If you’re an American in the wine industry and are within my age range (mid-twenties to early thirties, not to put too fine a point on it), you have, or are somewhere on the path toward, a Master Sommelier diploma. That is barely an exaggeration. (Some folks pursue a Wine & Spirits Education Trust diploma, or go on to a Master of Wine, instead.) For a generation that purports to care little about what the so-called experts have to say about wine, it seems we all want to become one anyway.
“It definitely helps to have it on the résumé when it comes to scoring a great job in the wine world,” said Dustin Wilson, wine director at Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning Eleven Madison Park and MS class of ’11. “It’s a title that earns you some automatic respect.”
The numbers speak for themselves: 63 and 70 people have sat for each Master Sommelier exam this year, compared to 38 and 37 in the two 2009/2010 sessions. (Some people were returning; you can repeat a failed segment of the test twice more, then you have to retake the whole thing.) In 2012, a total of 95 people took the Advanced Sommelier test for the degree a step below, with 39 more this past April. Of the 133 total North American Master Sommeliers, 71 have earned their letters since 2005, and the first test was held stateside in 1987.
By most accounts of people in the program, the series of seminars and degrees leading up to one’s MS is a fantastic immersion in wine knowledge. At $2,870 for the four course levels required to get your MS—and thousands more often spent on tasting practice—it’s also a pricey test to fail, and around 90 percent do in the final stage of each session (this month’s sitting of 70 hopefuls only minted one new MS). There are three segments, two of them perfectly unobjectionable. Deep knowledge of wine and spirits, along with grace under fire on the restaurant floor, should absolutely be required of, well, ideally any sommelier, but certainly one who claims mastery.
But here’s the rub: You also have to blind-taste six wines in 25 minutes and “identify grape varieties, country of origin, district and appellation of origin, and vintages of the wines tasted” at a minimum of 75 percent accuracy. Even if you’re a wine ace, you’ve played this game and lost, perhaps embarrassingly. So as you might expect, the tasting sinks plenty of sad somms. The new film Somm includes scenes when the four documentary subjects/MS candidates (Wilson is one) guess off by a mile, both in their thousands of practice hours and on the big day.