12-12-2015

Taking the Court of Master Sommeliers Level 1 – Introductory Exam

So, maybe you’ve read up about the various differences between the WSET & Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) and now you’re headed on the CMS path of things. The first stop on this is to sit the classes and exam of Level 1.

This is a very popular class and while in Europe and the World Wide portion of the Court seems to limit classes to around 30 people, in the Americas, the classes seem to get much bigger. I suppose this is one reason why it didn’t appeal to me while living in the US. That and upon passing, you can’t call yourself a Sommelier. This goes to show how I didn’t really understand how things worked and why you should read the first article I linked to above to get a better understanding if you are in the same boat I was.

That aside, this is a very useful level from the CMS and while many who have been professionals for some time might scoff at it, it’s a quite decent measure of wine knowledge. Don’t think just because you know how to hold a glass or that Cabernet Sauvignon in grown in Napa Valley that you’ll breeze through this course. I feel that you need a level of WSET 2 or at least a year of solid professional experience to pass it.

For example, Do you know what phylloxera is? Can you name the Médoc First Growths of Bordeaux? What are the parent grapes of Pinotage? What is the order of intensity for dry Sherry? If you can answer questions like these off the top of your head, then you’re probably ready for this exam.

What you might not be ready for is the Level 2 – Certified Sommelier exam. How it works in Europe is that you come to the two days of classes which are jammed pack with covering regions. You taste something like 20 wines blind and start to learn the system to identify various grapes, regions, and styles. You will have to stand up an talk about each of the wines in some aspect at least a couple of times. This will be terrifying at first, but have no shame about it, go with it and let the Master Sommeliers guide you along. That’s the point of these classes and there will be more of this if you continue down this course.

On the third day you take the Level 1 exam. Those who pass with a certain score (more like getting certain marker questions right) will be allowed to take the Level 2 exam the same day. Those who don’t do a light service exam which is serving a white wine and being drilled on a few questions. I think I was quite shabby in this due to being insanely nervous but I still passed without a problem.

As far as I understand, in the US, it’s just the Level 1 exam that day with no service. You get your results the same day and then you schedule the next round to take the Level 2 exam after taking a bit more time to study up.

Unlike the WSET where you can test-in all the way up to Level 3, you have to start at Level 1 with the CMS. Many guys who have been sommeliers for years get a bit huffy at this and think they’re ready for the Level 3 – Advanced Sommelier exam so why is there all this time and money wasting? From watching this first hand, many walk away with their asses handed to them as these certifications are not to be trifled with and most should be prepared to be taken down a notch by the Level 2 exam.

How do you prepare for the exams? Well, you read the Sales & Service book by Bryan Julyan. Everything to pass the Level 1 is in there and a good deal of the Level 2 as well. Stay abreast of current trends in wine and overall, know how various types of wine are made. In a nutshell, the Level 1 can be summed up as, “What is wine?” As to specific questions, I don’t really want to put out any other than the general ones mentioned previously as this is an exam to test what you should know as a wine professional. Giving out the questions helps neither the you nor the prestige of the certification.

In regards to the classes, come prepared. Know the book as best you can. The classes may be sufficient to pass Level 1 if you have some wine background already, but you’re not going to pass Level 2 with just those two days. You need to review the book and other materials beforehand.

One aside, check your ego at the door. No one who walks around thinking they’re a bad ass in wine is going to progress in the CMS. Master Sommeliers run the classes and they have absolutely zero tolerance for assholes. There is way, way too much ego in wine already and if you try to show off of be any form of ass, they will rightly put you in your place. Don’t be that guy. You’re in service in theory and you should understand humility. Do what’s asked while there and absorb from those who truly do know more than you. I know I did!

I sat my exams up in Northcote which is near Manchester, England. It was March and my god it was dreary as hell so I didn’t have much to do but review in the hotel. The day of the Level 1 exam, I was presented with 70 multiple choice questions that I knew a great many answers without having to think. Others were trickier.

You may walk out of the exam feeling good. This will probably fade as you talk with others who have finished and find that your answers don’t match. Don’t sweat it. While the passing score is 60%, if you know something about wine, you should pass. Officially, the CMS has a pass rate of 90% on this exam. This is largely due to the fact they grill you a bit before allowing you to do the course. They want to keep it more serious for those in the service trade. I was asked a couple of times if I wanted to do it as I’m normally at a keyboard writing and not working a floor. That said, of the 22 people who took the exam, 20 passed. One girl was a bartender and didn’t have nearly the wine knowledge needed for the exam. I felt bad for her because she had put a lot of time and money in to this to not go on and I doubt she’ll want to repeat it. To put it in to an even better perspective, my father in-law loves wine and drinks all form of Spanish and French wines but I know he wouldn’t pass the exam. Be prepared. Everyone there with you will be.

Ultimately, while I passed the Level 1 but wasn’t given the chance to move on to the Level 2 that day, I wasn’t at all disappointed. The CMS is set up in a way to be incredibly stringent but at the same time encourage people to continue with the program and move on through the levels. I don’t really know how they do it but they want people to be certified as it helps to give a quality standard to a rather archaic trade that the public doesn’t really want to trust but has to due to how complex wine is.

For those who pass, it may be small, but wear that Level 1 badge (which apparently says, “Guild of Sommeliers” in the US?) with pride and keep working towards the Level 2 knowing how sweet it will taste once you pass that exam.

Read up on taking the Court of Master Sommeliers Level 2 Exam.