Advice to Students for the CMS Certified Exam

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:

  • Theory: a 40-question written test combining multiple choice, short answer and matching questions.
  • Tasting: a blind tasting of two wines, one white and one red, with the student filling out a grid based on the MS Deductive Tasting Method.
  • Service: sparkling wine service with students being asked questions about various beverages that might be served during the course of a meal as well as questions about food and wine pairing. 

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.

Theory Examination

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:

  • It’s a dry white wine.
  • It’s made from the Chenin Blanc grape.
  • The Coulée de Serrant vineyard is located in the Anjou region of France’s Loire Valley, specifically in the AOP of Savennières.
  • The Coulée de Serrant vineyard is actually an AOP itself.

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.

Tasting Examination

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:

  • Descriptors: Be as thorough as you can in examining the wine for families/kinds of fruit and any non-fruit descriptors. Often students will hone in on one or two flavor descriptors and leave important pieces of information about the wine out—information that would help identify the wine(s). It’s important to work on expanding descriptors for fruit and non-fruit. If anything, use the written grid as a checklist and look for all the kinds of fruit and non-fruit listed in the wine.
  • Match descriptors to checked boxes. Remember that written descriptors for fruit and non-fruit should match the boxes filled in for the same. This rule applies to writing descriptors for minerality and earthiness—the descriptors should match the boxes you’ve filled in.
  • Oak: Remember to fill descriptors of oak influence such as vanilla, baking spices, etc. Don’t write the word “oak.”
  • Structural components: be as precise as you can in calibrating the amount of acidity, alcohol and tannin. This is best practiced by using extremes in the form of lemon juice vs. water for high acidity vs. no acidity and Port vs. Moscato d'Asti for high alcohol vs. low alcohol. 
  • Oak vs. no oak: this is one of the crucial aspects of basic tasting--being able to assess the presence of oak aging in a wine or lack thereof. Once again I have to recommend calibrating oak usage with the use of extreme examples. This is because the brain learns from extreme opposites very quickly as in the difference between the colors black and white and being able to easily find gray in the middle. With respect to oak, tasting a heavily oaked California Chardonnay vs. a non-oaked Chablis or Mâcon will easily demonstrate the two extremes. The difference will be obvious and automatically recognized after a few repetitions.
  • Earthiness vs. no earth: Use the same technique above—calibrating with extremes. One can also use the same wines listed above (California Chardonnay vs. Chablis) or another pair of extremes in the form of Chinon vs. a Napa Merlot or Chianti Classico vs. a Barossa Shiraz.
  • Old World vs. New World style: This is a deduction based on the presence of earthiness along with information about the levels of alcohol and acidity in the wine and the use of new oak. 
  • Climate: Assessing the possible climate of a wine can be done by reviewing the levels of alcohol and acidity. The general rule is that wines from grapes grown in warmer climates have higher alcohol and relatively lower acidity vs. wines from cooler climates which usually display lower levels of alcohol and higher levels of acidity.
  • Varietal Recognition: This arguably is the most challenging part of the Deductive Tasting Method and the MS tasting exams as well. It requires the student to practice with the tasting method over an extended period of time. It also requires the student to assemble and memorize a list of “markers” or common attributes that can be found in specific grape varieties and wines. Good sources for grape variety markers can be found on this website as well as on my blog.

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. 

Service Examination

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:

Mise-en-place—setting up:

  • Fold two—and ONLY two—serviettes for service. One will be used for opening the bottle and the other will be left on the bucket tableside if a bucket is used for service. In other words, don’t fold all the napkins on the service station.
  • Make sure the glassware is clean and polished. 
  • Always line the tray with an unfolded cloth napkin; no fancy origami folds as they result in an uneven surface almost guaranteeing you’ll lose glassware in a spectacular fashion.
  • Place the glassware consistently at each cover; at the point of the knife is the most straight forward method.
  • Place glassware starting with the host or the person to the host’s left. Placing glassware is NOT gender specific so one trip around the table will suffice.
  • Place two under-liners or coasters to the right of the host, one for the cork and the other for the bottle, if the host decides to keep the bottle on the table.

Opening the bottle:

  • Never take the top of your hand off the bottle when opening. This is utterly crucial to opening the bottle safely and properly. BEFORE loosening the cage, place a folded serviette over the top of the bottle. Then with a firm grip over the serviette and top of the bottle loosen the wire cage and slowly remove the cage and cork at the same time by twisting the bottom of the bottle back and forth. Remember: the cage is NEVER removed before the cork. 
  • Watch where you’re pointing the bottle when opening. Don’t point the bottle at the table or anyone else in the vicinity. Doing so is dangerous and cause for major deductions on your score.
  • Always place a serviette over the top of the bottle when opening. As mentioned above, use a serviette over the top of the bottle when opening to prevent spilling any wine if the cork exits the bottles suddenly and tragically.
  • Open the bottle as quietly as possible. A no-brainer. This is proper wine service and not the end of a Formula One race. Opening bottles of sparkling wine quietly is a matter of practice and repetition.
  • Remember to wipe the bottle with your serviette after you’ve removed the cork before pouring a taste for the host.
  • Remember to present the cork to the host on an underliner which is placed to the host’s right.

Serving the bottle:

  • Hold the bottle with a still wine grip. Do NOT hold the bottle with your thumb in the punt of the bottle when pouring; this method does not provide enough control and stability and the odds of dropping or losing control of the bottle increase significantly.
  • After presenting the cork pour a 1-to-1.5 ounce taste for the host. Wait for them to approve the wine and then serve the table in the following order: serve lady guests first and then men. Serve the host last regardless of gender.
  • Fill the glasses at least ½ to ¾ glass full with a maximum pour of an inch below the top of the glass.
  • Fill the glasses one at a time with a maximum of two pours for each glass; partial pouring and/or going around the table multiple times is not allowed.
  • Make sure the pours are even!
  • Gage the pour level/amount based on glass size and number of glasses to be poured so you don’t run out of wine.
  • It’s not necessary to empty the entire bottle of wine; in fact, there should be a little wine left in the bottle.

General Service points

  • Remember to serve from the right and to move around the table clockwise—ALWAYS—even if just returning to the service station.
  • Don’t reach across a guest’s space to place or clear glassware or serve wine--even if the chair is empty.
  • PRACTICE CARRYING A TRAY. This is the one part of service that cannot be faked. If you don’t regularly work with a tray lots of practice will be needed for an exam setting. Odds are you will be nervous. Practice!
  • You should be able to carry a tray comfortably with either hand. However, proper service dictates that the tray should be carried in the left hand and glassware placed with the right hand.

Service exam theory:

  • Work on major cocktails, aperitifs and after dinner spirits. Lists of all of the above are on this site. Study cocktails and aperitifs by category, i.e., vodka cocktails, gin cocktails etc.
  • Food and wine pairing: Have specific wine recommendations with producer and vintage in mind.
  • Be able to take a specific style—be it a high acid red wine or a white with residual sugar—to multiple places in the wine world.   
  • Above all, know why the pairing works!  Be able to explain why a wine works well with a specific dish in terms of the structural components of the wine (i.e., high acidity, lack or oak or smooth tannins). It’s the entire point of selling a specific wine with a certain dish. 

General Service Advice:

  • Taking care of the table is paramount. Even though you’re in an exam setting remember that you are a sommelier and your job is to take care of the table—NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS. In a real life service situation you do not have the luxury of freaking out or giving up on a table or “failing.” Your job again is to take care of the guest and give them great service. The exam should be no different. Take care of the examiner(s) as you would any guest in your restaurant. To do so will translate into success. 

  • 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?