The Certified Sommelier Examination was introduced in December of 2005. Previously students who passed the MS Introductory examination could apply directly to the Advanced Course after waiting the required years’ time. More often than not first time students did poorly on the Advanced Exam for any number of reasons. Each student is unique so the three parts of the examination will always pose different challenges to different individuals. Historically the major challenge was the service exam where the combination of lack of appropriate preparation for dealing with nerves—sometimes extreme—in an audition situation doomed most first timers. Exceptions to the rule usually came in the form of students who were working the floor of upscale restaurants where they performed service to MS standards night in and night out, and who were also used to the pressure of being “on stage” in a top level venue.
Several years prior to 2005 we (the CMSA Board) had discussed the possibility of an intermediate level between the Introductory and Advanced Courses; a level that would accomplish several goals: first, to provide the hospitality industry with a much-needed basic sommelier certification; second, to introduce students to the three-part MS examination format; third, to give us a first look at their individual service skills.
Between 2004 and 2005 a team of Masters from the CMSA created the Certified Sommelier Examination with the help of UK and European Masters. After beta-testing, the exam went live at the end of 2005. While the content has changed from year to year the format of the exam has remained basically the same:
Since that first exam in 2005 the Certified Sommelier Examination has, to a great extent, accomplished its goals. With that I’d like to offer some advice to students who are preparing to take the Certified Exam, especially those taking it for the first time.
Disclaimer! The following is my personal advice to students and in no way a reflection of the policies of the CMSA or its Board of Directors.
The CMSA philosophy of theory curriculum has a lot to do with what a sommelier theoretically could be asked tableside by a guest about any beverage served in the restaurant. Emphasis is placed on wine but beer, spirits, sake, and aperitifs are important as well. Therefore, it’s important to realize that geography is vital to a sommelier’s body of knowledge; knowing where a wine is produced down to a single vineyard (if necessary) is paramount to success in the MS program.
Example: if a guest is asking about a vintage of Savennières “Clos de la Coulée de Serrant” from the producer Nicholas Joly, the sommelier/student should know the following about the wine:
Further, if the guest asks about the biodynamic symbol on the bottle, the sommelier/student should be able to explain what it means and also provide some information about the philosophy of biodynamics, how it can affect wine quality, and some growers/producers that farm biodynamically in other regions of the world—all without burying the guest in a mountain of useless and confusing verbiage.
Once again, it’s important to note that MS theory exams focus on geography and being able to connect grape varieties to styles of wines made in specific geographical locations. From there students also need to study country and regional laws, classifications, terms about grape growing and winemaking, and major producers for important wines such at prestige cuvée Champagne.
The Certified tasting examination consists of tasting a white and a red wine and filling out a written grid based on the Deductive Tasting Method which is first taught in the Introductory Sommelier Class. The grid requires the student to input information concerning a wine’s aromas and flavors, the presence of minerality and/or earthiness, and the use of oak. Further, the grid asks that students assess the structural components of the wines; the levels of residual sugar, acidity, alcohol, the finish, and tannin in the red wine. Finally, the student is asked to deduce the best possible conclusion about the wine, which includes the climate in which the grapes were grown, Old World vs. New World style, the actual grape variety or blend of grapes, the country of origin, and the vintage of production.
It goes without saying that a good deal of practice is needed to become proficient at using the grid, not to mention tasting in general. The good news is that the grid can be downloaded for practice from the CMSA website at any time (here). The grape varieties used in the exam for both white and red wines are listed on the grid so the student can focus his or her tasting practice. Otherwise, here is further advice in preparing for the Certified tasting exam:
A word about practicing tasting: make sure you are working in a tasting group as the dynamics of a good study group are essential to learning and improvement, not to mention the camaraderie and shared experience.
Finally, I’ve written about tasting and preparing for the MS tasting exams extensively on my blog. I’ve found that smelling and tasting wine is completely based on one’s memory; not only the memory of the various aromatics and flavors in wine but the combination of these components that make up the complete profile of a grape or style of wine. If memory is the key, then students can—and absolutely should—work with their own personal memories of these components and varietal profiles apart from actually tasting wine. I strongly believe that practicing memory of the components and profiles of grapes and wines is just as important and beneficial as actually tasting them.
The MS title is about being a world-class sommelier and thus service and working the floor are the essence of what we do. The service component is also important to an employer in terms of wanting to know if a potential hire knows the basics of correct service and can open a bottle of sparkling wine without inflicting bodily injury to themselves or those in the immediate vicinity. Safety is key in sparkling wine service. There are any number of ways to open a bottle of bubbly incorrectly—even dangerously—but only one way to do it right. Here are some vital pointers to do just that:
Opening the bottle:
Serving the bottle:
General Service points
Service exam theory:
General Service Advice:
Thank you. A big help to the success for all taking the certifed exam. Cheers!
am taking my exam this Saturday and Master Gaiser one of the proctor
I have a question regarding the certified grid used for the exam. I have been using the list of approved varietals for the advanced exam as a basis for my tasting group. My main concern is for example: on the grid you will choose one box for Zinfandel/Malbec, while on the next line you would then choose either USA or Argentina. This is a bit confusing because generally one varietal comes from Mendoza and the other from California. Should I assume that I am specifying which varietal ive chosen based on the location of origin I choose on the next line?
Thanks in advance.
(deleted user), questions like these are probably better addressed in the certified study forums. If you search around, chances are someone has already asked (and answered) the same question!
Thank your for your help in preparing for the cert. test. I have a question for you. I'm left handed, I carry the tray with my right hand and place the glass ware with my left. Do I have to relearn carrying the tray with my left hand and placing glassware with my right in order to pass the test?