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Taste Masters

Diablo gets a peek inside the elite world of the Court of Master Sommeliers.



It’s 8:05 a.m. I’ve just started sipping my coffee when the instructors open the doors to the classroom, which at first glance looks like a chemistry lab. Small sinks line the counters, and a raised shelf, perfect for beakers and test tubes, holds a flight of four wine glasses for each student. There’s a slide about the wines of Northern Italy on the projector screen.

“Alright, I need five volunteers,” our teacher says, a glint of sadism in his eye. “Sight, nose, palate, initial conclusion, final conclusion.” He swirls the wine in his glass and scans the room for people clinging to their coffee cups, pretending not to hear him. First thing on the agenda today is a pop quiz: Name a wine in five sips.

I take my first taste of Pinot Gris at 8:12 a.m.

So goes the tortured life of a sommelier student. There are 39 of us in this classroom at the Professional Culinary Institute in Campbell, one of two Bay Area locations where the Court of Master Sommeliers trains restaurant servers, beverage managers, and a few Silicon Valley techies with a serious wine hobby. We’ll spend two full days together, studying Australian wine-growing regions, Argentine grape varietals, Italian production laws, and French fermentation styles. And yes, there will be a test.

Within the first hour of class, I realize the serious risk I run of failing that test. Sure, I’ve been reading up, I’ve been to Napa and Sonoma dozens of times, I lived in France, and I’ve tasted scores of wines as a food critic—but then I meet the competition. The pressure from restaurant bosses has turned these folks into the Poindexters of wine. The guy to my left already has a stack of homemade flash cards. The woman behind me can smell the “French chalk” in her wine glass. I don’t even know how to spit properly, let alone decipher notes of black cherry. How will I ever pass a 70-question test?

The Court of Master Sommeliers was established in the United Kingdom in 1977, but the United States chapter didn’t become official until 1998. The court sets standards for wine service and developed a four-tiered certification system to give meaning to the title sommelier. Before this, novice wine drinkers could proclaim themselves experts with no one to hold them accountable. The top-level test, administered by invitation only, is for master sommeliers, of which there are only 170 in the world. The largest concentration of “master soms,” as students reverently call them, is in the Bay Area. These guys—and a few gals—can sniff and sip a wine, and rattle off the exact country, region, appellation, and château where the wine was made, plus the grape variety, year, and alcohol content.

And they believe they can teach beginners like us, taking the intro-level course, to do this, too. They call it deductive tasting. I call it the Socratic wine nightmare. Our distinguished instructor paces the front of the room, wearing a full suit with a master sommelier pin, a small red and silver portrait of Bacchus, the god of wine and intoxication. He chooses his five “volunteers” and asks them to stand. I have a flashback to a scene in the movie The Paper Chase, when the ruthless Harvard Law School professor humiliates first-year students taking his contracts class.

In this school, there’s no cheat sheet that tells you if a wine smells like limes or white flowers, slate, or, oh God, “D­—all of the above.” I swirl my glass, stick my nose inside, and inhale. Citrus? Oak? Nope, all I smell is white wine. We all sip, then spit into our white paper cups. (Day 1, lesson 1: Expectorate!) I’m already lost. All they taught me wine-tasting in Napa was to pay attention to what I liked. They never quizzed me on acidity and alcohol levels.

But the worst is yet to come: the initial and final conclusions. One volunteer must translate the taste and smell of the wine into a location on the map. Old World or New World? Cool climate or warm? “Maybe a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire?” he says.

The teacher nods at the effort. “Can someone offer a lifeline here?”

He calls on the shyest student in the class. “A Riesling?” she says. “Or, an Albariño. From Spain, the Rías Baixas region. 2008.” The instructor lifts a white sheet and unveils an empty bottle of Spanish Albariño, 2007.

I decide to swallow my next few sips.

But as the class progresses, it becomes clear that underneath their fancy suits, master sommeliers are humble folks. The instructors quote their kids’ favorite hip-hop songs and tell us it’s OK to say our wine smells like Froot Loops. Sure, they possess a unique knowledge that surpasses the vast majority of humanity. But there’s simply no need to show off. And that lesson is part of the sommelier curriculum. In the end, they reminds us, wine is just a luxury.

“You have to keep things in perspective,” says master sommelier Randall Bertao, referencing the heart surgeons he’s served over the years. “We’re enhancing people’s pleasure. We’re not saving people’s lives.”

I try to keep this in mind when my palms start sweating on the day of the test. I stare at the grid of blank A, B, C, and Ds, and reckon that I haven’t taken a multiple-choice test in almost 15 years. I contemplate cheating. What if I just glance over my neighbor’s shoulder for number eight? Then I remember he works at Hewlett-Packard, not Prima. I also remember him telling me that you only need to answer 60 percent of the questions correctly to pass. I figure my odds are just as good if I rely on my own instincts. 

Then we wait. Tension hangs over us in the lobby while the instructors grade our exams. After they’re done, we file back to our seats to find out who’s passed. We wait for our names to be called. I see one student after another walk to the front of the class to collect his or her first sommelier pin and certificate. It’s only pleasure, I mutter to myself under the clapping and cheering. It’s not emergency surgery.
And then, finally, my name is called.

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