One Master's Thoughts on How To Prepare for the Advanced Sommelier Examination

Back in 2010, before the current dizzying attention received by the sommelier profession and its various preparatory programs, and before I earned my current role as Examination Director, I wrote a "blurb" here about how to tackle preparing for upper-level certification with the Court of Master Sommeliers. I had (mostly) forgotten it until someone recently found it in the Guild's archives and told me they liked it. Revisiting the blog was great, but I realized that... It. Is. 2016. The beverage service world and its educational resources have exploded! I decided to revise it as best as possible for this “generation”—which, it seems, is about six years in the sommelier world. The profession’s sexy popularity may be driving many of you to investigate Court of Master Sommeliers certification as an “in,” but (as with most things) the realities involved are—while worth it many times over in these eyes—far less glamorous. This is NOT meant to dissuade, only to help set your sights. To the next generation!
- Master Sommelier Shayn Bjornholm, Examination Director,
Court of Master Sommeliers-Americas

As I witness the growing number of incredibly talented sommeliers gaining Certified Sommelier status through the Court of Master Sommeliers and wanting guidance on how to make the Next Big Step, I receive increased requests as to my advice.  A common refrain is, "What should I expect to have to do for success at the next level, as I know Advanced is quite the jump from Certified?"   I figure it might do some good to share my universal response.  This is not any kind of insider secret information, but more common knowledge for folks to consider on a life size scale...which, confusingly, not everyone does fully.  

I am surprised by how many people jump head first off of this cliff without considering its height, only to find about 250 feet down that they might have considered a parachute for the next 5 miles of drop. The result can be exhilarating for those who love surprises and challenges to spur them forward; or, frustrating and debilitating to those who need to know what they are getting into first.  Either way, I hope this might help those just contemplating the pursuit of the Green Pin (en route to the Gold Pin).  Of course, I also hope this provokes some additional input from other mentoring Master Sommeliers and/or Master Sommelier/Advanced Sommelier candidates.  

Enjoy...and good luck in your pursuit!

1) Sacrifice:  all of you will have to sacrifice something in your lives right now to achieve this.  Time, career opportunities, personal life, money, sleep - something will have to give in one or more of these areas.

Think of it as pursuing a graduate degree - which, in the community/career/personal achievement arenas, it is equivalent to.  If you can't sacrifice a certain thing now (family is important, no?), count on having to forego something else. Bob Betz MW decided to learn to function on less sleep and waited until his kids were in college to pursue his title.  I lived in a crappy apartment, bribed my now-wife with lots of promised time on the flip side and took a short non-paid leave of absence just before exam time to pursue mine.

(NOTE: this is NOT a suggestion for you to quit your job as actual sommeliers! See Alpana Singh MS's fantastic letter in "Comments" section below).

  • Money: Count on at least $150 to $300 a week with travel/books/wine/Guild Somm costs to do this correctly.  Yes, that's up to $15,000 a year.  You might get by on less with industry connections and such...but, this is a costly pursuit.  Budget this now.
  • Time:  Count on 10-15 hours a week between tasting, theory study, service practice, industry travel, competitions and slave sommelier volunteer opps.  More in the 2 months before the examination.
  • Career:  Believe it or not, the best job to have to get over this can be the one that allows you the time to study!  Esp. if you have family and other things going on.  That big 80 hour/take it home with you GM/Wine Director gig you worked so hard for can make it tough. I'm just sayin'...

2) Deductive Tasting Method: live the fact that this is a system which is directly linked to theory - NOT a gift or a magic trick or a recognition game. The sooner you understand and use the DTM to a) cement why the wine tastes the way it does by linking the sensory analysis to the theoretical causes of what you are tasting and b) establish the typicality of the world's paradigms and various quality levels within type, the better you will do.

(NOTE: "Dame-ing It" - or, the act of taking a quick sniff and sip and nailing the wine down to vineyard, producer and vineyard dog's name - is a pipe dream. Sure sounds - and is - astounding to witness from Master Dame, but can be done by about 5 people on earth...and 2 of them probably don't even know it. Join we mere mortals and use the DTM.)

Figure out the classic wines of the world - there is that "official" list of what might be on the exam on the CMS website to help.  Source the most classic examples - Old Classic or New Classic - and create a library to pull from. Taste once to twice a week for at least 40-45 weeks of any given year.  Create a tasting group with people who are going after the same things. If it is a small group at first, it will cost you more money because you have to buy more wine...but, you have to do it.  All sorts of philosophies exist, but I recommend to mix it up between:

  • 70% 6 Wines (3 red/3 white) timed to 25 minutes following the tasting grid verbally(!).
  • 20% Theme Focused Study - vintage of same area/producer, same grape variety from different areas of world, types of oak tasting, dessert wines, sparkling wines from around the world, spirits, etc.
  • 10% Premium Examples - the best are the paradigms in most ways, so taste them as often as possible...this is when it gets expensive, cuz I'm talking Jamet "Cote Brune"/de Montille "Taillepieds"/Roulot "Charmes"/Soldera/G. Conterno "Monfortino"/SLWC "Cask 23"/Vega Sicilia/Donhoff... They may be outliers in some ways (if you can't even get them, then...), but many still establish the baseline from which to leap. Might want to schedule this one on a day off for everyone, because you will want to drink them after the "serious" study portion of your day!

Invite only the similarly dedicated to join - and police it. Lots of people truly mean the best, but falter when the rubber hits the road. Graciously hold firm, because it is hard to get a group around a table for 90 minutes every week with structure and long-term goals being met.  

3) Curriculum:  Create one - now.  The CMS does not provide one...and I doubt it ever will.  Broadly, you need to display your ability to explain two things:

  • What makes an alcoholic beverage taste the way its does?
  • What about an alcoholic beverage is vital to its sale on a restaurant floor?  

Part of the gig is that a great sommelier needs to be able to discern what is relevant in the wine world.  The "new-ish" Advanced Sommelier Course will take a small portion of the beverage world with which to illustrate the type and depth of knowledge the CMS expects; you will have to learn to extrapolate from those examples to the rest. There are lots of examples of exam questions out there from tests past, but be careful - they change.  Study Stevenson, Robinson, and the Beazley Mitchell series (New Spain, New France, etc.). Social media, blogs and podcasts - take your pick, choose wisely - are great for trending issues - esp. the hip and unicorn regions and/or producers out there. Share questions you come up with with other sommeliers. There are amazing apps at your, ahem, fingertips; again, choose carefully. Lists of all of these are abound - more to research, better to find something that works best for you.

Generally, there are 12 areas to investigate for every classic alcoholic beverage in the world - if you learn them, you should do fine at any wine exam. Not all 12 areas are vital to every beverage; you get to figure out which apply!

Get your curriculum plan together for however long you think it will be before your sitting for Advanced - and follow it weekly.  Figure out what type of learning systems work best for you. As an example, I had over 4,000 flash cards by the time I took will need the same, in some format.

  • Leave at least 8 weeks before the exam to memorize/contextualize all of the information you gather.  
  • The areas we expect you to know are available on the CMS website....ALL of it is fair game!
  • Study as if you are sitting for the Master Sommelier Diploma!!!!  Trust me...those who do this have far more success at Advanced.

Visit regions as often as possible. There are SO many more educational opportunities from regions/producers/distributors/importers - including, of course, GOS enrichment trips - to get you places generations before you could only dream of. Take advantage of every chance you have!

4) Service Guidelines: Practice CMS guidelines for service at least once a month, giving yourself different possible situations you might see in a restaurant for decanting/sparkling wine/banquets/food and wine pairing/spirits/fortified wines/etc.  Have someone who is in the program give you some tutorials and grade your efforts.  I encourage folks to set up their own grid of all the standards to hit in each situation and grade* to that...just like you do with tasting.  This is really important come game day of the exam, so you know you won't miss anything.

(*"Grade" = not pass/fail, but completion of a standard. You won't know what is "passing"; you do know if the technical standard was achieved, however.)

Don't forget hospitality and salesmanship! No guest wants a tasting grid recital when asking about how a wine tastes at a table; nor do we. Look for opportunities to make the guest feel amazing while achieving proper standards. Theoretical knowledge and technical prowess are the blocks upon which you build basic guest confidence - from there, you can build allegiance via making them feel great about their time with you with appropriate salesmanship.

Practicing CMS standards on the floor of your/an actual restaurant - where applicable! - also helps make it more organic/natural, and allows you to worry about relating to we "exam guests" come test time.

5) MS Mentors: Hit up MSs you know adjudicate exams to sit and taste with you - they are the most in touch with what is going on.  You may get slightly conflicting info here and there as to methodology - the key will be to listen and glean what works best for you. DO NOT ASK FOR HOW WINES ARE SCORED IN EXAMS; MS mentors are not allowed to share that info and, believe it or not, it won't help you in the least in preparation or performance. Learn the Deductive Tasting Method, apply it with skill and acumen - that is the ONLY way to pass the Deductive Tasting portion. Practice practice practice.  No MS can give you theory questions - they don't know them! - so, don't ask. Service standards can be shared, but not examination situations/settings/etc. Whatever may happen on a floor in a restaurant may happen in an examination.

6) "Examination" Practice: Find out about any other sommelier examinations/tests/competitions/mock examinations given by fellow candidates you can participate in.  See if their standards are easy enough to understand/not conflicting with CMS standards...and do it!  If only to get in front of people and learn how to deal with nerves in an examination situation.  If you don't like to speak in front of people, take a public speaking or acting class...something to get "on stage" - because that is where you are come exam time. Nerves are the great unknown; there are techniques to investigate controlling them should that be an issue for you. Some examinations or competitions - Top Young Somm, TexSom, etc. - share some standards and can be very helpful.

(NOTE: see Tim Gaiser MS's blog post on examination focus in "Comments" section below.)

7) Master Sommelier/Candidates Community: In my mind, the single smartest thing you can do is to join the Guild of Sommeliers and get on their website:  It rocks...just make sure to participate. Sideliners and wallflowers tend to miss the boat.  There are so many folks on there who  are generous with their information/hospitality. You will spend 5 times as much on books for the same value as the $100 yearly membership fee.  Beyond that, get in with an amazing local group - they will be your brothers/sisters in arms, so to speak.

8) Form a Study Group in your city.  Did I just make that point again?  Hmmm, wonder why?  

9) Never forget: humility above all.  That doesn't mean to doubt, it means to understand that all of your innate talent, hard-won knowledge and honed skill are there to serve others, not own or hold over others' heads.  Confidence and humility are not mutually exclusive.   As I like to say:

  • Inquisitive Nature, Talent and Hard Work lead to Knowledge
  • Knowledge leads to Humility (the more you know, the more you realize you don't know)
  • Humility leads to the Ability to Listen 
  • The Ability to Listen leads to Understanding Guest Expectations
  • Understanding Guest Expectations leads to Knowing How to Exceed Them
  • Exceeding Guest Expectations leads to Happy Guests
  • Happy Guests leads to Nothing Bad and Everything Great (in a feeling of servitude realized, in sales, in repeat business, in a feeling of accomplishment, in...) 

Finally: make certain the certification makes sense for you. All degrees, certifications and titles have their limits. No member of the CMS will ever say our certifications are the only indication of - or necessary to - being a great sommelier; we believe they will help many do so. Our philosophy is global - does that serve your goals? Our examinations are limited by their nature - are they worth your necessary resources? Our standards are established/not as nimble - are you good with this? If you can't figure a way to apply CMS - or any - certification to your ability to do what you want to do better, don't chase it. If you can't figure a way to make it work for you, don't do it. Again, the CMS thinks it helps the right person in profound ways; only you can choose to agree.