What does it take to become a Master Sommelier?

The wine world’s highest accolade is notoriously hard to achieve, yet it’s becoming more and more popular to try. Master Sommelier and writer Doug Frost discusses what it takes to become the ultimate authority in wine.

Image: Alamy

Not so long ago a sommelier could be easily identified by the silver cup swinging from his neck – that and a badly wrinkled tuxedo. If you’re objecting to the gender assumption, yes, back then, we were all male. That, as well as a certain kind of attitude, helped define the sommelier.

Today, the man or woman approaching your table to sell you wine is representative not only of a world of greater (but still developing) gender equality, but of a younger, hipper approach to wine service.

Sommeliers are better dressed, if nothing else. Their wine lists have become far more complicated, with obscure choices far from the once standard regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Mosel, Tuscany, Piedmont and Napa Valley, though top lists are heavily populated by those denizens too.

Be prepared to study

In the time since I became a Master Sommelier (MS) in 1991, the North American ranks of MS have increased from around a dozen to nearly 150; worldwide there are 236, each of whom has undergone a series of four examinations.

Most people require multiple attempts to pass the last two or three of those exams and the average time required to become an MS is nearly seven years of arduous study and practice.

Inconveniently, there isn’t much training available; the Court of Master Sommeliers (the body that administers the exams) expects each candidate to spend years preparing for these exams on their own, and the third examination demands at least five years of restaurant service experience before being admitted to sit the test.

If this pathway seems long and gruelling, it certainly doesn’t put people off. The Court struggles to deal with the flood of applicants, willing to undergo a cornucopia of tests that includes:

  • A verbal test
  • A timed theory test that delves into wine’s obscurities
  • A blind tasting of six wines that requires the student to identify the wine’s grape varieties, vintage, origin, character and quality
  • And most importantly, a service exam in which aspirants are asked to improve the dining experience of a table filled with extremely irritated and thirsty Master Sommeliers.

Somewhere between two and seven individuals manage to get through each year, so it’s not an impossible task but, for most of us, it’s a life-changing one.

Learning to taste and observe

While Master Sommeliers were once an obscure lot, we seem now to have spread across the landscape, not only managing lofty wine programmes at top venues, but working as writers, educators, consultants, retail directors, importers and even winery owners.

While those of us who examine aspiring Master Sommeliers believe the service exam is the soul of the programme, it’s the blind tasting that seems to capture the public’s imagination. But it’s not so mysterious a process: most people taste what they eat and drink.

Perhaps they don’t describe tastes as Master Sommeliers are trained to do, but each of us, responding to flavours we like or don’t like, are making instantaneous judgments about food and drink. Handed a glass of wine, we are making rapid-fire comparisons to those we’ve had before and, if it pleases us, we drink more of it.

For the MS, it’s a matter of slowing down those observations, so that we notice each of the details that led us to like, or dislike, the aromas, flavours and textures in the wine.

Image: Alamy

Educate your palate

The tricky part is that we don’t all perceive wines quite the same way; it’s why we like to eat and drink different things. My wife likes bold and fruity wines, while I tend to prefer more subtle drinks.

So, when I open what is for me an exciting 20-year-old Burgundy, or a Pinot Noir of earthy, floral and quietly fruity character, she usually humours me for a few minutes before instructing me to open something else.

She’s not wrong; she just prefers different flavours and if you live with an MS, you damn well ought to be able to get a wine you like. You remember that I said service is the most important part? We’re supposed to make people happy with their dining experience. Otherwise, we’re just getting in the way of a good time.

But just as some people prefer Brussels sprouts over broccoli, or favour chicken over chocolate, there is no right or wrong in this. Our bodies are simply giving us different information and whether that is our upbringing or our physiology is too complicated to consider here.

It just is. The trick in tasting is being willing to notice all the flavours, aromas and textures and then linking those characteristics with the facts.

Always pay attention

If it seems like magic, it isn’t. It’s just paying attention. Putting words to flavours is, as many have noted, like dancing about architecture or singing about painting.

While some talk about ‘training’ your palate, it’s really your brain that’s being asked to intercede in what is an otherwise unconscious process. We MSs train tasters to slow down the innate and split-second action of deciding what tastes good to us.

Those Master Sommelier students who spend years huddled over glasses of wine are gathering the experiences of tens of thousands of wines, and creating memory banks, like colour charts, against which to compare the one in front of them.

Master Sommeliers will continue to train themselves to coherently talk about wine with each other and with our customers. But no one can ever tell you what tastes good to you. You alone are the arbiter of your own taste. And that’s a lovely, democratising thing.

Impress even the fussiest wine buff, with a few basics:

  • Wines that are very tart come from grapes that are not particularly ripe, and if a wine exhibits tart flavours, it probably came from a cool environment where the grapes didn’t have much of a chance to ripen.
  • Alternatively, wines that have raisin, fig and even prune flavours likely came from a hot climate.
  • Most red wine and also Chardonnay is aged in barrels. If you pay attention, you can figure out what sort of barrels: clove smells indicate brand new barrels, coconut and dill aromas suggest American oak barrels, being used most often in places like Australia, Spain and, yes, America.
  • Master Sommelier candidates are expected to figure out myriad descriptors, loosely organised into fruits, flowers, spices, herbs, vegetables, earth, mineral, tannin, acid, sugar and alcohol levels, length, intensity and complexity. Collect a half dozen of the important descriptors and you have a better than even chance to guess the what, where, when and, occasionally, who of the wine.


Doug Frost is a writer, Master Sommelier and Master of Wine based in the US.


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