Story Time - My Express Journey Through The Level One Sommelier Test
Earlier this year, pre-COVID, I took and passed my Level One Sommelier test through the Court of Master Sommeliers.
I want to get this out of the way first; I highly do not recommend the approach to this test that I took.
The main reason being, I was registered for the test four weeks before the exam. The test was in early January, which meant that the prep time fell right in the middle of the holiday season. All in all, I would say I studied for less than three weeks, and let me tell you, I was sweating.
Prepping for the Test
I was lucky enough to have my test paid for by my work, so when I signed up, all I had to worry about was studying. Two other coworkers signed up with me, and we spent nearly every night studying in the office long after everyone had left. This part of my process, I do recommend. If you know someone who is also interested in taking this test, sign up together. Having a few study buddies made the world of difference for my progress (especially since I’m 26 years old, and I studied Film in college, so...I haven’t taken or prepped for a physical test in like, eight years).
Once you sign up, you’ll be sent a confirmation email, along with a big-ass book to either print off (which we did, because we’re cheap), or you can purchase a physical copy for, I don’t know, maybe $10. My excitement quickly turned to panic as I scrolled through the amount of material I was expected to absorb in under a month. If you have the time (which, in the heart of quarantine, who doesn’t), I highly recommend signing up three months in advance. My coworkers and I had the upper hand of working in the industry, so we had a base knowledge of wine. But that certainly doesn’t absolve the fact that it was still a lot to cram into my head. The first five growths of Bordeaux isn’t exactly water-cooler talk at work, so a lot of the history I was studying was new territory for me.
We studied all throughout the holiday season (I think I even opened my book up and read one page on Christmas Day while holding a glass of Pinot). This period of time was gone quicker than that glass of Pinot, and before we knew it, we were on our way to Chicago to take our test.
Am I Pronouncing Bordeaux Correctly?
The exam was a two-day affair, taught by four master sommeliers in downtown Chicago. It was held in a very fancy hotel/apartment combo. As soon as we got there, the doorman immediately told us to go upstairs to the huge conference room so he definitely knew that we did not belong there and were only there to take a test. We got there right on time, so we had to sit in the only remaining seats, right in the front. Intimidating to say the least. But my nerves melted away almost immediately after the masters started talking. I was expecting four stuffy old white men, but these people were young, funny, engaging, and full of excitement for us. I was also over the moon when I found out that two of the four masters were women (for context, there are only about 269 master sommeliers in the whole world, and about 28 of them are women.) One of the women, Alpana Signh, is also the first, youngest and only South Asian to ever covet the title of Master Sommelier. She was awesome, I would check her out.
The lectures started bright and early at 8:00 AM and when I sat down, four empty wine glasses sat in front of me. Each master took turns going through the lectures (the lectures were designed to cover everything that was laid out in the study handbook that you received when signing up). In between each set of lectures, we were asked to leave the room while they filled our wine glasses. Note: a blind tasting portion is not part of your level one exam. This is merely practicing for level two.
After they finished filling everyone’s glasses, they asked us to come back in and sit down. This is where shit got real. They handed us a MICROPHONE and we had to go through each element of tasting in order to conclude what the wine is. I’m not great in front of crowds and considering there were probably over a hundred people in this room, it’s safe to say that I fucked up. It was nerve-wracking, but, as I said, it was for educational purposes only and I cannot emphasize enough how nice the instructors were. (If you are new to the wine world, and would like a brief tutorial on how to successfully blind taste wine, click here).
This pattern of lectures and tastings went on for two full days. The end of day two was the test. If I remember correctly, the multiple-choice test consisted of about 70 questions, and you needed a minimum of 60% to pass. So with that logic, you can get 42 questions wrong and still pass.
I must have blacked out because before I knew it, I was finished with the test. When finished, they asked us all to sit out in the lobby while they graded the exams. Everyone was buzzing with excitement, fear, and doubt, but most of us felt confident that we had passed. After a grueling thirty minutes or so, they ushered us back into the exam room, gave us each a glass of champagne, and called out our names one by one. If we passed, we were given a pin and a card acknowledging our good work. I, as well as my two coworkers passed, thank god. Everyone around us passed as well, which was great because if you don’t pass, they just stop calling out names and it’s really awkward.
If I can do it, you can do it
Overall, here are some tips I took away from this experience that might be helpful for you if you are looking to take this test in the near future:
Give yourself at least three months to study for the exam. The review that they go through over those two days is not nearly enough to get by on.
Ask questions! The sommeliers are eager to help and encourage questions. There’s only so many times that you’ll get to have a conversation about wine with a master, so take advantage of that.
Spit out the wine during the tasting! It’s definitely tempting to get lit because that wine tastes delicious, but you’ll be trying 20 different wines each day, so take it easy.
Study everything. There were more questions on the test about Saki than I expected.
Remember that it’s a unique experience and to have fun!
The process is nerve-wracking, but a ton of fun. If you’re pursuing a career in the wine industry, it’s an amazing way to meet like-minded people as well as some master sommeliers and to learn a ton about wine in a short amount of time.
Are you gearing up to take your level one? Let me know in the comments if you have questions on the process!