The Introductory Sommelier Exam: a Stepping Stone to Many Directions

This past week I took (and passed!) my Introductory Sommelier exam. It was a welcome distraction from everything else that was going on. :-/ At this point in time, I don’t have any desire to become an actual Sommelier who “works the floor.” However, I’m always looking to expand my wine knowledge – so when I saw the course and exam was coming to Bellevue, I signed up back in mid-August and I put together a whole “study schedule” too. Needless to say, the study schedule went by the wayside as I crammed in a bunch of travel during September and October (including some to France, so I did some “hands on” studying there). 😉 And even though I didn’t stick to my self-imposed schedule, I still ended up way over studying.

The exam was much more about breadth than depth. And although I knew this going into it, my OCDness couldn’t help itself, and we ended up memorizing endless details that have been bouncing around in my brain for weeks. So, I wasn’t asked to name all the major wine regions of Chile, but was asked what the major varietal of the Valle Central was (answer: Cabernet Sauvignon). Also, some of the countries that I spent a couple weeks going over were covered in about 20 minutes in class (Spain). But on the flipside, there was some wine minutia that showed up on the test that I’d (thankfully!) stored in the recesses of my brain – i.e. “what type of soil is found in Vouvray?” (answer: tuffeau. Obviously!). 😉

My advice to anyone preparing for the Introductory Sommelier exam would be: (1) to focus on what is in the workbook that they send you, (2) pay attention in class, and (3) drink a lot of wine as part of your studies!

The Workbook – They’re Sending it to You For a Reason. The textbook is about 170 pages and over 40 pages are dedicated to France. Almost 25% of the entire book is about France!  And, not surprisingly, there were a lot of French wine questions on the exam. (Italy came in a distant second.) There was at least one question on almost every region and wine style covered in class – Greece, Sake, South Africa, etc. But if you’re pressed for time, or not sure where to start, since you need 60% to pass (or 42 questions correct), I say focus on the big stuff – France.

somm-book
Read this!  Know this!  THIS is the exam!!

I took an intensive French wine class a couple years ago through the French Wine Society (now known as the Wine Scholar Guild) so thankfully the French stuff was mostly a refresher for me. But if you don’t have a good base knowledge of this country, I recommend starting here and spending a chunk of time with it. Also of note, 8 of the 22 wines we blind tasted in class were from France (runner up was the US with 5 wines, only 2 from Italy).

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t study the other regions! But if you know France well, you can know others less well – particularly the more minor regions. For example, I didn’t know a ton about New Zealand, Greece, and Australia – but I learned the basics before class and when those regions were lectured on I paid attention . . . which brings us to:

The Lectures – They’re Saying it to You For a Reason. There were several times during the lectures when one of the Masters would say “and you should remember this” or “this is something you should know.” HINT HINT – this will probably be on the exam! These guys are awesome, they’re not trying to trick you. There was nothing on the test that they didn’t mention in class.

Besides the lectures, a lot of class time was dedicated to tasting (which isn’t part of the Introductory Sommelier exam, but IS a section of the Certified Exam if you decide to pursue that.) We tasted through 22 wines in 2 days, all were “classic wines” including Chablis, Barolo, California Cabernet, Sancerre, etc. Although the goal isn’t necessarily to guess the wines right, naturally that’s what most everyone focused on. (For the record – I got about half correct. HALF. Like my Dad used to say about 50% – “that’s an F.”)

Instead, we’re supposed to focus on how we reached our conclusion. Did we identify the correct aromas, structural elements, and sight evidence on each wine? For example, if it was a Chablis did we pick up on the high acidity, chalk/minerality and lemon aromatics?

For the record (again) – this made me realize that I desperately need to work on my tasting skills and expand my palate. This exercise was super humbling.  For example, even though I drink a lot of Oregon Pinot Noir, I missed this one when it was one of the blind wines (I thought it was from California). Same with the Northern Rhône Syrah we tasted (with the higher tannins I thought it was possibly Dolcetto). Which brings us to my 3rd suggestion for studying:

Drink Up! – You’re Studying Wine for a Reason. When you’re reading about Australia, sip on a big, bold Shiraz. Studying Spain? Reach for an Albariño. Don’t just pound these though, stop and learn what these wines are supposed to look/smell/taste like from these regions and, this is key – WHY they look/smell/taste how they do (i.e. soil, climate, Old World v. New World style, etc.) Evaluating wine in this manner is an invaluable way to put it all together. I wish I had done more of this prior to taking the course and exam.

After my two days with The Masters, I walked away with two major realizations:

First, I know a lot about wine. I started taking classes at Northwest Wine Academy in the Fall of 2013 and when I look back at what I knew then, and compare it to what I know now, I’m incredibly proud of how far I’ve come in my wine journey.  Two years working in a wine store has also helped expand my wine knowledge. And . . . drinking lots of wine hasn’t hurt either. 😉

Second, and most importantly, it confirmed to me that I have a lot to learn about wine. Taking the Introductory Sommelier course and passing the exam is no easy feat, one that I know I couldn’t have accomplished 3 years ago. But while 90% of this course was review for me, that translates to about .9% of the entire wine iceberg. Or putting this in wine terms, if having 100% knowledge of wine is all the areas under vine in the entire world, my knowledge is the equivalent of the Red Mountain AVA.

What’s next?  Well, there are several more levels of the Sommelier path if I choose to go that way. Even though I know I don’t want to work on the floor of a restaurant, having “Certified Sommelier” after my name could certainly open some paths for me.  I’m also looking at the WSET as an option in January or the Spring. Or I could pursue the CSW – this looks like it’s more of a self-study path which me and OCD could happily attack together. And, this is the precursor to becoming a CWE and I think this is the direction that I’d like to go . . . teaching others about wine.

Whichever route I decide, I already have FWS under my belt (which stands for French Wine Scholar – not Fucking Wine Snob, although some days that’s debatable).  I know that having an alphabet soup of letters after your name doesn’t equate with success or, frankly, knowledge retained in any particular field (I’m a JD but haven’t retained much about UCC 2, Torts, or Evidence, et. al.)  Nonetheless, I love having a goal to accomplish – like passing the Introductory Sommelier exam.  It lights a fire under my 43 year old ass. So, I’ll take a bit of time to enjoy my success with this stepping stone and then figure out where I’m heading next.

One more acronym . . . is it just me, or is the face on the pin creepy AF??

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