Like many looking to take the Court of Master Sommeliers Intro Exam, my pursuit started with the documentary Somm. After watching the incredible journey sommeliers would take to achieve the designation of Master, I was enamored. From blind tastings to the in-depth understanding of viticulture and vinification I had to learn more. Wine truly was the intersection of science, art and culture. From that moment on, I wanted to understand wine growing regions, wine making, tasting and everything in between.
What to Expect on the Court of Master Sommelier Introductory Exam
As soon as you register to take the Level 1 exam from the Court of Master Sommeliers, you receive a digital textbook. If you are a wine novice, this textbook will be overwhelming. Before taking the sommelier exam, I had no industry experience and my wine knowledge was limited to the wine under $20 section at the local grocery store. By this point I had at least started drinking wine out of real wine glasses.
The textbook is several hundred pages full of wonderful maps of wine growing regions, charts and graphs on wine growing and wine making as well as detailed coverage of fortified wine production and spirits. While the Level 1 workbook has a ton of great information, it is primarily bullet points.
If your learning style is primarily rote, then you will have no problem learning the facts, trivia and maps of the wine growing regions. However, if you thrive on meaningful learning, the textbook can leave you overwhelmed.
What Happens During the 2-Day Introductory Sommelier Course and Exam
I traveled to Louisville, Kentucky to take my level 1 course from the Court of Master Sommeliers. The morning of day one arrived. I left my hotel and arrived at the Bristol Bar & Grille around 7:40am. There in the restaurant were dozens of individuals of all ages and all walks of life. Most people were sitting alone flipping through their digital text or running through decks of flash cards. A few people seemed to know each other from the industry. There was a husband and wife couple taking the exam together.
A couple minutes before 8:00am, one of the administering Master Sommeliers called us to line up and we had to hand him our IDs. He checked off our names as he verified our IDs. We were directed to a room that was perfectly set. I picked a seat in the middle of the room.
The course started. The Master Sommeliers introduced themselves and provided a brief history and instruction on the Court of Master Sommeliers. Next, we started going through the workbook.
Throughout the two-day course, we followed the textbook to a tee. We went section by section. For those that memorized the facts beforehand, it was probably fairly boring. However, for me, the anecdotes and learning mechanisms helped me really understand the information. All in all, the course was the glue that held the facts together. This was wine education at its finest.
Deductive Tasting Method from the CMS
One of the best parts of the Intro Course with the Court of Master Sommeliers is the deductive tasting portion. No, this is not the best because you drink wine. You spit it–professionals spit during tastings. For me, the blind tasting portion was helpful because I was able to experience hand-picked wines that exemplified the terroir from where the wine was grown and produced. As a result, this portion was extremely educational and enlightening. I tasted wines I would have never ordinarily picked up from the store.
During the deductive blind tasting portion in Level 1, you are required to stand-up with a group and cover a portion of the deductive tasting grid. This is extremely intimidating. At least it was for me. The eyes of nearly 100 wine-lovers were staring at me. Not to mention, the 4 MSs were also tasting the wines and guiding this section. Everyone was so gracious and was there to help and support. The exercise helped to build my confidence.
Successfully Passing the Intro Exam from the Court of Master Sommeliers
Everyone in my row had received a paper and I could see there were only six certificates left. Now only five. One of the Masters pulled the fourth to last name out. And I heard my name. For whatever reason, I think I was more relieved to pass this exam than to get any diploma.
At the end, we all celebrated with champagne toast. Sadly, not everyone passed. In fact, I was surprised by the number of people who did not pass. Don’t get me wrong, it is not a cakewalk, especially if you do not have service experience. Everyone was supportive. There were many tears of joy and a few of disappointment.
Afterwards, the Master Sommeliers made themselves available. I talked with a few of them and then proceeded to the bar in the restaurant. Most of the class was there having another celebratory drink. Ironically, almost everyone had beer or a cocktail–they were wined out.
I actually did order wine. There were several wine flights from around the world that a Master Somm had put together for us to try. I decided to continue my education.
Questions about the Intro Exam and Course from the Court of Master Sommeliers
Many people have questions about the intro course. It is hard to know what to expect when you take your level one exam from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Overall, it is a blast. It is an incredible learning experience and I highly recommend it. Below are a few questions and tips I have compiled.
Can I call myself a Sommelier after taking Level 1 CMS Exam?
Yes! The Master Sommeliers said absolutely. After all, a sommelier by definition is a wine steward. The word is originally a French word. It directly translates to butler. That said, there is a very specific code of conduct a sommelier must follow. But, you have to work hard to pass the sommelier exam so you deserve to carry that designation.
Is lunch provided during the CMS Level 1 Course?
For my course, we were are on our own for lunch. I would highly recommend scoping out the area. You have about one hour for lunch and nearly 100 students descend on the area restaurants all at the same time for a quick bite. Not to mention, the exams often take place in busy downtown areas, so you have to fight normal patron traffic at these local shops.
How can I prepare for the Intro Exam from the Court of Master Somms?
Depending on your foundation of wine knowledge, you will likely need to start studying. If you have a solid foundation and are great at memorizing facts, you probably could start studying as little as a few weeks out. However, there were people in the wine industry that did not pass the exam, so do not solely rely on experience. If you are new to the wine world like I was and a slower learner, you may need several months to study.
I am so passionate about wine education that I’ve created a number of courses. The first is for the wine novice and will not help you with this exam. It is a wine 101 course that talks about wine in every day life. If you take that course and did not pass, you will definitely need to study. I’ve created a number of other wine training courses that will allow you to pass the intro sommelier exam with flying colors. These including the foundations of viticulture course and fundamentals of wine tasting courses.
What is the difference between WSET and Court of Master Sommeliers?
Before I signed up for any wine exam or sommelier certification, I spent a great deal of time studying the difference between the Court of Master Sommeliers and WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust). Having pursued education, I can tell you there is a vast difference in approaches. At the most basic level, I would say that WSET 2 Award in Wine and the Introductory Sommelier Course from the Court are fairly comparable in level of difficulty. In another post I will do a deep dive into both.
Is the Introductory Sommelier Pin worth the money?
If you are in the industry and want to have any authority when it comes to wine, I would say taking one of the wine education and certificate courses is imperative. However, if you are a hobbyist, the introductory sommelier pin is more of a “nice to have” rather than a “need to have.” There is great satisfaction in taking the course. Plus, unless you are a wine genius, I can guarantee that you will learn something.
What study tools should I use when preparing to take the Court of Master Sommeliers Intro Exam?
The textbook from the Court is a great study tool and by far the most important guide. The are countless resources for learning about wine available for free. Others come at a small cost. By far, Wine Folly is my favorite resource. It is simplified, thorough, easy to digest and visually pleasing. Both their website and the Wine Folly book are excellent resources.