The Secret Lives of Master Sommeliers

So you want to be a Sommelier?

Congratulations! You're a Certified Sommelier!After 250 hours of training at the French Culinary Institute by Master Sommeliers Alan Murray and David Glancy, hundreds more hours fighting eye strain while studying the Sommelier’s wine bible Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, and swishing 500+ wines across my palate from nearly every wine producing region on the planet, I was granted the honor of sitting for the full Certified Sommelier exam proctored in the spring of 2009 by the London-based Court of Master Sommeliers.

It was fun, challenging and stressful, but I earned my pin.

Getting to the Certified level is tough enough, but some courageous oenophiles Wanna be a Sommelier? You'll want this bookcontinue on to the Advanced Sommelier level, and a tiny number make it to the rarified world of Master Sommelier.

As of this writing, there are only 236 of these magical Master Sommeliers in the world (149 in the Americas chapter), and it’s no wonder – the Court weeds out the non-serious by making it an invitation-only exam, and most Master Sommelier wanna-bees take 3+ attempts to pass this mother-of-all wine exams, if ever.

Let’s put it in perspective:  In 2016, of the 100+ people who sat for the Master Sommelier exam worldwide, only 3 passedWow.  Bluntly put, it’s a bitch to become a Master Sommelier, and only the best make the grade.

Getting Certified

Court of Master Sommeliers: Learn about the 4-stage Sommelier certification process.

International Culinary Institute Sommelier Program: Get training for the Certified Sommelier exams.

Wine Tasting Grid: Sommeliers use this tasting grid to process their thoughts.

Guild of Sommeliers: Best website community for critical learning about wine.

Podcasts by Master Sommeliers: Learn tasting techniques and regional wines from Master Sommeliers.

The good news is that Sommeliers support and nurture their own. Here in the States, a few of our finest Master Sommeliers had the brilliant idea of forming a Guild of Sommeliers as a way to help budding Sommeliers hone their tasting skills, build world wine knowledge, and encourage them on their (crazy) journey toward Certified, Advanced and Master certification levels.  It’s self-funded by the Sommelier community, and their website offers the best learning material and active forums for vino Q&A sessions.  If you have a puzzling question about wine, someone at the Guild will know the answer, no matter how esoteric.

Sip. Swish. Spit.

If you’ve never listened to a Master Sommelier wax eloquently about a wine, you’re going to find this fascinating.

Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth and the fine folks at the Guild produce a series of monthly audio Podcasts on wine tasting technique, producing regions, pairing wine with food and other topics that Sommeliers love to buzz about. They promise a host of other fun topics to cover every few months, sure to entertain any vino fan like you and me.

What’s entertaining about these podcasts is the natural flow of the Master Sommelier conversation. There’s no dumbing-down here, it’s raw tasting experiences and wine geekery at its finest.  I love it.

The list of Master Sommelier Podcasts can be found on their Podcast website, and you can also find the latest on the Guild Blog (you will need an account), where you can post comments and questions on the Podcast content discussed.

You can also subscribe to the Podcasts by searching for “Guild of Sommeliers” in the Podcast section of iTunes and have them pushed to you automatically when they’re released.

As of this writing, Geoff and the team have produced over 100 podcasts. Check them all out, but to get a feel for the life of a Somm, check out the very first 3 episodes:

Download the Sommelier Tasting Grid1.  Geek Speak: Listening to Master Sommeliers taste wines blind

You’re a fly on the wall as newly-minted Master Sommeliers Matt Stamp, Jason Heller, Dustin Wilson, and Brian McClintic progress through a blind tasting of 4 wines.  This is the classic banter of Sommeliers who try to narrow down the characteristics and origins of a wine-in-a-bag.  Listen to how the team processes differences of opinion on the third wine tasted by Jason, a wine that otherwise has straightforward markers (about 24:50 minutes into the podcast).  Sometimes a wine can be “vague,” and even Master Sommeliers can disagree and miss a wine entirely.

podcast-icon Listen to the Blind Tasting Podcast here.

Yeah, Etna knows how to kick some ash. 2.  The ascendant wines of Sicily – Etna Rosso anyone?

Take a tour of Bella Sicilia with Master Sommeliers Geoff Kruth of and Matt Stamp of French Laundry, joined by bubbly vino fan Shelley Lindgren from San Francisco’s A16 and long-time importer of Siciliani wines Oliver McCrum, as they peruse the historic island’s most interesting wines.  The team goes wild for the rosso wines of grumbly Mount Etna, and explore the Nero d’Avola- and Frappato-based wines of Faro and Noto.  Sicily is really getting its wine-act together, and this Podcast gives you a great starting point for your own vino exploration.

Geoff also shares some photos of the Etna vineyards in his Guild blog post – check them out here (registration required).

podcast-icon Listen to the Sicily Wines Podcast here.

Red and white wines, ready for dissecting3.  Tasting wines over, and over, and over…

The Guild’s inaugural Podcast is a bit rough with some echo and acoustic issues, but it’s a great intro to the tasting deductive process that all Sommelier candidates need to master.  Geoff Kruth, Matt Stamp (fresh off winning the TopSomm 2010 award), and Jason Heller take us through a handful of typical wines, demonstrating how to calmly dissect them and converge on the “call” – naming the varietal, region, sub-region and year.

The first 2 wines tasted, a white and a red, are exactly the kind of “typical” wines you would taste on your Certified Sommelier blind tasting exam.  Note how easily the tasting evaluation flows from Geoff, a highly articulate taster.  With practice and tasting lots of wines, anyone can master this deductive process.

podcast-icon Listen to the Inaugural Tasting Podcast here.

Aspiring to be a Sommelier?

Have a listen to these Podcasts, and if you get excited about all the wine geekery and just gotta know more, come over to the Dall’Uva Forums and the

send me a note in the Comments section below, or ping me by email. I can help answer your questions and put you in contact with someone who can help you get started on the path to becoming a Certified Sommelier.

Cin cin!


5 Responses to “The Secret Lives of Master Sommeliers”

  1. Michael Horne 17 May 11 at 8:13 AM #

    A quick update: Looks like the fine folks at the Guild of Sommeliers have posted another podcast, this one on the challenges of producing wine in high elevation regions in California.

    Chris Carpenter from Lokoya, Ross Cobb from Hirsch, Matt Stamp MS and Geoff Kruth MS, from the Guild of Sommeliers discuss the challenges of producing in these areas, and how it reflects in the wines produced. Worth a listen, you can check it out here:


  2. Gareth Ferreira 1 Nov 11 at 6:09 AM #

    I recently passed my Certification in May of this year not knowing about the guild of sommeliers website, i used Brian Julyan MS book, Sales and Service for wine proffessionals which is a great book for this level and outlines and explaines everything nice and clear, however since passing certification iv been looking for more and discovered the Guildsomm website where there is endless information, Maps, Past Papers and an active somm community which is amazing, The Advanced pin is now in my sights and hopefully maybe one day the Honor of being named a MS who in my eyes are gods amoung the wine community!!!

  3. Courtney Keeling 25 Aug 12 at 4:38 AM #

    Hi Michael,

    After several years in the hospitality industry, I have just signed up for my level one class and exam, and am excited to begin my journey.

    I live in Dallas, TX, and am interested in finding resources for tasting groups. I would really appreciate if you could put me in touch with a few locals that may be able to help me find a way into a study group.

    With Thanks,

    • Michael Horne 25 Aug 12 at 4:42 AM #

      Hi Courtney – glad to hear that you’re studying wine, I’m sure you will enjoy the process.

      The easiest way to set up a tasting group is to poll your fellow classmates, or ask a local Master Sommelier if they can recommend an Advanced or Master Sommelier in the area who can mentor a group of new students. Many will meet with a tasting group periodically, but you don’t have to have an experienced Sommelier with you.

      The main thing is to get a group of (ideally) 5+ fellow students together every 1 to 2 weeks, with each bringing a “typical” wine in a bag (for blind tasting), then taste as a group (all at the same time) with each person going through the standard tasting process and writing notes. After everyone has tasted a wine, you can share each person’s thoughts on the visual characteristics, nose, palate, acidity/tannin/finish, grape varietal, and region. It’s easiest if you use the Wine Tasting Grid I pointed to in the Resources section in the blog post.

      I’ll see if I can dig up the name of a Dallas Sommelier that might be able to help you. I suggest that you ask your instructor for a pointer to someone; many will also meet with a group of students outside of class.

      Best of luck, and have fun!

  4. Chicago Pinot 3 Sep 12 at 5:42 PM #

    Dear Courtney:

    Best of luck with your exam! Where are you taking it? I will be down in Louisville in two weeks to take mine. Please let me know if you want to chat over Facebook or Google; we can text each other questions!

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