School for sommeliers: swirl, spit, memorize

“Remember,” Doug Frost says to all the folks who had gathered in a Ritz-Carlton Buckhead conference room with thick study booklets and rows of wine glasses. “Just remove my socks before noon.”

Frost, a Master Sommelier from Kansas City, offered this memorable sentence as a mnemonic device to learn the names and ordering of large format bottles of champagne. From smallest to largest they are Jeroboam, Rehoboam, Methuselah, Salmanazar, Balthazar and Nebuchadnezzar. With a wink Frost assured everyone they wouldn’t need to memorize these biblical bad boys for the exam on the following day but would need the information if they “decide to go on.”

To go on. And on. And on all the way until they can claim the title of Master Sommelier. Such is the ultimate — some might say Herculean — goal of the course of study offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers, an international education and examining organization that administered its first test in1969. Those who hit their marks get to put the initials “M.S.” after their titles and wear a nifty little lapel pin that carries big meaning for wine lovers.

Of the 100 waiters, beverage directors, restaurant managers and wine salespeople assembled at the Ritz for this $525 two-day introductory course, offered annually in Atlanta, very few if any will go on to attempt all four levels of the sommelier exam. How far they proceed in the program will depend on the extent of their commitment and the depth of their obsession. To progress through the course, they must commit vast amounts of information to memory, learn the minutiae of wine service and — most alluringly — identify various wines through a process of deductive blind tasting.

“I love wine, and I really like to blind taste,” says Mallory Hastings, a server trainer at Two Urban Licks restaurant who attended the course. “But I knew I needed a lot of book smarts to back up the blind tasting.” She describes the experience as “a little overwhelming but a lot of fun.”

Indeed, Hastings and the other would-be sommeliers file in at 8:30 a.m. sharp to find their first flights of wine already poured and a team of four Master Sommeliers, led by Atlanta’s Michael McNeill, ready to lead them on a whirlwind tour of the world of wine. Adhering closely to a 200-page workbook, the sommelier instructors move from France to Australia, from Washington State to the New York Finger Lakes, from Portugal to Japan, from the North Island of New Zealand to the South Island.

There is much to learn. The Touraine region of France is famous for its tufa soil, which combines chalk, clay and gravel, lending a distinctive minerality to its wines. In Germany, pinot noir is called Spätburgunder, and the most delicate rieslings come from the Mosel. South Africans refer to chenin blanc as Steen, while Torgiano Riserva counts as the most important appellation in the Italian region of Umbria.

Between learning sessions, the sommeliers introduce the deductive blind tasting method with nearly two dozen wines separated into six flights. Using a scoring sheet, the participants judge the wine based on appearance, nose and palate, and then process this information to come up with a conclusion. Here’s where the headache-inducing information takes a back seat to heartfelt love of wine. Students swirl glasses to look for “sheeting” down the sides, a telltale sign of high alcohol content. If they smell dill or coconut, it suggests American rather than French oak. If a red wine has a purple black color, it was likely grown in a warm climate. If a white wine has a chalky, mineral taste, it is likely an Old World (i.e., European) wine. All this information goes into the final deductive process.

The room full of wine geeks pegs the green herbs and grapefruit flavors in a New Zealand sauvignon blanc in a Middle Earth minute. They identify flavors of lime zest, tangerine and crushed rock in another white wine but flail about.

“Pinot grigio?”

“Verdejo?”

“Wait, it’s albariño!” calls out Hastings.”

Frost, the Master Sommelier leading the tasting, lights up. “Good call! This is what you need to know: If it’s not this, and it’s not that, it’s albariño.”

Pens scribble. Suddenly, everyone understands there’s a strategy to this game.

The multiple-choice final exam for the introductory course does not involve any tasting. Yet test takers should know, for instance, that Bío-Bío is a viticultural region in Chile and Red Mountain is one in Washington State. It isn’t all about Burgundy and Bordeaux.

Nevertheless, the bar is set low, with a passing score of 60 percent that allows almost everyone to earn their first level certification. The results are tabulated and, over flutes of champagne, the students receive embossed certificates and their first lapel pins. There are hugs and high fives. Neil McCarthy, the owner of Miller Union, was cited for earning one of the two highest scores in the room.

McNeill, the Atlanta Master Sommelier who now works for Quality Wines & Spirits but is best known as the former sommelier at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, says the high pass rate is meant to be inclusive and reward takers for their “good basic foundation and beginner’s knowledge of wine.” It also encourages students to come back for the second level exam, which will involve both deductive blind tasting and a 12-minute “live service performance.”

About 30 percent of those who take the second level will pass, earning the title “certified sommelier.” Many fewer will commit the time and expense necessary to go for the third level. Only about 15 percent will pass the exam on their first try.

And the fourth level, which carries with it the most wonderful and exclusive title in the world of wine, Master Sommelier? Just over 3 percent pass each year. In fact, in all of North America, there are only 129 Master Sommeliers.

Note: As an observer, I was able to take and pass the first course, which makes me want to bone up on my blind tasting for the second level. Soon afterward, I found myself in a restaurant ordering a bottle of Austrian riesling that had the word Smaragd on it. “What does that mean?” I asked of the level-two certified sommelier at the restaurant. He twirled his lapel pin and thought about it. “I think that’s a region,” he concluded. That didn’t sound right, so I checked the workbook after dinner. In fact, Smaragd means the wine has at least 12.5% alcohol. Please don’t let this make me an obnoxious know it all.

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