, studying and dissecting each of them. Mohr recommends, “Continue to observe and learn from others. Always be adding to your personal ‘toolkit’.”

There’s nothing easy about the road to becoming a Master Sommelier. It takes years, sacrifice, money, and a lot of determination. There are people who have taken the test multiple times and may never pass, but still they try, try again. It’s an honor should you get that diploma, and even bigger sense of personal accomplishment.

To learn more about the process toward becoming a Master Sommelier or if you’re interested in starting it yourself, be sure to visit Court of Master Sommeliers Americas. If you’d like to learn more about Sally, be sure to visit her website and download the Wine Ring app, which “helps consumers understand their personal preferences through machine learning and artificial intelligence.” There is also the documentary Somm and the docu-series Uncorked (yes, the same ones mentioned in this post – so if you haven’t watched them yet, what are you waiting for?) that follows the lives of those preparing for the test.

If you’re interested in learning more about wine and talking to a local sommelier, join us for a tour!


SOMM Documentary comes The Vic Theatre June 24 – One Night Only

Set aside your Monday evening for a screening of SOMM: an intriguing, intense documentary on attaining the highest level of Sommelier achievement. EAT has been eagerly awaiting an opportunity to bring this “soon to be released” film to Victoria. This SOMM event decants both knowledge and pleasure—first with a great movie then your evening can continue with a VIP wine and cheese reception featuring a gathering of dedicated Sommeliers to share their experience and expertise.

Four men will do anything to pass the most difficult test you’ve NEVER heard of…

SOMM takes the viewer on a humorous, emotional and illuminating look into a mysterious world – the Court of Master Sommeliers and the massively intimidating Master Sommelier Exam. The Court of Master Sommeliers is one of the world’s most prestigious, secretive, and exclusive organizations. Since its inception almost 40 years ago, less than 200 candidates have reached the exalted Master level. The exam covers literally every nuance in the world of wine, spirits and cigars.

Those who have passed have put at risk their personal lives, their well- being, and often their sanity to pull it off. Shrouded in secrecy, access to the Court Of Master Sommeliers has always been strictly regulated and cameras have never been allowed anywhere near the exam, until now.

How much do you think you know about wine? SOMM will make you think again.

SOMM takes you on the ultimate insider’s tour into a world of obsession, hope, and friendship in red, blanc and sometimes, rose.

The Reception
All that mystery, intrigue, and wine tasting is sure to whet your appetite for more. A ticket to the Vista 18 VIP Reception afterwards is a great way to continue your evening. Sampling wine, cheese, and charcuterie while enjoying lively conversation and stunning views over the city is a wonderful way to end a “movie night”

Doors open at 6:00 pm at The Vic Theatre
Film starts at 6:30 pm
VIP Reception at Vista 18 post-film, please note tickets are limited

For out-of-town guests Chateau Victoria Hotel is offering reduced room rates ($125/room $155/suite). Call 250-382-4221 to reserve and let them know it’s for SOMM


Earning the accolade of Master Sommelier and winning the right to wear the coveted red pin is no easy task. Aaran Fronda looks at what it takes to pass one of the world’s toughest exams

16 May 2016

Top 5

The Master Sommelier’s Diploma is by far the world’s most difficult wine examination, but it is also considered one of the hardest exams in the world in any field, a statement backed up by the fact that only 230 people have passed the ludicrously taxing test since its inception back in 1969. The gruelling exam and the Court of Master Sommeliers, the body responsible for administering it, were simultaneously made popular knowledge in the documentary film Somm (2012), which followed four men as they attempted to earn the title Master Sommelier.

Four years on, and another batch of hopefuls are preparing to sit the exam. Among them is Antonio Busalacchi, a man whose love affair with wine began more than 30 years ago, with his first serious foray into the world of wine buying taking place in 1982, which according to the budding sommelier was a very good year for Bordeaux. His passion drove him to get involved with a group called the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, an international association of gastronomy that brings together amateurs and professionals from all over the world to share their love of food and drink.

It wasn’t long until Busalacchi started to get heavily involved in the wine side of the organisation, eventually being appointed regional officer for Baltimore, and then for the mid-Atlantic shortly after. Currently, he serves as the US Vice-Échanson (cupbearer) for the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, making him responsible for assisting in their wine education and the running of their National Young Sommelier competition.

“Part of my responsibilities were to help organise this event, and I had been doing wine education for some time, as well as getting trade certifications from the Society of Wine Educators”, Busalacchi explained. “So, I said to myself ‘if I am going to be administering this Young Sommelier competition, it’s probably a good idea that I gain better appreciation for what they are doing’. Then, as they say, one thing led to another, and my journey to becoming a Master Sommelier began.”

Wine meets science
Unlike the rest of his family, who have a long history in the restaurant trade, with his father opening various eateries after the Second World War, Busalacchi bucked tradition altogether, opting to pursue a career in academia. He has chaired the University of Maryland’s Council on the Environment since 2011.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his studies complement his passion for wine. In fact, he has written extensively about how climate change has altered growing conditions in many wine-producing regions over the last 10 years, and how this trend is changing the taste of his favourite tipple.

It is normal for candidates to re-sit the exam two or three times, with some taking up to six attempts before finally succeeding

“The whole wine industry is a combination of both science and art, so there is an obvious intersection between wine and climate”, he explained. “For me there is a lot of similarity in terms of how I prepared for my PhD and how I am preparing for my Master Sommelier exam. Both require the same level of rigour, focus and dedication.”

It is normal for candidates to re-sit the exam two or three times, with some taking up to six attempts before finally succeeding. The Master Sommelier exam is broken down into three parts, which must be completed in order: theory, service and blind tasting. Applicants sit all three exams on the same day and have to achieve a score of 75 percent in each one of the sections. Adding to the difficulty, the would-be masters have just three years to pass the various sections. If they fail, however, they must start from scratch and re-take the exams they previously completed.

The theory portion requires candidates to display a huge breadth and depth of knowledge about wine. It is not good enough for an applicant to be capable of whittling off every village and region in the world at will they must also be able to identify the principal grape varieties used in the wine making process, as well as exhibiting an understanding of various methods of distillation and international laws.

“There are no real texts to follow”, said Busalacchi. “You’re completely on your own. You have to get out there and you have to be a sponge for knowledge.”

The blind tasting is probably the most impressive skill to behold, especially for amateur wine lovers. Examinees are given six different wines and must ascertain the grape varieties, the region in which each was grown, and the year that it was made. All this information must be obtained by relying on taste and smell alone. And, if that sounds too simple, then consider that this must be successfully completed in less than 25 minutes.
“Tasting is a lot of work”, said Busalacchi. “You have good days. You have bad days. You have to try and taste everything that is out there and visualise and articulate that flavour. Then there is the service, which for me, because I do not work on the floor of a restaurant, poses the biggest challenge.”

The service section requires examinees to display a strong knowledge about everything from sake and spirits to distilling methods and ideal food pairings. All in all, it is essential for the candidate to show that they capable of providing a customer with an exceptional level of expert service.

Giving back
Preparing for each section of the examination process is not only challenging, it’s an extremely expensive pursuit. On average, candidates must fork out well over $30,000. Simply buying all the wine necessary to practice for the blind tasting portion of the exam requires a significant investment. Luckily, the Court is on hand to provide financial assistance and runs its own scholarship programme, which helps people (particularly younger members) to fulfil their dream. It is the Court’s willingness and dedication to supporting candidates financially and spiritually on their journey that drives Busalacchi and his contemporaries to persevere and stay the course.

“I’ve never associated with a group that is as enthusiastic, sincere and warm about training the next generation as the Court of Master Sommeliers”, he said. “It really is like an old guild system, where they give back and raise up those that have stuck with them.”
This support network is essential, he argued, as without it, it is easy to succumb to the pressure of the programme and become a “monster cloistered away studying all by yourself”.

For those that come out the other side, receive their red pin and earn the honour of becoming a Master Sommelier, many doors will open. Many go on to assume positions with major wine distributors around the world. Others get into wine education for big name brands. Some serve as consultants for various wineries or go it alone and open up their own. But, no matter what these Master Sommeliers go on to achieve, the learning never stops.

“You don’t make it through this programme if you’re not truly humble”, concluded Busalacchi. “When it comes down to it, the ultimate goal is to help the customer. We are there to assist. You can have all the book knowledge. You could be an expert taster, but if you can’t convey the right wine for the individual customer then you’re not doing the job correctly. It is about leaving your ego at the door in that respect.”


New Documentary Explores the Dangerous World of Sea Urchin Diving

The Delicacy also answers the strange question of why we eat the spiny sea creatures.

Director Jason Wise, known for his Somm series of documentaries, has just released his latest movie, The Delicacy. The subject? Sea urchin diving𠅋ut also the entire question of what we think of as a �licacy,” those foods we consider rare and delectable but often, in truth, very strange indeed.

The Delicacy follows several Santa Barbara-area sea urchin divers through the dangers and joys of their work, with on-screen commentary from nationally known chefs such as Andrew Zimmern, Kyle Connaughton of the three-Michelin-starred Single Thread restaurant in Healdsburg, CA, and Justin Cogley of Aubergine in Carmel, CA, a 2013 Food & Wine Best New Chef (and also𠅍isclaimer here—Food & Wine executive wine editor Ray Isle, i.e. me).

Director Wise says regarding the genesis of the movie, “To me, the idea of a delicacy was a great lens to use to speak about all the strange behaviors humans have in terms of eating food. Delicacies are food that aren’t essentially there for nourishment, and come with all sorts of other interesting points—they’re dangerous to get, or odd-looking, or you eat a weird part of whatever animal it is.”

As the writer Jonathan Swift said back in the 1700s, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” The same could well apply to sea urchins whoever first thought to take one of these weird black balls covered in sharp spines, crack it open, and eat the odd orange goo inside was either inspired or nuts, depending on your feelings about sea urchin, or uni, or riccio di mare, or any of the many names it goes by. Add in the fact that to get one you have to dive deep into cold ocean water, dealing with hazards like unpredictable currents and entangling kelp, and our love of eating them becomes even more mystifying. And yet, we do love urchin.

Cogley, who has currently shifted Aubergine’s elegant cuisine to a more homestyle takeout focus, says, “The first time I had urchin, it was actually a dish that was pivotal in my decision to become a chef. It was in 1999 at Guy Savoy in Paris, and I had a dish of sea urchin, oysters, borage, and what they called an 𠆎mulsion of sea water.’ It was extraordinary, and a real changing point for me. My parents weren’t chefs or home cooks or anything. My dad’s favorite food was like marshmallow fluff and baloney or something.” (Some people might find that sandwich more alarming than sea urchin roe but hey, to each his own.) Cogley adds, 𠇏or me urchin has always been such a mysterious food. When you eat it, you can taste the seasons, you can taste the changes in ocean temperatures and so on—it’s almost like the way wines change with each vintage.”


SOMM, The Movie, Lands in Texas

A riveting documentary on the great lengths to which professional sommeliers journey in experiencing the best in the world of wine revealing to the rest of us, just what all the fuss is about.

Ever wonder what it takes to become a Master Sommelier? Or what that title even means? Last February, I shared a glimpse of the process for passing the Certified Sommelier exam. But now, with the release of SOMM, a film from writer/director Jason Wise, you can see just how intense things can get for the cream-of-the-crop of professional sommeliers.

SOMM is a documentary narrative that follows four Master Sommelier candidates through their journey of studying, blind tasting, and quite frankly, rabidly obsessing, about passing the highest level examination through the internationally heralded Court of Master Sommeliers. The test, which has often been referred to as one of the hardest exams in the world, has only passed about 200 candidates since its inception nearly 40 years ago. It includes three parts: an oral theory exam in which candidates must answer a flood of questions aloud from a panel of judges a service exam in which candidates must seamlessly serve a table of current Master Sommeliers as they exhibit qualities of some of the most demanding dining customers and finally, a blind tasting in which candidates must identify 6 wines by sight, smell and taste right down to the grape, style, region, and vintage. It’s no walk in the park, that’s for sure.

The four candidates include Brian McClintic, Dustin Wilson and Ian Cauble—all who did most of their studying together in San Francisco—and DLynn Proctor, a Texas native whose debonair fashion sense and rhythmic wine tasting style has afforded him the nickname “Señor Somm” in sommelier circles. (Though Proctor had less screen time than the other three somms, his inclusion in the mix adds a decidedly dapper dynamic to the storyline.)

SOMM shows the depth to which candidates pour over mountains of hand-made flash cards cramming every little detail of wine and grape knowledge into their heads from the names of the DOCG classifications of Italy’s Piedmont region to the various levels of Germany’s Prädikatswein categorizations. They trace and memorize viticultural maps from all over the world and taste countless bottles of wine hammering out a cascade of descriptors such as dried violet, wet chalk, lanolin, fresh cut grass, vanilla, and even “a freshly opened can of tennis balls,” to help narrow down the grape, origin and vintage of a wine they are tasting blind.

While we see the four candidates winding themselves up into a veritable mental breakdown, Wise also manages to weave a counterbalance of interview clips from an array of current Master Sommeliers including Peter Neptune, Geoff Kruth and the inimitable Fred Dame who is the only sommelier in the United States to pass the Master exam in one try. (Most candidates have to return 3,4, or more times to pass all three categories.) Clips from the current masters show the great community of mentors new candidates have to lean on in their studies while additional interviews from the supportive and loving significant others of this unbelievably intense group of gentleman help present a well-rounded perspective as well as the relief to viewers that, there really is life after the Master Sommelier exam.

To say the show is an indulgence in the world of wine geeks is an understatement— something that would be worth a Christopher Guest mockumentary a la “Best In Show,” “This is Spinal Tap,” and “Waiting for Guffman.” But wine geek or not, you can’t help but get wrapped up in all the wine-study frenzy. Especially when you see the intensity that pursues during exam week, which just happens to be held at the Four Seasons Dallas at Las Colinas during the film.

“We approached SOMM from the perspective that wine is not a secret, it is something worth working hard to understand,” says writer/director Jason Wise. “The thing we truly hope people walk away from the film with is two-fold the feeling of enjoying a movie about something they didn’t understand when it started, and the need to immediately have a glass of wine when it finishes.”

For someone who has completed two of the four levels in the journey to becoming a Master Sommelier, I can say the film is an exhilarating experience. It’s funny, eye-opening and emotional all at once. And if you’ve ever spent endless hours, blood, sweat and/or tears to accomplish anything, you’ll probably agree.

But there are a few other Texas Master Somms who have achieved this hard fought certification and can share a similar sentiment in what a film like SOMM means to them.

“My good friend, Doug Frost, who is a Master Sommelier as well as a Master of Wine suggested I take the exam. I wanted to see what it was about and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The process is grueling and requires an incredible amount of study. SOMM gives a realistic view of what it takes to go for the diploma. Not everyone understands the different elements and skills required. It’s not just opening and serving wine. It takes years of study and preparation before sitting the Advanced and Master Level and then it may take several attempts. I should know, it took me a few times!”

– Guy Stout, Master Sommelier, Glazer’s (Houston)

“I pursued the Master Sommelier Diploma because of my passion for wine and desire to learn everything I could about it. SOMM does a very good job of depicting the level of commitment and intensity that goes into this very specialized craft and helps me explain to the general public what exactly I have accomplished.”

– Craig Collins, Master Sommelier, Dalla Terra Winery Direct (Austin)

“Pursuing the Master level certification is one of those things that has helped me keep my mind sharp in my career in wine. And yes, it is REALLY that hard. Watching SOMM put me through that emotional roller coaster again. There were so many instances where I went through the same things staying up all night going through cards, experiencing the disappointment of not passing a part of the test, and eventually the thrill of finally becoming a Master. It’s great that my friends and family can see truly what its about and what get a glimpse at what we go through!”

– Melissa Monosoff, Master Sommelier, Pioneer Wine Company (Dallas)

“I love wine (and other beverages) and serving people through the hospitality profession. I have a culinary degree so arrived at wine from the perspective of food. Each of these allows me to meet people and take a journey together. Food and beverage encompass so many aspects of life from social interaction to history, arts, science, and even politics.

“The test is grueling. In the service portion, one must demonstrate grace, hospitality, and adaptability under pressure. The blind tasting portion tests the ability to know wines, but also to know oneself: What is your tasting style? What are your strengths and weaknesses? How do you deal with anxiety? How confident are you in your abilities? Can you get beyond “the static”? All of these questions come to light during tasting. And finally, theory knowledge underlies most aspects of the exam. Hence, the astounding collections of questions and notes that many sommeliers assemble. Sommeliers keep the index card industry in business!

“I am glad that Jason Wise was able to capture both the romance of the process and the reality of the exam. There are many myths about the exam, which is seen as testing arcane and esoteric knowledge by some. The reality is that the path to Master Sommelier is a journey, perhaps even a quest, and that the important knowledge and experience is gained before ever attempting the exam. The exam is just a culmination of the process.”

– James Tidwell, Master Sommelier, Four Seasons Las Colinas (Dallas)

In truth, you don’t have to be a sommelier to appreciate this film. Wine enthusiasts and even the wine curious can easily appreciate what this story has to reveal. If you’ve ever had to work hard at something you absolutely love, you’ll find SOMM both touching and inspiring.


23 Master Sommeliers Have Been Stripped Of Their Titles After A Major Cheating Scandal

The exam to become a master sommelier is the hardest test in the wine world, maybe one of the toughest tests in any industry. Only 274 people have passed it since it was established in 1969. But the Court of Master Sommeliers has sniffed out a major cheating scandal in its ranks -- and stripped 23 of its newest Master Sommeliers of their titles.

Devon Broglie, the chairman of the organization's board and a master sommelier himself, sent a letter yesterday saying he had received information that one of the group's members had "disclosed confidential information pertinent to the tasting portion of the 2018 Master Sommelier Diploma Examination prior to the examination."

"The invalidation of the master sommelier test is really startling to the industry," says Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible. "This is one of the most agonizingly difficult tests in the world and as far as I know this has never happened before to the organization."

The tasting portion is what makes the test so difficult. Aspiring sommeliers have 25 minutes to blind-taste six wines and identify the grape variety, region of origin and vintage of each one.

"These wines could be from anywhere in the world. Dry, sweet, still, fortified, sparkling. You can imagine in the thousands of wines how hard that is," MacNeil says.

Even if candidates pass, they never find out which wines they drank so they never know what they got right or wrong.

Eddie Osterland, who in 1973 became America's first master sommelier, says he is, "still in shock and disbelief. I feel terribly for the 23 candidates that will be required to do a retake. You might be the best taster in the world and pass but when you come back and do a retake, it's another day and you could be off. On the other hand, I believe it was the only fair way to handle it."

The exam also includes a 50-minute oral portion during which applicants are quizzed on their winemaking knowledge. The practical portion simulates restaurant service as candidates recommend and pour wines for a table of discerning juges.

Almost no one passes all three sections the first time around. Candidates who pass one section but fail another can return to try again. It typically takes people five years to pass the master sommelier exam.

The 2012 documentary Somm chronicles the grueling and absurd lengths four aspiring wine pros go through as they try to pass it.

In 2018, 24 people passed the master sommelier exam. Only one of them, Morgan Harris, head sommelier at the Angler in San Francisco, will get to keep his title -- and that's because he took the tasting portion of the exam last year.

In contrast, only eight people passed the Master Sommelier exam in 2017.

Broglie, in his letter, didn't name the person responsible for sharing information but the San Francisco Chronicle, which broke the story, speculates that "the person may have been one of the exam proctors. Proctors are master sommeliers who have undergone a rigorous additional training process, typically lasting about four years."

Broglie said that the person accused of revealing information has been barred from participating in any of the group's events while the Court of Master Sommeliers terminates his membership. (We're assuming it's a "him" since almost all the members are men.) That would mean they'd also be stripped of theie master sommelier title.

It costs $995 to take the test and that doesn't include, "the cost of all of your study materials, the tens of thousands of dollars you may have spent on wine," MacNeil says.

In a subsequent press release, the Court of Master Sommeliers announced it would refund all fees collected for the tasting portion of the exam and hold two retesting opportunities, one before the end of 2018 and another during the spring or early summer of 2019. Candidates can take either retest or retake the test during the regularly scheduled exam for 2019 and their exam fees will be waived. Candidates will even get assistance with travel costs for the retest.

"I suspect that people who come back to do a retake, some will not pass just because it's that difficult," Osterland says. "It's incomprehensible to me to be awarded this thing you've worked on all your life, to be celebrating and then have the news that this is being recalled."

The people who initially passed the master sommelier exam in 2018 include:

  1. Tyler Alden (Seattle, WA)
  2. Scott Barber (St. Helena, CA)
  3. Peter Bothwell (New York, NY)
  4. Dana Gaiser (New York, NY)
  5. Morgan Harris (San Francisco, CA)
  6. Andrey Ivanov (San Francisco, CA)
  7. Maximilian Kast (Chapel Hill, NC)
  8. Douglas Kim (Las Vegas, NV)
  9. James Michael Lechner (Seattle, WA)
  10. Jane Lopes (Ripponlea, Australia)
  11. Steven McDonald (Houston, TX)
  12. Vincent Morrow(San Francisco, CA)
  13. Elton Nichols (Seattle, WA)
  14. Robert Ord (Napa, CA)
  15. Joshua Orr (San Diego, CA)
  16. Daniel Pilkey (Chicago, IL)
  17. Christopher Ramelb (Honolulu, HI)
  18. Steven Robinson (Ottawa, Ontario)
  19. Justin Timsit (Los Angeles, CA)
  20. Mia Van de Water (New York, NY)
  21. Greg Van Wagner (Aspen, CO)
  22. Steven Washuta (New York, NY)
  23. Jessica Waugh (Las Vegas, NV)
  24. Jill Zimorski (Chicago, IL)

UPDATES: Friday, Oct. 12, 1:40 p.m.: This article was updated with details about retesting oppotunities for master sommelier candidates.
Wed., Oct. 10, 12
:55 p.m.: This article was updated with quotes from Karen MacNeil and Eddie Osterland. It was originally published at 11 a.m.

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Watch the video: Master SOMM Ian Cauble Picks Best Pinot Noir in the World - Wine Oh TV (June 2022).