Most high-value crops are brought up in luxury, at least by plant kingdom standards. They get all the soil and sun they want. When they’re thirsty, they get watered.
One notable exception is Vitis vinifera, or the common grape vine. To coax stunning wines from Grenache, Merlot, Nebbiolo and a multitude of other grapes, vineyard managers very nearly torture their plantings.
“You want just enough to keep it going and alive,” master sommelier Brett Davis explains. “You’re trying to stress this vine. You want the vine to think: This is an inhospitable spot to be. I want to get out of here.”
The Court of Master Sommeliers, a 38-year-old credentialing organization widely recognized as the standard setter of the wine service world, takes a similar approach to aspiring sommeliers. To achieve the court’s highest rank, wine professionals must submit to years of rigorous study, endless strategic tastings and personal life upheaval. “It costs nine out of 10 of us our significant others,” says Davis, one of 140 master sommeliers in North America.
Usually, the ordeal culminates with repeated failed exams: Master sommeliers say the only real difference between them and every other wine seller is resilience.
Many wine lovers are familiar with the contours of a master sommelier pursuit from the 2012 documentary “Somm,” which chronicled four men on the cusp of taking the prestigious exam. Yet long before their exploits were considered big screen-worthy, their journeys began with the court’s introductory course.
Unlike later stages of the master sommelier process, the first level of study is remarkably nurturing. Restaurant servers, wine retailers and enthusiastic oenophiles who pay $525 for the two-day class are supposed to show up with a working knowledge of wine history, geography and science, but instructors don’t chastise participants who confuse green apples with Bosc pears when describing the contents of their glasses. It only takes a 60 percent on the final test to earn a certificate and lapel pin.
“We never want to scare anyone off, because we look at every student as a diamond in the rough,” says master sommelier Ron Edwards. “This is supposed to be a big wine hug.”
The court has lately had to expand its embrace. Over the past two years, there’s been a significant uptick in attendance at the introductory level. More than 5,000 students last year enrolled in the course, a 44 percent increase from 2012.
A sold-out course held last week in Charleston, which is becoming a regular stop on the court’s training tour, represented what’s become the norm since “Somm” helped galvanize interest in sommelierdom: Six of the seven intro courses scheduled for U.S. cities between now and the end of March are full (Classes are capped at 96 to allow every registrant the chance to stand up and blind taste a wine in front of his or her new peers.)
In addition to the film, Edwards credits an improving economy with vaulting the court into a period of exponential growth. “People are less scared to invest in their futures,” he says.
The payoff for consumers is potentially immense. While only one out of every four students who passes the Level 1 exam will apply to become a certified sommelier, the next step in the court’s process, the introductory curriculum includes a demonstration of how to properly decant wine and open a bottle of Champagne. Memorizing wine regions and the properties of obscure grapes may monopolize prospective sommeliers’ study sessions, but even those exercises are designed to produce better service.
“A person wearing that pin is going to listen to what their guests say,” says Edwards, who’s campaigning for more low-level pin earners to wear their pins with pride.
Offering excellent service is especially important in Charleston, which is grappling with a staffing shortage that threatens to upset its reputation as a world-class provider of hospitality. “In a saturated market like Charleston, the only way you’re staying in business is giving guests an experience they can’t get anywhere else,” Edwards says.
Students in last week’s course included employees of Chez Nous, Union Provisions, Fat Hen, Butcher & Bee, Maverick Southern Kitchens, McCrady’s and Halls Chophouse, among other area restaurants.
Surging demand is starting to strain the current capacity of the court, which relies on master sommeliers to teach courses and administer exams. On the first weekend of March, Edwards says “almost every master sommelier in America” will be occupied evaluating master sommelier candidates.
To relieve the bottleneck, the court is pouring resources into its introductory courses. “The priority is at the bottom,” Edwards confirms.
Six months ago, Mark Osburn went to his first blind wine tasting. Confronted with a row of filled glasses, he nervously asked his host whether he needed to finish all of them.
“So I’ve come a long way,” says the 24-year-old Osburn, who gravitated toward wine as a way to support his screenwriting habit.
Osburn traveled from Nashville for the introductory course, joining attendees from Missouri, New York, New Jersey and a flock of other wintry places. “You know, any time you can get out of Ohio,” joked student Rob Josey, who manages a country club outside of Cleveland. In a rush to advance through the sommelier system, Osburn chose Charleston after reading online comments that advised against daring the test in Las Vegas (Osburn maintains the exam questions are harder there, but as Edwards reminded his charges in an early lecture: “You work in an industry with a legal controlled drug.”)
Even though Osburn studied by reading books and watching a movie about Burgundy, and even though Edwards and his fellow instructors did their best to reassure students, he was still nervous about the final test. His anxiety spiked whenever someone raised a hand to tick off the villages of the Haut Beaujolais in north-to-south order or identify a 2012 Russian River Valley Chardonnay based on the liquid alone.
The five tastings set between more than 15 hours’ worth of slides showing Argentinian soil, maps of Italy and Australian wine labels are the fun part of the training: They’re so popular that the court is about to debut a separate daylong workshop devoted exclusively to its method of deductive tasting.
“It’s not a parlor trick,” Davis reiterated, demonstrating how you can eliminate most possibilities for a wine’s identity just by determining whether it’s red or white. Then, distinguishing between Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay becomes largely a matter of teasing out aromatic hallmarks.
“What about florals?” Davis prompted one student with his nose tucked into his glass. “What color melon? Green melon, red melon? What am I looking for there? Starts with ‘p,’ ends with ‘apple’.”
By the second day, many students had the hang of it.
“This wine is clean,” J. Brock McCoy of Birmingham pronounced when tasked with evaluating what turned out to be Sancerre. “Fresh lemon. Pineapple. A little bit of stone fruit, ripe peach. All fruit are fresh. I get carnations, jasmine and orange blossom.”
Osburn sniffed his glass again.
Blind tasting isn’t a component of the introductory exam, which consists solely of a multiple-choice quiz. After handing in his answer sheet, Osburn filed into a nearby break room with the other students awaiting results. “If you don’t pass, do you still get Champagne?” he asked. “It’s the most depressing glass of Champagne you’ll ever have,” another student cracked.
In the end, almost everyone earned a passing grade. Osburn considered celebrating with dinner at FIG before heading back to his sales job at Brinkmann’s Wine & Spirits and his weekly wine study group. He’s cramming to take the next exam within six months.
“It’s an immense body of knowledge, and it never shrinks,” Edwards says. “It gets bigger.”