Studying in the Margins: Pursuing the MS in Small Markets

My path to the Master Sommelier Diploma ran through Boston. At the time, it was a nice restaurant city but a bit of a wine wilderness. People liked what they liked, but no one was too concerned about the details. When I passed the Advanced Exam, there were two other green pins in the city, and that was about it. As I started to prepare for the MS in earnest, I considered leaving my home city behind, lining up interviews in New York and San Francisco, but a voice in my head kept telling me that Boston was where I needed to be. Yet I was frustrated as I watched colleagues in major markets that I’d passed the Advanced alongside go on to pass the MS exam while I still found it elusive. Did I have to give up on the idea that my smaller city could produce a Master Sommelier, or did I just need to take on a slightly different challenge than what my friends faced in bigger markets?

Consider this general journey of Every Somm: In your early days you’re intrigued, tasting things you can’t quite put your finger on, eager to learn more. So you find a few good books, and you take a course at a culinary center. Soon, interest turns to passion. You get a good job in the industry and start identifying the talented folks around you, noticing pins on their lapels. Before long, you’re completely ingrained in the local wine culture. You take the Introductory Course with the Court of Master Sommeliers, pass the test, and get a pin of your own. With your peers’ encouragement, you pass your Certified as well. You start running a small but modest wine program, but you’re hesitant about sitting the Advanced. There are only a few green pins in your city, and they tend to move away to greener pastures.

Against the odds, you pass the Advanced Exam. But now, all you can think about is the feedback you received there: When you sit the Master Sommelier Exam, you’ll need to tighten up your theory and tasting and polish your service. There isn’t anyone in town who has sat for the MS exam. You feel good about your service skills, but not polished. And tasting… How do you simulate the testing situation when no one has the experience to know which wines might be fair game or which producers are classic examples? You’d love to bring a gold pin back to this city, but the challenges are overwhelming. How could such a tight-knit community leave you feeling this alone?

While this might be broadly painted, we tend to reach “talent ceilings” in our markets: the higher we reach, the fewer the shoulders to stand upon, and the mountain we’re trying to climb appears to grow steeper because of it. Many people do make the decision to pull up roots and move to a major wine city. There’s a reason why San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas, and Seattle are top destinations for aspiring sommeliers; they provide numerous opportunities to work with and study under some of the industry’s best. But for those who decide, for whatever reason, to stay in a smaller or less mature market, it is a conceptually more difficult journey. There are, however, an increasing number of “homegrown” Master Sommeliers whose experiences offer insights into how to navigate the challenges of studying in the margins.

This article focuses on those preparing for the MS exam, in part because the Masters of Wine program includes a mentorship system that provides tremendous support to isolated candidates. But, of course, the principles here can be applied to any study experience.

Masters from the Margins

 had arguably one of the toughest challenges, being geographically isolated in Auckland, New Zealand, but he had a positive perspective. “Having lived and worked in New Zealand all my life, it was a great base to operate from,” he explains. Yet that didn’t mean he stayed put. He traveled to the Bay Area at least four times a year and made time for two longer work-study trips as well.

Of the more direct access to Master Sommelier mentorship that colleagues in other cities received, Douglas notes, “I was somewhat jealous, but then I realized that the exams were all about the journey I was on and how I might use the Master title once I passed. In realizing this, I was able to relax more, slow down, stop rushing to pass, and just let the process takes its course. That’s when I discovered that I was a good taster and figured out how I studied best.” He wrote his own guide to passing theory, retaining information along the way. Every time he tasted, he transcribed his own notes alongside classic tasting notes for each wine. “Then, I read both aloud to hear myself speak fluently about that wine. After that, things fell into place.”

In 2007, on his fourth attempt, Douglas passed the Master Sommelier Exam.

Similarly,  had no interest in leaving her home city of 19 years, Washington DC, where the cost of living was preferable to that of NYC and she had family nearby. She points out, “There are plenty of Masters who passed without local mentorship—actually, the entire US was ‘marginal’ at one time! I knew I could do it eventually.”

MS mentorship came to Morgan’s doorstep once, in 2003, when MS  moved to DC just two months before she took her Advanced Exam. “I was able to taste with him several times, which was great since there was absolutely no one else in the CMS program here. I had no tasting group, no study group, nothing. Before Keith left, he helped us start the local tasting group that is still the backbone of the DC wine community.”

Morgan continues, “Once we got going, we formed a really strong, supportive community. I think that’s common in markets like these, since everyone has to depend on one another in order to improve.”

Kathy Morgan took the exam six times and passed in 2010.

is one of the small but growing number of Canadian Master Sommeliers, who are isolated by political boundaries and distance. Additionally, Lambert hails from Montreal and, while bilingual, considers French her native language. She did think about moving to a different market, but because she was competing for Best Sommelier of the country, she couldn’t leave Canada. Lambert says that tasting with different Masters is what made the difference for her, but she also did a lot of tasting at home, training colleagues to set up tastings and evaluate her.

While Lambert realizes that staying in Montreal made her journey more solitary, she used the struggle to generate enthusiasm in her hometown. Today, many more people in Montreal are interested in the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Reflecting on her experience, Lambert wishes she had sought out more opportunities to taste with Masters. She explains, “When I started the program, I thought I could do it by myself. I did not want to bother anybody, and it took me much more time for that reason.”

Elyse Lambert took the exam six times, passing in 2015.

 and  were study partners and the first Masters to pass in Louisville, Kentucky. Both cite their love of the city as a main reason for never relocating, with Harper a lifelong resident of the Bluegrass state. For them, seeking the Master Sommelier credential went beyond the individual pursuit. Davis reflects, “Studying in an up-and-coming market made attaining the MS bigger than me—it was about the community.”

He suggests, “Take advantage of Skype or FaceTime and get a study partner at or above your level if there is nobody else in your market. You are an island when studying theory, but tasting and practical require a partner for setup, execution, and feedback.”

Harper notes, “While it may be more challenging to be somewhat remote, it is still doable!”

Brett David took the exam three times, and Scott Harper took it six times. They both passed in 2009.

Steps Toward Success in Your Small Market

While all of these stories are different, they contain the same threads of perseverance and determination, along with the realization that while there is an inherent disadvantage to being in an emerging market, it doesn’t preclude success. Themes of putting in the right kind of work, investing the right amount of time, and using the right tools are universal, but being isolated allows more personal and unique methods of study to emerge and, sometimes, become widely incorporated as best practices.

If you find yourself in this situation, start by utilizing technology. Skype, FaceTime, and similar tools let you access Masters, or aspiring Masters, to mentor you, put you through mock theory exams, or even proctor a deductive tasting flight. Travel to other cities if budget and time permit. Nothing can replicate the face-to-face energy—and nervousness—of sitting down to a flight of six wines with 25 minutes across from someone further along in the journey! Seek out competitions, where you can network, gain experience under pressure, measure your progress, and identify your weaknesses. You’ll also get to see how those in other parts of the country are studying, learn what’s trending in other markets, and taste wines that might not be distributed where you work and live.

If you find yourself flailing, remember that even if something worked for one candidate, it might not work for you. Flashcards might be perfect for one person, but if you can’t retain the information because you’re an auditory learner, find something that fits your learning style.

Perhaps most importantly, find people with whom you can share the journey. They might live in your city, whether preparing for the same exam or joining you from an earlier point in their studies, or they might live elsewhere, part of a community you stoke through Skype study sessions and encouraging texts. Regardless, it’s crucial to have someone to celebrate with when you succeed and who can comfort you when you’re feeling down.

Cameron Douglas wisely suggests, “Never give up! Always reach out and ask for guidance. The MS journey is not fast nor short. You will know when you are ready to pass, but be sure of what you want from this journey—to be a Master or to just pass an exam.” If you want to be a trailblazer and help define an emerging wine market, you can create a vibrant, dynamic, and dedicated community wherever you live. It might take longer to achieve, but, after all, it’s about where you want your journey to take you.

  • Great write up! As someone in a bit of an Island market (Phoenix, AZ) this is Amazing to read... Thanks for helping recharge the batteries!

  • Great post! Love this: "The MS journey is not fast nor short." So much truth. I took intro in 2003. Passed Certified in '08. Passed Advanced in '09. Sat for the MS Diploma in '12, '13 and '15 (became a dad in '14). I had to grab some bench in '16, but the fire inside is still burning. After the exam in '13, I co-founded the Chicago study/tasting group "Second City Sommeliers" (SCS). It was clear that our big small town needed a structured group to help one another reach our goals. It has been amazing to watch the group grow into its own over the past three years with the passionate and humble Sommeliers of our community. It started with 3 green pins, and I was lucky to share in the achievement of 5 more! Surround yourself with as much talent and passion as possible. The support you receive, along with the support you give, will prove to be crucial to your success.

  • Michael, thank you for sharing your experience. I know first hand what it means to be on an island. I was nodding alond in recognition as you described circumstnces of your own and of the Masters you interviewed. You gave great advice to reach out to others as most are more than happy to help. It is important to offer encouragement to those who are climbing the rungs below us, beside us or even above as it is beneficial to all. Congratulations on achieving your goal.

  • What a great post! Thank you!

  • How do we find this Theory guide by Cameron Douglas?

  • Thank you so much for writing this, Michael. As someone who just moved from Boston to Washington D.C. to further my adventure in the beverage industry, I found this to be both fun and inspiring to read. I look forward to seeing you at next year's boot camp, even if I am no longer a New Englander!

  • Thank you Michael for helping me make my decision of staying in Boston as well! Great write up!

  • Michael,  Your message was so on point.  Personally  I owe you a debt of gratitude for all the coaching,  encouragement, and blazing trails.  So glad that you stayed in market, there are lots more like me yearning to learn and make it a wine spot.

  • A perfectly timed article for me to come across. I'm in NC working in a satellite of the Triangle but commute an hour just to get there so early morning groups and industry events are quite often things I just can't fit in. With my first application for the Advanced coming up its not nerves but rather fear that I'm woefully out of touch and context with where I need to be. I'm going forward regardless, fortune favors the brave after all, and I'm basically guaranteed at least a barometer of how to move forward more effectively. Thanks for this!

  • Great post ! I live in Dijon, Burgundy. Finding french-centric tasting groups is fairly easy here but it's more like "let' s have tons of wine and charcuterie" than DTM tastings. Trust me they have no idea that Riesling is grown in Germany nor Malbec in Argentina.

  • Thank you so much Michael! I am the Somm at a golf resort on the Southern Oregon coast about 8 hours north of Napa. I am registered for the WSET3 in Napa in 7 weeks. I have outside community for a tasting group but with your recommendation, will try to find some face time at least to get an idea of format, etc. Cheers!

  • Amazing post! I LEFT New York to pursue a dream of growing wine, and I have been successfully establishing a small hybrid winery. I have a great study group here in Saratoga... but I take trips frequently back home for seminars and classes. It is SO difficult seeing other sommeliers plugged into the wheel and moving up the ladder because of their proximity to higher level professionals. Finding a mentor has been super difficult. We are on our own with tastings too.

    After attending the Sonoma seminar with this week, I feel both galvanized and defeated. I went from being in Corkbuzz, full of positive wine energy, to sitting alone in the back room of my restaurant to study.

    This website and the Guild are my greatest allies and most important tools. For sure without these resources my path would increasingly narrow.

  • Sorry it took me so long to read this, Master...

    Great Stuff!

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