Deconstructing the Master Sommelier Exam

Thomas M. Price, MS, of Seattle’s The Metropolitan Grill lends some study tips for the notoriously difficult exam.

Divided into three portions—practical (wine service), blind tasting and theory—the whole exam is very difficult. For me, the most challenging section was the theory exam. At the Master’s level, it’s completely verbal. You have to be able to recall esoteric information quickly and accurately, like “What’s the minimum abv of Hermitage Rouge?” (It’s 10.5%, if you were wondering.) Service is trying because of nerves—your mind and body must be in sync. And to successfully blind-taste six wines in 25 minutes, well, you really need to be on that day.

To prepare for the exam, I had to make many sacrifices. The most obvious was limiting the time spent with my wife and son—they were troopers. This pin is at least half theirs. Along with making other lifestyle changes—like scaling back my hobbies and getting less sleep—I found these three tips helped me succeed:

• Max out your time: I recorded 30-plus hours of minutely detailed information about the world’s wine regions onto CDs, and I would listen to them during my commute.

• Join a study group: My study group, the Top Pot Rangers, met at 9 am twice a week for a year to ask one another really difficult theory questions. It was a crucial part of my becoming comfortable with the oral exam format.

• Embrace the process: It took me four attempts to pass. Everyone passes when they are truly ready. Don’t hang your head—I was guilty of that a time or two, I must admit. Simply put, believe in your potential.

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