This past weekend (June 26-28, 2016) I attended the Advanced Sommelier Course. Recently it has become a requirement to take a course prior to taking the Advanced Sommelier Exam. While it may seem a pain to do this for those that passed their Certified in the recent past and just hadn’t gotten around to pursuing the Advanced, I found it to be exactly as intended. The Course is an insight in what is necessary to pass the Exam.
So the cliff notes version of this post is that I was very pleased with the Course and felt it was invaluable.
Before we go any further, this article was submitted to the Court of Master Sommeliers for their approval. I do this to ensure that I don’t reveal anything that might compromise the Course itself. They also ask us to take a survey, so any specific feedback was already given. While this isn’t the same level as the Exam, I’m sure there are some specifics that are best left for the student to discover naturally at the Course. I’ve done this with similar posts describing exams or competitions, so this is nothing new for me.
Let’s get started.
A couple years ago, the CMS (Court of Master Sommeliers) started requiring Advanced candidates to take a course prior to taking the exam. This is also currently what someone needs to do to take the Intro exam. The difference is that the Intro Exam is done immediately following the end of the second day of that course. That course is a whirlwind review of everything that will be on the exam plus learning the deductive tasting method (aka blind tasting) for the Certified Exam, and a demonstration of the Certified Exam’s Service component.
In the case of the Advanced Exam, the Course and Exam are done separately. The Advanced Course is not a complete review of everything on the Exam. Even though it is three full days. The depth of information needed at this level for a course is well beyond the time frame of three days. Hell, I just reworked my syllabus (yes, you really need to create one) to prepare for the Exam is sitting at about 36 weeks. And even that’s a bit tight.
So then what do you “learn?” Well, you’re gonna learn today!
I’ll give a day-by-day recap. Of course I’ll start with the day before. Saturday the 25th. It’s a travel day. You need to arrive the day before as the Course starts every day at 8:00. From what I can tell, the past two years at least, the Course has been done twice a year at the Four Seasons in Las Colinas (Irving), Texas.
This make me happy for two reasons. One, it’s in Texas. So, being selfish, it makes it super easy for me for travel. Two, I love the Four Seasons. It’s become a second home for me over the years attending TEXSOM. Now, I’m not ballin’ or anything. The Four Seasons have been giving attendees some incredible rates every year. Granted they’ve gone up since my first time staying there six years ago, but it’s worth it. The rate isn’t La Quinta level (there’s a La Quinta across the street BTW for close to $100-120), but it’s also not full rate either.
Anyway, the trip is a pretty uneventful 4ish hour drive. I leave just about 7:30 AM and I arrive around 11:30 AM. As per usual, the Four Seasons staff were very accommodating to me. My room was ready early so I was able to unpack. I ran some errands and had lunch and basically relaxed. Had dinner out and came back to the hotel to see a couple of the bartenders that have been there ever since I’ve been going there, Johnnie and Davis. Say hi to them next time you’re there.
Sunday. I use room service rather than eat in the restaurant. Was being lazy actually. I woke up pretty early and got downstairs shortly after 7:00. Check-in was at 7:30. I find my name tag and then check in when its time. By the way. Be. On. Time. You have to check in every day too.
While waiting to enter the Ballroom for the first session, I’m seeing quite a few people. We find out later there are 147 of us. Of those 147 I don’t see anyone I know for quite a while. Eventually I see about 4-5 somms I know. All TEXSOM somms from Texas. I joke with one of them about the other 141 people. Something along the lines of “What? You mean there are somms who DON’T come to TEXSOM?” Let me tell you, even 7 years ago, there were a lot of people at TEXSOM, and it was still kind of a small conference. Now, it’s huge.
One quick side note here. Our information pre-conference let us know about the dress code. Business Casual or Smart Dress. I was totally OK with that. I wear a suit every day to my actual job, so to not have to wear one for 3 days was fine by me. Well, I guess a lot of the guys missed that part. And not just day one. All three. On day three, I was in the elevator with another guy and he mentioned that after two days of wearing a suit he was being smart. I chuckled a little bit and told him I was wondering how many others would eventually ditch the tie at least. Not as many as I would have expected.
Anyway, we get in to the room and have a welcome session followed closely by a session concerning what we will be doing the next 3 days and the philosophy of the Court and our curriculum. We cover the Deductive Tasting Method and what that means for our level. Next we move next door where there are quite a few large tables set up for us to sit at for some smaller group tasting. Each table has a Master Sommelier at it. I won’t go into too much detail here other than to say we are using “The Grid” and the session is to use that grid and get feedback.
So I’m like the third person in line to taste and I pretty much freeze. I mean, I’ve got not one, but two Master Somms at my table. One of them is sitting next to me, and the other one kinda wrote the book on tasting. Well at least one of the books on tasting. And it’s white wine. As many of my viewers know, I struggle with white wines quite a bit. So, yeah, no pressure. But I get a chance to redeem myself with a red later. Not. Fail.
But, here’s the thing. While the level of failure I experienced in utilizing the Grid is well below what was expected at this course, it was OK. No one yelled at me. No one called me out. Both Masters gave me (and everyone else) great feedback. And THAT was the point. Not sure the fellow somms at the table didn’t have some not so pleasant thoughts about me. Especially a couple who knew the Grid cold like all of us were supposed to.
Moving on… Lunch. Thank goodness! We come back from lunch and have two more classroom sessions. Both very informative. But I’m not going to tell you what they are. OK, I’ll tell you one of them. It’s all about tasting and how to distinguish certain things. What are those things? It probably doesn’t matter. You see, the course isn’t exactly the same every year. It can’t be. Now this session is probably going to be there every time, but the specifics may be different each year. So I don’t want to set up an expectation for future students that a particular session will be exactly like I experienced. And that’s why I won’t go into specifics on most things.
We then have a wrap up session that includes a Q&A for the whole day. And that concludes our day.
Day two. Basically more of the same. We cover more of the business side of a beverage program. You know, the romantic stuff. Inventory, cost control, creating a program, printing wine lists, etc. All the stuff people forget about or don’t realize somms have to do other than opening cool bottles of wine.
We have another tasting session too. So I’m kinda nervous, but I’ve reviewed the Grid several times since the day before. It’s not hard. I know it. All of it. I just have been so out of practice that I forget to do each part. I pick a different Master. Not out of fear of the two from the day before, but because we are encouraged to sit with different Masters and different fellow students at each of these sessions. It gives us more experience. This tasting is different than a straight Grid tasting. We still need to evaluate the wine, but we are also paired with another person at our table to do an assignment.
Now, this is different from what I understand has happened in the past. I understand that there was actual homework, but this time we didn’t have any. And I’m grateful for that. Not because I was partying in the hot tub all night (I wasn’t ), but it’s nice to decompress each night. So this may have been the equivalent of that homework. Again, don’t get bogged down on the specifics for what I experienced.
This program is evolving. We got a schedule that was very clear as to what topics we would be covering and a list of expectations a couple months in advance. So don’t think that you’ll be in the dark until the first day.
Ok, so moving on (trying to avoid using “anyway” all the time). We do the second part of the “business” session, then lunch, then two more sessions. Followed with another Q&A. This day was a bit longer as we ran over on one of the sessions, but the information was very valuable.
So, I’m felling pretty good now. Got some great sessions. The tasting wasn’t really the grid. And I didn’t feel like I had a failure in front of Masters and fellow students. THIS is what these three days are about. Check the ego and anxiety at the door, bra, and learn.
Day three. First, it was a great day. We had a recap of the past couple days. We then got split into two somewhat even groups. One group went to do more small group tasting (I still wasn’t gung-ho about that, but I also was more confident than the first day), while the other half would go to a session concerning service and that part of the exam. I was in the latter group.
The service session was great. Some of the rockstars of the industry. Actually just about any Master is, but these guys are living and breathing it on the Floor every night. A fun session. The general gist is summed up by a TEDx talk one of them gave. Bobby Stuckey (told you, rockstar) gave a talk in 2014 in Boulder, Colorado. Here is a link to it:
Next our group did our tasting session while the other group went to do their service session. For tasting, this was purely a Grid tasting. I’d love to say I nailed it, but I didn’t. But, I also didn’t freeze. Oh, and I had a white wine. Again. But this time, I worked the grid. Yes, I missed a few things here and there, but I walked in with the proper attitude. No one at this table is in any different situation than I am. We are all here to learn. We will all make some mistakes (which we all did), and the Master is here to help us. And that’s EXACTLY what happened. Oh, and I sat with a different Master this time too.
Anyway, it’s lunch time again. After lunch we all now converge to the same room for a final small group tasting session. OK, so I can see you counting at home. “That’s 4 small group tasting sessions. So that’s what I’m going to have. 2 grid ones at least….” Well, I don’t know what you’re going to have. Maybe it’ll be less. Maybe more. Maybe all of them will be grid. Maybe more will be non-grid with an exercise or assignment to go with it. That’s what this last one was.
I will admit I did chose this Master on purpose. The other three sessions were random. The first one was more me and another somm, who goes to TEXSOM, went to the same table. And it was in the back. The next two I picked were basically the first table inside whatever door I came in at. But this last one I chose as I’ve never had the chance to taste with this Master, and he is someone I’ve known for seven years now. Again, a great session.
We then end with….BEER! Your milage may vary at your Course, but I wouldn’t be surprised if beer is in the course every year. Maybe a different day, but yeah. After that, it’s an end of Course wrap up and Q&A session. And then we end with a Champagne toast.
Many people hang out for a bit. Some have to leave to catch a plane. I’m not leaving till the next day, so I enjoy myself at the resort and relax.
Would I do this again? Probably not. And not because it wasn’t super informative and helpful. You can’t get too much practice. Especially with tasting and having access to so many Masters at once. But I also have a plan to take the exam in about 10-12 months. And that means the other Course that usually happens March is not at a good time for me at work. I also have some great people locally and in the state to assist me in getting that Green Pin.
The Course isn’t meant to teach you about any specific subject in general. Yes, there’s a ton of information to get about specific wine areas, or other aspects of our business. But it only scratches the surface. This course teaches us what we need to do for our own studies. The depth and breadth of the knowledge. It puts us in contact with a lot of Masters who are there to mentor. We all need to have one at this level. But it’s also not just the Exam, it’s also teaching us what it means to be a Sommelier. Not just passing an exam.
If you’re crazy enough to attempt to go beyond the Certified level, then know that you have a great resource that those before us didn’t have. And that there are a lot of others out there to help you at all levels. I’m looking forward to taking, and passing, the Exam next year.