28-12-2015 ~ 6 Comments

Taking the Court of Master Sommeliers Level 2 – Certified Sommelier Exam

You read up on the differences between the WSET & the Court of Master Sommeliers, you went the sommelier path and you passed the CMS Level 1. Thus, you have arrived. Now, is where it gets truly serious as you want to prepare for the Level 2 Certified Sommelier exam of the CMS which, take it from me, is not to be trifled with.

Let me start off by saying that Level 1 isn’t a joke either. It’s just that each successive level of the CMS goes up by a power of 10 so if you thought that the Level 1 was tough, take your time, study, and prepare a great deal for the Level 2. No one will think less of you and those who do, you should ignore. And… let’s not even think about the Level 3 Advanced for some time yet as the Master Sommeliers at the exam always caution people that the level for that test rises even more. This is usually accompanied by them raising their hand from waist to chin level but you can probably get the idea.

There are two aspects to this test that make it considerably harder. The first is that you move from Level 1’s “What is wine?” in to Level 2’s “Where is wine?” and thus you need to know pretty much everywhere in the world where wine is produced. Then there are the components of the test: blind tasting, theory, and service. You need to pass all three and being strong in one will not make up for being weak in another as it’s a “pass all or pass nothing” deal. Which one of these will prove to be the most difficult will depend a great deal upon who you are.

It’s important to note that if this level seems like something of a hybrid between the Introductory and the Advanced, that’s because it is. It didn’t exist until December of 2005. The Court created it as a way to guide people along the path to the Advanced level and also aid them as the pass rate for that exam was extremely low prior to the Certified being offered. It was a good thing but it’s definitely no cakewalk. For most people, the tough bits seem to revolve around either tasting or theory.

For me personally, it was theory that was the problem. I actually had to take this test twice because of not passing the theory portion the first time. It’s important to add at this point that your passing or not could just come down to the exam you get that day. On my first try, tasting was the strongest, followed by service, and then theory. The second time (which I thankfully passed) it was service the strongest, followed by theory, and then tasting. Such is the nature of the test and why I think it’s actually one of the best there is as it’s always changing in nature and application, yet testing sommeliers on the same core knowledge.

Sommelier Service Test

This is the last part of the exam and in general, while you can indeed fail it, the service part is the least of your worries, especially for those who are working the floor. This isn’t to say that it’s nothing but at this level the main interest is to see how you react in a service environment.

You’ll need to do some form of sparkling wine service. The format of this can vary a great deal depending on the amount of time they have for the exam or the particular mood the Masters are in that day. Essentially, be able to open a bottle of sparkling wine without a pop nor losing control of the cork–this last bit will indeed fail you. This will be common knowledge if you do this all day long. For those not accustomed to it, pick up some of the cheapest bubbly you can find (probably Prosecco or Christmas specials on Cava) and practice both with it properly chilled and not. If you need some tips, watch this video.

They will then grill you on some food pairings. Having a bit of this mapped out ahead of time is highly advised and again, you should already have this on the tip of your tongue if working the floor. Don’t get ridiculously creative. They’re just seeing that you know the basics of pairing. Even if you aren’t the best at this, showing knowledge of wine producers from around the world is key and again, is one of those main differences between the WSET and the CMS.

Lastly, you’ll need to know cocktails. For me this wasn’t much of a challenge as I’d already worked in this area before really digging in to wine. If you only know wine, you’ve got your work cut out for you as there are many. They don’t get too crazy but the problem is that the US and UK tests can vary a bit given that the Masters in Europe will ask questions about cocktails more popular there which threw me off the first time I took the test. I still passed this portion both times despite that failing the first time.

The main key is that if you screw up, apologize. If you’ve watched the “Uncorked” series, you’ll see that the sommeliers do this a bit on there. It’s quite key at Level 2 but was really excessive for the fact that they’re striving to be Master Sommeliers.

Blind Tasting Test

This is where the exam will start. A lot of people freak out a great deal about this portion and work to prepare for it by meeting up for tasting groups and working through as many wines as they can prior to the exam. This has probably been exacerbated by showing how hard it is in the movie “Somm” and the “Uncorked” series. It’s true that it’s not a joke. Blind tasting is damned hard. For the purposes of the Certified Level is it the Second Coming of Christ? No.

Again, the purpose is that you need to show the ability to analyse a wine and come to a conclusion. You’ve done this in the classes leading up to the exam and you should generally be practicing this in your day-to-day work whether it be working the floor or not. It’s important to note that from what friends have told me, this exam seems to be a good deal trickier than that of the WSET 3 despite the WSET having a more complicated tasting grid overall. While it’s all written and you don’t have to dictate it orally, you won’t have the scaled-down multiple choice questions that you find on the WSET exam.

When you arrive to the exam, you’ll find a white and a red in front of you. They won’t be tricky wines and as they explain, they’ll be “representative of those types of wines”. It would seem like they’d always choose an Old World and a New World, but it’s not guaranteed. If you use their system of deduction and you’ve exposed yourself to a good number of wines, you should be able to pass this section. The frustrating part is that even at this level, they won’t tell you what they were, however chatting with your fellow test takers will probably come to some sort of consensus.

A word to the wise though, everyone will want to do this immediately after the exam. Try and dissuade people from talking about it until after the service exam as it will most likely shatter your confidence going in to that given that absolutely no one will have the same two answers and some people (guys) are extremely cocky in their deductions.

Wine Theory Exam

This is the second part of the exam and for me, it was the most challenging. It seems that it’s a similar problem for others as well given that the second time I sat the exams, Master Sommelier Brian Julyan (yes, the same fellow who wrote the book you’re probably studying from) said that it was the most problematic for everyone. There is good reason for this: the vastness of knowledge you need to have is daunting. Sure, you only need to get 60% correct to pass but even that is not easy for most people. Yeah, there are going to be people who ace this but let’s assume that if you’re reading this, you, like me, are a mere mortal who also happens to have a life outside of cramming wine knowledge in to your head.

To study, first you need the Julyan book, “Sales and Service for the Wine Professional“. See if you can get the just-released 4th edition as it corrects and updates a great many things. Even if you have the 3rd edition, theoretically, everything you need to pass the theory exam is in this book. It’s just that there’s a lot in there to absorb and for me personally, however it is that I’m put together, it wasn’t enough.

Ultimately I used that book, the “Oxford Companion to Wine“, a subscription to Jancis Robinson, and then the Guide of Sommeliers. The Guild was quite useful (read more on that) as they have study guides for each section you need to go over and it’s really a site targeted towards studying sommeliers. Their region maps are also incredibly useful as well as those on Jancis’s site. Some people swear by the Kevin Zraly book and it seems like it could be of great help as well, but I didn’t happen to have it at the time. Likewise, the Sommelier Prep Course might be of interest as well as it gets more in to serving craft.

Here’s how I studied which may or may not work for you. First of all, you need to make sufficient time for studies. Most people who don’t pass didn’t have enough time. A guy who was retaking the exam the first time I took it was the head sommelier at the Ritz Carlton in London, yet even he failed the first time due to not budgeting enough time to study leading up to the exam. What’s enough time? That depends a lot on you. I spent a solid 8 months studying most every day abut 2-3 hours. There were gaps of time in there where I was traveling and then I needed to come back and double down. Then again, these moments of downtime probably gave me a good pause to let information absorb. Plugging away at it incessantly will probably burn you out. It will also take a toll on your relationships as it can make you pretty neglectful and intolerable, “Did you know that Mencía is called Jaen in Portugal?!!” Word to the wise, no one gives a crap except other sommeliers. You’re not curing cancer, you’re memorizing facts about wine.

I went through the entire Julyan book and the Guild’s study guides in detail. When I came to something I didn’t know, I made a flash card. I then started reviewing these flash cards daily to the point where I could name off the villages of Côte de Nuits without hesitation–note that that won’t likely be a question but aspects of it might come in to play. Then I did a nightly visual pass over the maps for regions I’m really not familiar with. This is then in keeping up with the daily articles on Jancis Robinson as well as wine news in general and a great tip is that if you get bored with something like say, a vintage report on Bordeaux, force yourself to read about it even more. You’re studying to be a sommelier after all and you need to know about the entire world of wine.

I had something of an advantage over other students in that I’m from the Pacific Coast of the US and started working in wine there so California and Oregon were easy. I live in Northeastern Spain so that and Southern France were also pretty easy. What wasn’t easy was the rest of France as I’d been quite lax in learning it. That tied in with Italy and then Australia and New Zealand were what gave me problems.

Those taking the exam for the first time when I was repeating naturally asked me what was awaiting on the exam. While I’m no expert, it seems in talking to others that it’s pretty much split these days of nearly half New World and the rest Old World. You need to be damned solid in all of France which honestly, you should be if you’re working as a sommelier. Know where regions in the world are–looking over maps helps a great deal in this regard. Know good and bad vintages in well-known regions. Do you need to know alcohol percentages perfectly? At this level it doesn’t seem like it. But, you do need to know what grapes are grown where. So, if a question tells you to name the grape of a certain Grand Cru and you look at the name and remember it as being one of the 10 in Beaujolais, then you know it’s Gamay. This part isn’t tricky and is largely intuitive but it’s going to stress you out when you come to it as it did for me both times because the regions are from all over the world and not in these nice neat region chunks like when you study.

More Tips

The only other tips are that there appear to be minor differences in the theory exams for the Americas and those for Europe which reflect what people drink. For instance in Europe, one or two random questions about some seemingly minor regions in Eastern Europe might pop up. In the Americas, questions about sake and beer can appear.

Other than that, the day before, go out for a walk, sleep well, and don’t go drinking or you’ll end up failing like this Irish guy who showed up still reeking of booze the day of the exam and failed. Obviously, don’t stress and don’t panic. If you don’t pass, as much as you won’t want to, you can always take it again and you will come out much stronger. While it killed me to take it twice and I hated spending all the money, I am way, way stronger now than if I had somehow slipped by the first time I took it.

Also note that the Court doesn’t pay for the hotel wherever the exam is being given. That and travel costs come out of your pocket as the fee is just the fee to take the exam. Often, if it’s in the middle of nowhere, like when I took it up north of Manchester, they’ll try to work out some deal with the hosting hotel as you have few options and they realize sommeliers don’t get rich.

Good studying and a dash of luck!