Preparing for Service Exams at High Levels (Advanced and Masters)

Overview

When approaching the service sections of sommelier exams, it’s tempting to think that because we are sommeliers and are on the floor every day that we are ready for service.  However, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not practicing for a service exam. Service exams are designed to put you in stressful, high stakes situations and so you need to prepare for those situations and the format of the exam, just like you would practice a 25 minute timed flight or a written test.  I remember doing a mock before my advanced exam and being asked if I could make a recommendation for something from Margaux. I froze for a few seconds, stammered, and then tentatively blurted out, “Château Margaux?” The response from my proctor was, “Well … that’s great, but can you recommend something a little more affordable tonight?”  And I had nothing.

What went wrong there?  Quite a few things:

  • Nerves - I had to use information that I only knew on a theoretical basis.  I could easily run through my flash card on the growths of Margaux, but when it came time for a specific recommendation, I was having a hard time coming up with anything.
  • Lack of information - I had a vague idea of how much Château Margaux costs.  But what if they only wanted to spend $200? $300? I didn’t have that data in my mental rolodex.
  • Could not sidestep an issue - I had no idea on how to tell someone I didn’t know something in a test situation.

I needed to do better on my test so I started preparing for service with the same rigor I used with theory and tasting. I decided that I needed to focus on a few areas including service fundamentals, cuisine knowledge, troubleshooting service scenarios, business of wine and developing the proper mentality for when I walked into the room for service.

I have repeated this approach whenever sitting for an exam.  Leading up to an exam, Mondays would be devoted to my service group, Thursdays would be for tasting group and Fridays would be reserved for theory group. It might sound excessive, but you have invested years of preparation into your exam and you cannot afford to take any section for granted.

The Fundamentals of Delivering High Level Service

Before you even start studying cuisine, business of wine, etc, there are three things I feel that you must have in your muscle memory in order to be successful in a service exam: service mechanics, theory, and a hospitality mindset.

For service mechanics, every aspect of the CMS standards should be second nature; you should know what the platonic ideal of service is and be able to execute it as well.  What does that mean? For me it meant that I needed to be in the habit of doing some (sometimes) overly formal things that I would not normally do, like wiping the top of a cork after removing the foil.  Day to day, I feel that a visual inspection for mold is sufficient, but the CMS Service Standards specify that you need to wipe, so I had to incorporate aspects such as that into my service (another great resource to help prep would be the Guildsomm Service Study Guide).

To get comfortable with these standards, I had a full set of service tools at home, including a tray, decanters, underliners, coasters, etc, and would practice with them while imagining basic service scenarios.  While it might seem excessive doing mental reps in my awkwardly laid out dining room at home, this practice allowed me to take the CMS’s very formal steps of service and make them second nature. In an exam you have to answer difficult questions from your guests, troubleshoot problems, and deliver excellent service all at the same time.  If your mechanics are not second nature, you will find yourself losing valuable time because when you are asked a question you’ll stop what you’re doing, giving your service a very uneven feel. If the steps of service are second nature, that also frees valuable mental space for you to focus on the scenarios in front of you instead of trying to remember if the guest asked for the ice bucket on the table or to the host’s side.

The second fundamental for high level service revolves around your theory preparation.  What will you need to know? There are other great resources out there to help you in preparation for theory, so I won’t rehash them, but you should incorporate important information for service into your theory preparation. For example, while you are studying the various DOCGs in Tuscany are you also memorizing the tête de cuvées of the region? What about the basic producer profiles of the most important wineries (and you should be doing this for historically important wineries, big wineries, popular small wineries, wineries that are on trend, etc)?  What about the vintages of Tuscany? (And yes, you might have to branch out and do more than just the vintages of Europe and the USA, but with other regions like Chile/Argentina/Australia you might be better off on learning at a macro level - stellar vintages, hot vintages, cold vintages, wet vintages, bad vintages, etc.)

These are things that you can easily integrate into your studies, but if you try and leave them to just a few months before service, you’re not going to have enough time to study the information to the point where the recall is effortless.  Remember, you’re going to have to walk around and perform service while recalling this information, so you want it well integrated into your working knowledge of a region. In many ways service is just walking, talking theory.

Finally, the third fundamental is a hospitality mindset.  This is your most important tool when you walk into the service exam.  The simplest way to boil it down is that when you enter that room, there is one word that is forbidden: no.  Instead, think of the first rule of improv theater: give into the “cosmic yes” and stay away from a negative mindset.  See the following scenario:

GUEST
How was 1994 for red Burgundy?

SOMM
It’s not great.  Rainy vintage towards harvest, tends to lack charm and some bottlings can be dilute.

GUEST
So I just wasted a whole lot of money on the Dujac Musigny Grand Cru that I just bought for my daughter’s 25th birthday?

SOMM
(FOOT IN MOUTH) Sir, it’s a fantastic wine and one of the wines of the vintage.

GUEST
But you just said 1994s aren’t good.

Instead, try this approach:

GUEST
How was 1994 for red Burgundy?

SOMM
It was a warm summer and it really rewarded the best estates, the ones that waited until after the rain that occurred mid-harvest.

GUEST
So that Dujac Musigny Grand Cru that I bought for my daughter’s 25th birthday is good?

SOMM
Sir, it’s a fantastic wine and one of the wines of the vintage.

GUEST
Thanks!  I thought it would be good.

In the first scenario, although the somm was honest, they set themselves up for failure because they weren’t being gracious and were negative about the facts they were presenting.  In the second scenario, the somm was elegant and positive, and yet did not lie. Even though they knew nothing about the guest’s circumstances, they created an interaction where if the guest did have some positive feelings about what is a pretty dreary vintage overall, the guest could still feel good about it. Which somm do you want taking care of you?

Similarly, if you ever come to a place where you don’t know the answer to something, do not lie.  Talk about what you know and gracefully sidestep what you don’t know. But, if you can’t sidestep, be honest and admit the limits of your knowledge with grace and humility.  Your guests will appreciate your honesty even if you cannot come up with the correct answer.

Something that helped me to embody this hospitality mindset was to not focus on myself, but instead focus on how I wanted to make my guests feel.  By putting the guests’ emotional state at the top of your mind, you can really pour a lot of care and genuine warmth into your service. However, this will only be possible if both your service mechanics and theory are deeply ingrained in you, so that you can then focus on the hospitality mindset during your exam.  This will allow you to avoid making a mistake like suggesting DRC for a customer that loved Ramey Pinot Noir and wanted to try Burgundy tonight (and if you only know the big, expensive players in a region, you might need to brush up on your theory before service).

Improving Your Cuisine (and Wine) Knowledge aka Mock Restaurant Menus

Since service essentially takes place in a fake restaurant, you need to have more than just a passing familiarity of the major cuisines of the world.  You won’t know what the cuisine will be and unless you went to culinary school or watched a lot of Food Network (back when people weren’t interested in who could beat Bobby Flay), you probably need to spend some time on the major cuisines of the world.

With each cuisine you should have a basic understanding of the major ingredients, unique cooking techniques, and traditional dishes that are common in the region.  And I say region, rather than country, because countries like France and Italy have a number of major wine regions with distinctive cuisines (Piedmont vs Tuscany in Italy, for example).  To study these cuisines, what I did was look at restaurant menus (and wine lists - you should always be looking at the best wine lists in the world) from some of the best restaurants in the world (the Michelin Guide and the Pellegrino List are both excellent sources). You should also Google “top regional dishes” for each area and then build your own menus as well, thus giving you a better understanding of what makes a regional cuisine unique.  When doing this I would also create a regional wine list to accompany the menu. Not only does this allow you to expand your knowledge of a wine region, but you’ll also learn price points, something that is often overlooked by sommeliers in their wine studies.

Here is a sample Greek menu that I created in preparation for MS service.  It not only covers the traditional cuisine of Greece but also has an all Greek wine list which was useful for familiarizing myself with a country I didn’t know well.  To build this list, I used Wine Searcher (which has some great tools sort by popularity in a region to see what’s actually relevant in the market) and Jancis Robinson (whose archives will allow you to search by region, score, when rated, etc).  I also made sure that I had wines of every category represented (sparkling, white, rose, red, dessert) along with a wide variety of styles to have good representation of what was available within a region.

So what regions/countries should you focus on?  I’d say you should be familiar with all major regional cuisines of France (Bordeaux, Loire, Rhone, Burgundy, Champagne, Alsace) and Italy (Piedmont, Tuscany, Veneto) along with the major dishes of the following countries: Germany, Austria, Spain, Greece, Chile, Argentina, China, Japan.  If you’ve got the time, knowing Indian, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine wouldn’t hurt, but focus on the major ones first.

Troubleshooting When Something (Inevitably) Goes Wrong

One source of anxiety about service exams is knowing that there is going to be a difficult situation at some point in your service. The fact that you know it’s there, but don’t know what it is can be disconcerting.  How do you prepare for something when you don’t know what it is? Personally, I made a long list of scenarios (not just related to wine) and then imagined how I would go about solving them. Here are some examples of things I came up with, from mundane to very involved:

  • Wine is too sweet
  • Wine tastes funny
  • White Burg is premoxed
  • Desired vintage not available
  • Guest spilled their wine
  • Wine is spilled on a guest
  • Glassware is spotty
  • Other waiter poured water into guest’s wine
  • No cold wine available
  • Host leaves the table.  Her guests insist on opening the wine and drink most of it.  Host returns and rejects the wine
  • Proposal ruined - host spoiled the surprise for the couple by mis-reading the notes and now you have to greet the table
  • Guest asks to see your wine key then pockets it
  • Guest of honor loves Krug, host can only afford basic Champagne
  • Know-it-all guest who gets everything wrong
  • Lady orders the wine, has the guy taste.  He accepts it, but upon pouring she rejects it.
  • Magnum decant with no mag decanters

If a waiter poured water into the guest’s wine, but it’s the last bottle, how would you handle it?  You could open up another bottle of similar quality, but that’s pretty big for just one glass, right?  I’d personally offer a Coravin of something of similar or better quality to the guest. But how do you know if there’s a Coravin available? You don’t, but like in improv theater, you have room to add your own agency to the scenario.  As long as you’re not wildly off base and not correcting the guest, you should be fine with something like, “I believe we have a Coravin in back and I’d be happy to pour you a glass of Château Awesomesauce for you as a replacement, on the house.”

What about the ruined proposal?  I’d go and apologize, offer Champagne and tell them that the bottle is on the house, along with their meal, and then do the necessary triage of winning their trust back.  I’d tell them that we’re going to make their evening one of the most memorable nights they’ve ever had because I want them to come back every year for their anniversary and celebrate with us.

Eventually as I worked my way through my scenarios, I would find that I had a few basic patterns that will hold over many scenarios.  Any involving spoilage (wine is corked, premoxed, etc) would typically involve pulling the wine off the table and then gracefully offering a replacement.  Any scenarios involving losing a glass from the bottle would involve me replacing the glass via BTG or Coravin. Once you work through a number of scenarios, if you encounter an unfamiliar scenario at the exam it’s more than likely that you have already figured out how to deal with a similar one during your studies.

Preparing for the Business of Wine

The Business of Wine has become a significant portion of the service exam at both the Advanced and Master levels and so it is only natural that you should devote a fair amount of your service preparation towards this facet of the service exam.  The Business of Wine is a sit down test with questions that will quiz you on basics of running a beverage program. So what should you know? I’d recommend becoming familiar with the following:

  • Spirits identification - don’t limit yourself to just 40% ABV spirits.  You should be able to identify a wide range of products used in a modern bar, including things like sherry, sake, liqueurs, aperitifs, and digestifs.
  • Beer identification
  • Dessert wine identification
  • Wine list correction - study your producers when you’re preparing for theory and you’ll make life easier. Look for everything, including spelling errors, wrong regions, wrong cuvees, incorrect pricing, incorrect varietals, incorrect placement on the list (i.e. a white in the red section), etc.

And if you want to add more to your game, here’s examples of other things I’d pay attention to:

  • Auction terminology and purchasing process - do you know what a BSL is?  What about how the buyer’s premium affects the final hammer price? How would you evaluate different lots to judge which you would submit a bit for?
  • Pricing for different tools used in wine service - this includes things like glassware lines, decanters, Coravin, etc.  You need to have a complete understanding of all of the costs that will affect your wine service.
  • Knowing the broader world of wine besides fine wine - can you name a nationally distributed Cabernet under $10?
  • Ins and outs of using electronic inventories
  • Current trends for wine lists - for example, can you talk intelligently about natural wine?  Would you handle and store it differently than other wines?
  • Current trends for wine program management  - have you checked out SevenFifty if it’s in your market? Can you define what a perpetual inventory is?

Finally, there are the numbers.  Understanding things like profit margin, contribution margin, markup, COGS, how to price a flight, etc, along with how to look at an inventory sheet and calculate variance and run down errors. Profit margin, markup, contribution margin and COGS are intimately connected.

  • COGS - This is your cost for whatever item(s) you have sold
  • Gross Profit (Contribution Margin) - This is the total dollar amount that you netted after costs
    • Price Sold - COGS = Gross Profit
  • Profit Margin - This is the percent of the price sold that is your profit after your COGS
    • Gross Profit / Price Sold = Profit Margin
  • Markup - This is how much above cost you have priced an item.  When expressed as a multiplier, it is a factor of how much you multiply the initial cost to get the final price sold.  When expressed as a percentage, it is percentage above initial cost. 
    • Price Sold / Cost = Markup Multiplier
    • Gross Profit / Cost = Markup Percentage
    • Expressed as a multiplier
    • Expressed as a percentage of gross profit above the initial cost
  • Pour Cost - Your COGS expressed as a percentage of price sold
    • COGS / Price Sold = Pour Cost

Cost (COGS)

$30

Price Sold

$100

Gross Profit (Contribution Margin)

$70

Profit Margin

70%

Markup Multiplier

3.33x

Markup Percentage

233%

Pour Cost

30%

COGS stands for cost of goods sold and applies at both your total sales and your individual bottles/glasses of wine.  The way you calculate your COGS for your inventory would be as follows:

  • Beginning Inventory + Purchases - End Inventory = COGS

Another way to think of this is usage.  If you started the month with $10,000 in inventory, purchased $3,000, and ended the month with $5,000 of inventory, what would your COGS be?  How much product have you used?

  • $10,000 + $3,000 - $5,000 = $8,000 COGS

For this example, you actually sold (used) $8,000 in inventory for the period.

For exercises like pricing a flight of wine or cocktails, I personally will divide everything down to the ounce so that I can then make the appropriate calculations.  Let’s say we have three wines, one that costs $10 for a 375, another in a 750 at $40 and one in a magnum for $50. We want to pour a two ounce flight of each and reach a 60% profit margin on the flight.

  • First, let’s get all of the wines in prices per ounce.  We’ll assume 25 ounces per 750 ml
    • $20/25 = $.80/oz
    • $40/25 = $1.60/oz
    • $25/25 = $1/oz
    • Wine 1 - $10/375 ml which is the same as $20 for 750 ml
    • Wine 2 - $40/750 ml
    • Wine 3 - $50/1500 ml which is the same as $25 for 750 ml
  • Since we are pouring 2 ounces, we multiply our cost per ounce by 2 and then total to get our COGS for the flight.
    • Wine 1 - $.80 x 2 = $1.60/pour
    • Wine 2 - $1.60 x 2 = $3.20/pour
    • Wine 3 - $1 x 2 = $2/pour
    • $1.60 + $3.20 + $2 = $6.80 COGS for the flight
  • We’ll then figure out our pour cost as a percentage
    • We know that Pour Cost + Profit Margin = 100%
    • Pour Cost + 60% = 100%
    • Pour Cost + 60% - 60% = 100% - 60%
    • Pour Cost = 40%
  • We can then use the pour cost and the COGS for the flight to figure out the price with a little basic algebra
    • COGS / Price Sold = Pour Cost
    • COGS / Price Sold * Price Sold = Pour Cost * Price Sold
    • COGS = Pour Cost * Price Sold
    • COGS / Pour Cost = Pour Cost / Pour Cost * Price Sold
    • COGS / Pour Cost = Price Sold
    • $6.80 / 40% = Price Sold
    • $17 = Price Sold

You would use the same basic mindset to price a cocktail by simply figuring out the cost of the individual ingredients to get the COGS and then using the desired Pour Cost to get the target Price Sold. 

You should also be comfortable at looking at an inventory sheet like the one below (assume 4 to a bottle for the BTG pours). Although simplified, sheets like this are common throughout the industry.

Cat

Vint

Wine

Cost

GL Pr

Bt Pr

Pur

Pur $

Sales

Sales $

Start Count

End Count

Theor Count

Variance

1

BTG

NV

Prosecco

$9.00

$10

12

$96

20

$240

5

12.5

12

.5

2

BTG

2017

Pinot Grigio

$12.50

$13

24

$300

36

$468

4

18.5

19

-.5

3

BTG

2015

Merlot

$15.00

$16

12

$180

35

$560

6

9.25

9.25

0

4

Bot

2017

Riesling

$14.00

$42

12

$168

5

$210

3

9

10

-1

5

Bot

2018

Tavel

$17.00

$50

12

$204

8

$400

2

18

6

12

6

Bot

2015

Pinot Noir

$22.00

$59

6

$132

7

$413

1

0

0

0


One column you might not be familiar with is called variance. This is the difference between what you actually counted and what you theoretically should have. Your theoretical is simply your starting count + purchases - sales.  What causes the variance? Anywhere that you have human interaction you have an opportunity for variance.

  • Starting/ending count - you might not have had a proper count
  • Misrings - something could be rung in and not sold. Something could be sold and not rung in.  Something could be incorrectly rung in.
  • Invoices - you might be missing an invoice or the invoice might be in the wrong period.
  • Data entry - fat fingers can cause errors from time to time, especially if you are manually entering your sales instead of using an electronic inventory system that syncs your sales.

Looking at the sheet above, how would you explain the following variances?

  • There is a variance between two of your BTG wines.  What is the most likely explanation for this?
  • There is a variance for your Riesling.  What is the most likely explanation for this?
  • There is a variance for your Tavel.  What is the most likely explanation for this?

Most likely answers are below:

  • For your BTG, more than likely you had some Pinot Grigio being poured but being rung in as Prosecco.
  • For your Riesling, either you had a miscount at the beginning or end of the period or you had a sale that was not rung in.
  • For your Tavel, it looks like you have an invoice that was not recorded.

For those running a wine program, picking up these errors will come naturally.  If you’re not running a wine program, then you’re at a bit of a disadvantage here, so I would recommend sitting down with someone in your peer group and having them walk you through any of the concepts above that you might struggle with.  They may seem foreign at first, but when running a program they are used on a daily basis and you’ll quickly become familiar with them.

Putting It All Together: The Stage

At this point, you’ve developed your service fundamentals, you have a solid understanding of the major cuisines of the world, and you have taken the time to game plan any scenario that might come your way.  The best way to put them all together is to get out there and stage. Since the service exam’s scenarios are being built to closely represent the experience of being in an unfamiliar restaurant, the best way to replicate that experience is to spend time in an unfamiliar restaurant.  During a stage you will be thrown into a new service environment and have to execute their standards while interacting with guests who might have some weird questions for you about the food and wine. It’s the perfect way to focus on elevating your performance.

To make the most of your experiences, I would recommend doing multiple stages at different restaurants rather than all at the same restaurant.  Experiencing a diversity of styles of service and cuisine should be your goal during your stages in order to get the maximum benefit from the time you are spending on an unfamiliar floor.  Personally, I staged at four different restaurants on five different occasions in my leadup to sitting MS service, with both my first and last stage at the same high end restaurant. That particular scheduling quirk gave me the added bonus of seeing just how much time on the different floors had helped me prepare.  On my first stage, I was a bit hesitant and tentative, still trying to figure out how to adapt my service mechanics to the restaurant. On my last stage, I felt that I was almost completely integrated into the evening’s wine service, comfortably interacting with guests and operating on the floor. I owe a good part of my confidence at MS service to the time I put into those floors.  

A Little Game Day Advice

Your ability to be charming and professional will help you a lot more than your ability to recall some weird fact in the moment.  Don’t let the minutiae of the questions get in the way of taking care of the guest. When being asked questions, you should still be pouring, presetting glasses, etc, just like you would in a normal service. Don’t be blind to the substance of the exam: act like you’re in a restaurant.  If you see there’s dirty plates, water that needs filling, etc, take care of it! You’re there to serve after all. 

And just like in a normal restaurant, there will be a pre-shift with some time to study the menus of the day.  Pay attention to the do’s and don’ts at pre-shift. For example, if you’re told that you’re not allowed to make certain substitutions, if there’s an 86, etc, you spidey senses should be tingling and you should choose laterals for each of those items and be ready to speil them accordingly.  You already automatically (probably subconsciously) do this sort of thing when working a shift at your restaurant, but you might not think to do it here. This sort of planning will be critical for when something (inevitably) goes sideways at one of your tables and you need to make a change on the fly.

Finally, walk into that room with the right mindset.  When prepping for theory and tasting, I found that having a rousing fight song and practicing some sports psychology worked well for me, but for service I couldn’t go into the room with a bombastic attitude.  Instead, on the day of the exam in a fit of inspiration, I realized that my mantra should be Be Our Guest from Beauty and the Beast.  It immediately put me into the right mindset: I was there to take care of all of the people in front of me and I found myself humming the tune throughout the exam, keeping me in a light, upbeat mood.  And how could someone not like a sommelier who is upbeat, charming, and smiling all the time?

Conclusion

Service deserves just as much attention as the other parts of the exam, but we’re tempted to think that just because we work the floor every night, we’ll be ready for service.  However, because the exam is designed to take you out of your comfort zone, you need to work hard to make sure that you’re familiar with that feeling and have a good idea of what’s going to be asked of you before you walk into the room.

You’re going to be thrown for a loop during your exam and you should take that as a given.  The real question is how do you deal with it? If you’re fighting to come up with an answer and you forget to pour the wine out of the champagne bottle, you’re digging yourself into a hole.  If, instead, you know that this is similar to what you would do in scenario 3A, then you’re ready to give a great answer and move on to the next question.

So, study and practice your mechanics.  Look at the best wine lists and menus in the world.  Write your own menus and wine lists for regions where you don’t feel confident and then have your friends quiz you on them.  Imagine and practice getting out of sticky scenarios. Refresh yourself on the business of wine. And most importantly, keep a positive mindset and remember that “no” is a forbidden word - always find a way to say “yes” to your guests.  If you put in the time on these fundamentals, you will find yourself in the zone and ready to take on the challenge of a high level service exam.

Other Resources to Help on Your Journey

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