I am a Sommelier. Not because I’ve earned a pin that says I’m
certifiable certified from the Court of Master Sommeliers. It’s in my job title. But even before my current job, I was the sommelier at those other jobs. But at those places I was known as the “wine guy.” Saying “sommelier” in one of those places would return a confused look most of the time. The difference now is that I work in an environment where telling a guest that I’m the wine guy is more likely to return a different kind of confused look.
Until I took my current position I didn’t feel part of the “club.” I also describe it as feeling like I had “arrived.” Lots of quotation marks so far. Sorry. Anyway both of these terms really fail to describe accurately how I feel about working in fine dining. They evoke more of being snobbish, elitist (I am 1337 though 😉 ), etc. which is not how I view it. But I’ve struggled in describing the feeling. Even saying I feel legitimate isn’t quite right. I guess it all means I feel like I’m in the right environment to not only advance my studies, but also be in an environment where there are others who appreciate wine and service the same way I do. The pieces have fallen into place.
So it was with a great deal of excitement, trepidation, FUD, etc. that I applied to participate in the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition at TexSom this year. I had barley started at the kind of place that has a sommelier. I’ve been seriously studying wine for going on seven years. Some years I’m more serious than others, but I’d say that the past five years I’ve really made it a point to learn something all the time. That’s really the entire purpose of this website and the videos. My own quest for knowledge.
I have a very good foundation of theory, history, and geography. It’s part of my review philosophy. Look for the new, unusual, or interesting. I tell people all the time that I never have the same wine twice. And I don’t mean vintage. I mean label. I’ve had different wines from the same label. I just avoid drinking a varietal or blend from a label more than once. While not entirely true, it’s pretty accurate in how I drink wine. This means that while some others struggle in talking about different parts of the wine world, I struggle less. And this helps in my blind (deductive) tasting. Besides intentionally trying wines from all over the world as a normal thing, it reinforces what I’ve read about those wines. Where this doesn’t help me is being a specialist in any area or group of areas. Plus I don’t always seek out the most well known or famous wineries or wine makers. This lead to one of my favorite questions asked of me, “if you’re a Level 2, how do you not know who Paul Hobbs is?”
And now you have the setup for the competition, which is why you decided to read this in the first place!
So what is it? Well, it’s a competition designed around the Advanced Exam from the Court of Master Sommeliers. The exam itself isn’t a competition. You are graded on each of the three sections. You have to pass each section to pass overall. Scoring high on one doesn’t make up for doing poorly on another. However, the person that does get the highest overall score does get extra recognition. Another thing about the competition versus taking the Exam is that it doesn’t cost to be in the competition. The Exam currently costs $1590 ( this is evenly split between a required course and the exam itself). And you need to be from Texas to be in the competition.
What I’ve been told is that the competition is slightly different from year to year. It’s not a exact copy of the Exam. Each year there will be some variation. It IS a competition and they need to be able to have some separation among the competitors. Let’s start with Theory. That’s where we all start anyway. We meet at 7:45 near some of the conference rooms in the Four Seasons in Las Colinas (Dallas). The Four Seasons has been the host hotel for TexSom ever since it moved to Dallas several years ago. The Master Sommelier who is in charge of the competition (Devon Broglie) gathers us and gives us our Tasting and Service times and some words of encouragement. We enter the room and the Master explains the theory portion. We have a written exam that covers various topics. While I can’t give specifics, I can tell you that it’s very similar to the Intro and Certified exams. Geography, history, wine law, wine production, varietals, distribution, etc. Very comprehensive.
For me, the theory exam didn’t feel overly difficult. Like any exam in any subject there were some questions that seemed pretty easy, and a few that I struggled with. A few I had no answer. I’d estimate I had around 10 questions that I either didn’t know, or guessed. Of those, I know I was wrong on at least half. I was the first to finish though. I take tests pretty fast these days. I either know the answer or I don’t. I will skip questions to come to them later, but I won’t rack my brain for 10 minutes trying to figure out the answer. I now have a little over an hour until my Tasting portion. I find a spot in the lobby lounge to do some reviewing and relax.
I return to the same waiting area to be summoned to the room for my blind. Master Sommelier Rob Bigelow is who summons me. I follow him to one of the smaller rooms and get introduced to the other Master sitting in on this portion, Serafin Alvarado. Pleasantries are exchanged and I even mention to Master Alvarado that I believe I follow him in social media (I do). Master Bigelow I recognize from previous TexSoms, but I’m not too familiar with him. They cover the format with me for the wines to make sure I understand. Unlike the Certified exam, I have to verbalize everything and they write down what I say. I run through the wines in 13 minutes. They make a point to let me know I have 3 minutes left. I didn’t realized at the time that there were a couple steps I didn’t do and this was my opportunity to do that. At this level we are expected to memorize “The Grid.” The link is for the 2014 version. Grape(s), Country, and Vintage can change (especially Vintage) each year. Anyway, I felt pretty confident on my final answers and just thank them for their time.
I have about 30 minutes until my Service portion. I return to the waiting area and just wait. I grab a glass of wine from one of the tasting break tables from the conference and relax. Four of us are gathered and escorted to the second floor to await our Masters. Fred Dame, who is the first American to pass all three parts of the Master Exam in one year, and the third American to pass the exam, comes and says a name with his combination of Cheshire Cat and innocuous grin. All I can remember is that is not my name. The gentleman goes to the room and I give an audible sign of relief. While I don’t fear Master Dame per se, he is one of the most intimidating Masters. And for no real reason. He is also one of the most personable and approachable Masters in the U.S. It’s very much like going one-on-one with an All Star athlete who is personable. Maybe like going one-on-one with the likes of David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs back in the day. He’ll kick your butt, but you’ll truly thank him for doing it.
A few minutes later, Master Broglie calls me and I follow him for what seems like a mile to my room. Now we’ve been prepped a little bit for this part. We are just told that we are entering a “live room.” That’s it. I enter and I see my three Masters – Peter Neptune, Andrew McNamara, and Laura Williamson. Master Neptune is a hoot in person. I’ve been in many of his seminars and even sat next to him last year at one of the lunches. It’s not that I’m comfortable with him, but at least I know his personality. Master McNamara is familiar to me from prior TexSoms. Master Williamson is new to me.
I’m given the scenario and we start. Again, no specifics for this portion. However, it’s very similar to the Certified; more intense and I do more than I did for the Certified. I won’t run through the entire portion of the exam. But I will say that it is important to make sure you follow the steps of service in the proper order. And this requires practice. I do this daily at work now versus maybe once a month or two at previous restaurants. But I still don’t do everything in real life exactly how the Court wants it. And most fine dining places or other places that put an emphasis on wine modify the Court’s steps of service a bit to suit their needs. The Court understands this, but they do expect you to follow these steps in an exam.
It’s prudent to say that the wine I’m actually serving is not the wine ordered. We are pretending to service higher end wine. Here’s one big piece of advice. Make sure you remember the name of the wine they tell you they ordered. Since part of the steps of service is to announce the wine to the person who ordered it and you are role playing, you need to say that wine. Not the wine in your hand. Write it down if you have to, but don’t forget it. Also, many restaurants have recent vintage wines or wines that don’t have a lot of sediment. So if you end up decanting for sediment it’s a good idea to practice. And practice some more. And don’t forget all the tools you’ll need like I did. DOH!
Throughout the service part you will get asked various questions. Sometimes it may be about the winery, the kind of wine, the production of the wine, and even asked to name similar wines or styles of wine. You might get asked about pairing suggestions and why you suggested it. While normal guests may ask questions like these, some of these are being asked in a more exam-like fashion. Really, anything goes during service. I’ve had many people tell me the horror stories of their service portion and being asked the simplest of questions only to clam up or completely mess it up. Present company included.
I’d have to say that nothing during this portion of the exam was especially difficult. If I had really been prepared I should have been able to excel at it. And what kept me going was remembering that it’s not necessarily answering the questions right or being perfect in the steps of service, it’s how you act or react. Did you stay professional or did you crack under pressure. I can tell you that I had fun during this portion. I may have gone a bit too far in being loose, but since my “guests” were having fun with me, I had fun with them. I did at least score a bonus point from Master Neptune for pronouncing Carménère properly. A few years ago he made a point in a seminar on how to pronounce it. There’s no “~” over the “n” in the word so there’s no “nya” sound. It’s not like saying Piña (Peen-ya). I told him I was in that seminar.
We finish up and I thank each of them for their time and tell them it was a very humbling experience. And it was humbling. As I expected it to be. At this point it’s just before noon. I make my way to my room to rest and take a nap before grabbing some lunch. During this entire time I am in agony from my left hip. I had back issues just before I went to Dallas. While my back cleared up on the way there, my hip started bothering me. On Friday afternoon while moving wines around on a cart I aggravated the hip. I did go to dinner with the group that night and helped with room setup afterwards, but I knew my hip would be pretty sore the next day. That Saturday I stayed in my room for the most part and didn’t hang out with anyone as I had previously planned. I was in so much pain that I seriously considered withdrawing from the competition. When I woke up Sunday I still considered it.
But I didn’t. I didn’t want to let down my friends. I didn’t want to disappoint people here in San Antonio as I was the only representative from San Antonio. I had also made a commitment to myself to be in this competition to experience a butt-kicking and learn first hand what to expect for the Advanced Exam. Otherwise I would have much rather been in seminars tasting amazing wine. So that morning I sucked it up. I only needed to stand during service. And I was lucky enough to been done before noon (others wouldn’t finish until after 2:00). I hate quitting.
Fast forward to Monday night. This is when we get the results at the Grand Tasting. About mid-way through we are called to the stage for the announcement of the winners. As I expected, my name doesn’t get called in the top three. We are not given any sheet explaining how we did, or at least I don’t think anyone else got anything. So I could have finished 25th or 4th. It doesn’t matter to me, as I got exactly what I wanted. The experience. Plus I know exactly where I failed in each portion.
I’m writing this one week after I did the competition. My hip is better, but it required a steroid shot a few days later and generic Vicodin for the pain. Last night was the first time I wasn’t in a great deal of pain after being on my feet for more than 5 minutes. I don’t know if it was the hip getting better, adrenaline, or the Vicodin actually working for once. Pain killers have limited success with me. Something I inherited from my Mother. This morning it’s sore, but not painful. The point of this is to not say I didn’t do well from the pain. Just talking about what was going through my mind. I would have done exactly the same pain or no pain.
So what about next year? I will apply again. There’s no guarantee I’ll be accepted, but I hope that I will. I will be even more prepared from my own studying and practicing with various Advanced and Master Somms in Texas. And I will have attended the Advanced Course at the beginning of next year. All of which should help being accepted. And once I do get accepted, I’m going all Joe Namath on it. I might even bring a fur coat 😉