The Court of Master Sommeliers’ Introductory Course: or, Learning to Blow Blind Tastings with Style

4 Jul

Greetings from the site of the Boston Tea Party, the first stirrings of the craft brew movement, and putative home of cream pies and baked beans.  I am sipping a cold-brewed iced coffee in the really excellent Render Coffee Bar in South End, waiting for my three o’clock BoltBus to take me back down to New York.  Though I spent only three days in this city, and most of those three days was spent in class, sleeping, or eating ridiculously-sized calzones, I can say that this city is absolutely awesome!

I came to Boston to take the Introductory Course offered through the Court of Master Sommeliers.  This course is the first in a series of four “levels”, which increase exponentially in difficulty.  To call oneself a “certified sommelier”, one must pass the the second level, the Certified Sommelier Examination.  One may decide to get additional certifications, but attaining these become absurdly hard.  For instance, the passage rate for the Master Sommelier examination is a bone-dry 5-10%.  By comparison, the July 2011 California Bar Examination’s passage rate was 54.8%.

That being said, my good friend Alex very generously invested in my scheme, which allowed me to enroll in the Introductory Course in mid-June.  I received an e-mail with the course manual in PDF format, and over the next few weeks I looked through the manual and made a few flash cards.  There is a lot of material to cover, including the major wine regions and their appellations, varietals, and classifications (such as AOC/AOP, DOC, and premier cru, grand cru, etc.).  There is also a bit of information on beer, spirits, and sake, as well as on food pairings and service.

The course spanned two days, starting at 8 am and going until around 5:30 pm.  Most of the course is in lecture format.  Three Master Sommeliers ran the show, delivering the lectures and running the blind tastings.  The Hyatt Harborside, our venue, very generously provided coffee, tea, and pastries during the morning and breaks, as well as delicious lunches during the middle of the day.  The Hyatt also provided a very nice outdoor seating area with a very nice view:

Although the lectures and manual were very helpful, they were intended as surveys.  For the course, we did not have to identify key vintages and, with a few exceptions, did not have to know individual vineyards or producers.  (We did have to know a few of the Medoc first and second growths, as well as a random vineyard in the Mosel, but the instructors generally hint at the ones you will need to know.)  On the other hand, I now know much more about Australia and New Zealand than I once knew!

What was more useful was learning the deductive tasting methodology, which was an eye-opener.  This tasting methodology is used for blind tastings but is also useful for thinking about the wines one drinks regularly.  This methodology distinguishes five different stages of the tasting process, starting with sightnosetaste, initial conclusion, and final conclusion:

  • Sight: this focuses on clarity, brightness, color, and intensity of the wine (along with rim variation).  A good rule of thumb is that white wines get darker as they age, while red wines get lighter (and often develop a good amount of rim variation).
  • Nose: this focuses on how the wine smells.  What I like about the Court’s methodology is that it imposes a certain structure and discipline to this particular stage.  Whereas previously I would stick my nose in the glass and simply write down whatever scent I detected, the Court insists on going down a list of scents.  First, for all wines I would detect whether the nose is sound/clean or somehow flawed, and then whether the wine appears youthful or aged.  Then, for instance, for white wines one would first try to identify citrus notes, then move on to apple or pear notes, stonefruit notes, melon notes, and tropical fruit notes.  Each of these could also be described in terms of modifiers like fresh, dried, candied, stewed, skin-on or skinned, green or yellow, etc.  Then one would move on to non-fruit elements like flowers, spices, herbs, or other, and then to earth (either organic like dirt or grass, or inorganic like stone, chalk, or slate) and oak.  What I found is that this discipline is incredibly useful for categorizing and identifying wines.
  • Taste: this should merely confirm what one has already determined in the previous step.  The Court recommends two tastes, one as sensory confirmation of the nose, and the next to determine structure.  Structure includes things like alcohol content, tannin level, acidity level, complexity, and finish.
  • Initial Conclusion: the initial conclusion is where one decides whether the wine is Old World or New World, comes up with possible varietals, possible countries and regions, and vintage ranges.  
  • Final Conclusion: the final conclusion is the leap of faith, where one finally decides what the wine is.
The instructors had each person lead the class on at least one of the stages of the wines.  We went through 22 wines total, broken into flights of two or four interspersed throughout the course.  I found that this was both extremely fun and extremely humbling, as I got most of my analyses incorrect.  However, I did find that I was good at identifying Burgundies, Chardonnay, Chianti, and Rioja.  I was terrible at identifying most white wines, and need much more work in identifying Italian wines in general.
The last part of the course was the service demonstration, where the Masters showed us how to properly serve guests Champagne and decant wine.  As someone whose background is more on the retail side of things, this demonstration was very useful.
After the service demonstration was the dreaded examination.  The examination, which consists of 70 multiple choice questions, is very manageable if one has some basic level of wine knowledge and if one pays attention during the class.  One only needs 60%, or 42 questions, correct to pass.  Nonetheless, coming into the exam we were all palpably nervous.  It felt great to get my pin, certificate, and two glasses of Champagne afterward! 
Overall, this was a wonderful experience, especially because of the deductive tasting methodology and service demonstration.  I also met some great people in the industry.  In the end, the best thing about the course for me was that I was surrounded by people who were equally as passionate about wine and service as I was.  It was great to be able to talk to others about Burgundies, wine sales, and other bits of wine esoterica without fearing that I was boring them or coming off as pretentious.  I look forward to keeping in touch with my fellow test takers, and to taking the Certified Sommelier examination in a few months!

7 Responses to “The Court of Master Sommeliers’ Introductory Course: or, Learning to Blow Blind Tastings with Style”

  1. winerising July 4, 2012 at 10:16 pm #

    Great summary of what we learned! Rigorously tasting 22 wines with Master Sommeliers is a real eye-opener and such an education 🙂

  2. Jasmine July 5, 2012 at 11:24 am #

    Congratulations on your accomplishments!

  3. libby July 6, 2012 at 9:19 am #

    That about sums up the 2 days! Congrats and drink bravely!

  4. Aaron Nix-Gomez July 20, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    Cool description. I look forward to reading about the Certified process.

    • vinicultured July 20, 2012 at 6:43 pm #

      Thanks, Aaron! Hopefully that process will be triumphant!

  5. napastars July 20, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

    Reblogged this on napastars.

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