Master Sommelier: An Elite Designation

Inside The Court of the Master Sommelier Credential

by Marisa D’Vari

Most people enjoying wine and cuisine in fine dining restaurants do not think too much about the sommelier. Some dismiss the sommelier as simply the restaurant employee who pours the wine.

Yet in the best restaurants, the role of the sommelier is quite complex. In some restaurants, the sommelier may be the wine director. This means that he or she creates the wine program and buys the wine as part of their job.

The wine director can sometimes also be seen “walking the floor” during lunch and dinner service, helping customers select the best wine for their meal. And in the very best scenarios, sommeliers can help educate guests about wine regions and styles.

Master Sommelier: An Elite Designation

The term “Master Sommelier” refers to a wine credential that is among the most difficult to achieve in the wine world.

This Master Sommelier, or “MS” credential, is at the pinnacle of the four designations possible in the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) program.

This program was created in 1977 in the United Kingdom. The objective was to improve standards of beverage knowledge and service in hotels and restaurants.
CMS: The Four Levels of Educational Training

There are four levels of the CMS program. With each level, students must master increasingly more difficult exam questions with regard to service, wine knowledge, and correct identification of wines tasted blind.

It is common for students at almost every level of this program to line the walls of their apartments with wine region maps.
At the very basic introductory level, students must take a two day course and then pass an intensive exam that demonstrates their knowledge of wine regions and wines of the world.
The Certified Sommelier Designation

The second level of the CMS program is the “Certified Sommelier” designation. You might have read about this in the bestselling book Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker.  

At this level, on the exam candidates must demonstrate knowledge of virtually every wine region in the world.

There is also an interactive part of the exam, involving Master Sommeliers (MS). In this part of the exam, the MS sits at a table in the restaurant where the exam is being held, and pretends to be a guest.

Next to the table are bottles of wine to be decanted or Champagne to be opened. The Master Sommelier will ask the student to open or decant wine, as well as asking pairing suggestions for the meal they intend to order. The Master Sommelier will score the student on their performance.
During this interactive part of the exam, CMS candidates must answer all questions about wine, food pairing, and even cocktail suggestions while also gracefully decanting or opening the wine, as proper service technique (yes, with that white ironed napkin over the right arm) is what is being graded.

In her book, Bianca Bosker, author of Cork Dork, admitted to failing this exam the first time she elected to undertake it.  And understandably so.

Bosker was a technical reporter when she decided to write a book on the inner workings of the wine world. She had never served wine in a restaurant, and as she admits, was a bit clumsy with service and in answering questions about wine production methods at the same time.

It was her research for the book that led her to enroll in the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) program, and she did pass the Certified Sommelier exam on her second try.

Preparing For the CMS Tasting Component: Fun or Hard Work?

You might have seen one of the many films about groups of people studying to be sommeliers, like the popular documentary Somm.

In a typical scene, you will see a group of sommelier students sniffing, snorting, and swirling small portions of wine in enormous glasses, before spitting it out into a giant bucket.
While group tasting activities can seem fun and social, they can be stressful as well – especially as the date of the exam looms closer.

Time is short, the wines are very expensive, and it’s crucial to deduce the wine’s variety and origin correctly and as quickly as possible. This even extends to vintage when it comes to the classic wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux.

That’s right. Just one sniff and a scant mouthful and you need to be able to say something like, “It’s a Pinot Noir from Pommard, from a good producer, 1st Cru, and approximately 3 – 5 years of age.”

Can Having a Credentialed Sommelier Benefit You, the Guest?

While restaurants are not required to employ a sommelier with credentials, the better restaurants understand the value of doing so.

Sommeliers from the CMS (and comparable programs) share a common knowledge of wine, wine regions, and wine pairing. In addition to pouring wine with very professional etiquette, most sommeliers love sharing “insider” wine knowledge with guests.
This includes up and coming regions, like Bierzo in Spain, and new producers.

Many sommeliers with advanced credentials are also extroverts, and interacting with them heightens your enjoyment of your restaurant experience.

While few people intentionally visit a restaurant simply for sommelier service, it’s nice to know the training that goes on behind the CMS designation.