Since its inception in late 2005, the goals of the Certified Sommelier Examination have always been the same: first, to provide the hospitality industry with a much-needed basic sommelier certification. Second, to introduce students to the MS examination format. I first wrote a post on advice to students taking the Certified Exam in early 2014. Since that time, the exam has undergone numerous revisions. I thought it might be useful to update the post for students taking the exam this year.

The exam itself has always been comprised of three parts: tasting, theory, and service:

  • Tasting: a blind tasting of four wines, two white and two red, with the student filling out a written grid based on the MS Deductive Tasting Method. The grid and testable grapes for white and red wines can be downloaded from the MS website.
  • Theory: a 45-question written test combining multiple choice, short answer, and matching questions.
  • Service: sparkling wine service in some form with students being asked questions about various beverages that might be served during the course of a meal as well as questions about food and wine pairing. 

With the following, I’d like to offer some advice to students who are preparing to take the Certified Exam, especially those taking it for the first time. 

Disclaimer! The following is my personal advice to students taking the Certified Sommelier Examination. It does not, in any way, reflect the policies of the CSMA or its Board of Directors.

Tasting Examination

The Certified tasting examination consists of tasting two white and two red wines and filling out a written grid based on the Deductive Tasting Method, first taught in the Introductory Sommelier Class. The grid requires the student to input information concerning a wine’s color, aromas and flavors, the presence of minerality and/or earthiness, and the use of oak. Further, the grid asks that students assess the structural components of the wines in regard to the levels of residual sugar, acidity, alcohol, and tannin for red wines. Finally, the student is asked to deduce the best possible conclusion about the wine given the sensory information gathered. The conclusion includes the type of climate in which the grapes were grown, old world vs. new world style, the actual grape variety or blend of grapes, the country of origin, and relative age of the wine. 

It goes without saying that a good deal of practice is needed to become proficient at using the grid, not to mention tasting in general. The grid itself can again be downloaded for practice from the CSMA website. Also posted on the site is a list of testable white and red grapes and countries of origin that could be used in the exam.

One other important bit of advice about the tasting grid now used for the exam vs. those used previously; be sure to fill in every line. With the current grid students are being tested on recognizing various components in a given wine as well as when certain components are absent. Thus filling in a “No” answer for an aroma/flavor that’s missing in a wine is just as important as answering “Yes” because the aroma/flavor has been recognized. In other words, don’t leave any of the lines on the exam blank. Otherwise, here is further advice in preparing for the tasting segment of the Certified Exam:

  • Color: it’s important to know the major colors for white and red wines. Knowing the difference between straw, yellow, and gold is important for white wines; likewise, being able to tell the different between purple, ruby, and garnet for red wines is important.
  • Descriptors: be as thorough as you can in examining the wine for families/kinds of fruit and any non-fruit descriptors. Often students will hone in on one or two flavor descriptors and leave out important pieces of information about the wine—information that could help identify the wine.
  • Work on expanding descriptors for fruit and non-fruit. If anything, use the exam grid as a checklist and look for all the kinds of fruit and non-fruit listed in the wines.
  • Structural components: be as precise as you can in calibrating the level of acidity, alcohol, and tannin. This is best practiced by establishing “low” and “high” for acidity, alcohol, and tannin. Examples in actual wines could be Beaujolais Villages vs. Barolo for tannin, Alsace Gewurztraminer vs. Clare Valley Riesling for acidity, and Moscato di Asti vs. Port for alcohol. 
  • Oak vs. no oak: this is one of the more important aspects of basic tasting–being able to assess the presence of oak aging in a wine or lack thereof. Once again I recommend calibrating oak usage by establishing extremes. This is because the brain recognizes extreme opposites quickly as in the difference between the colors black and white vs. gray in the middle. With respect to oak, tasting a non-oaked Chablis or Macon vs. a heavily oaked California Chardonnay will easily establish the two extremes. 
  • Earthiness vs. no earth: use the same technique above—calibrating with extremes. One can also use the same wines listed above (Chablis vs. California Chardonnay) or another pair of extremes such as Chinon vs. a Napa Merlot or Chianti Classico vs. a Barossa Shiraz.
  • Old world vs. new world style: this is a deduction based on the presence of earthiness along with the levels of alcohol and acidity in the wine as well as the use of (or lack of) new oak. The exercise above of using pairs of wines for earth vs. no earth will help.
  • Climate: assessing the possible climate of a wine can be done by reviewing the levels of alcohol and acidity as well as the ripeness level of the fruit. The general rule is that wines from grapes grown in warmer climates have higher alcohol and relatively lower natural acidity vs. wines from cooler climates, which usually display restrained levels of alcohol and higher levels of acidity.
  • Varietal recognition: this arguably is the most challenging part of the Deductive Tasting Method and the MS tasting exams as well. It requires the student to practice with the tasting method over an extended period of time. It also requires the student to assemble and memorize a list of “markers” or common attributes that can be found in specific grape varieties and wines. Good sources for grape variety markers can be found on the Guild of Sommeliers website (guildsomm.com) as well as my blog (timgaiser.com/blog).

A word about practicing tasting: make sure you are working in a tasting group as the dynamics of a good study group are essential to learning and improvement, not to mention the camaraderie and shared experience. 

Finally, I’ve written about tasting and preparing for the MS tasting exams extensively on my blog. I’ve found that smelling and tasting wine is completely based on one’s memory; not only the memory of the various aromatics and flavors in wine but the combination of these components that make up the complete profile of a grape or style of wine. If memory is the key, then students can—and absolutely should—work with their own personal memories of these components and varietal profiles apart from actually tasting wine. I strongly believe that practicing memory of the components and profiles of grapes and wines is just as important and beneficial as actually tasting them.  

Theory Examination

The CMSA philosophy of theory curriculum has a lot to do with what a sommelier theoretically could be asked tableside by a guest about any beverage served in the restaurant. Emphasis is placed on wine, but beer, spirits, sake, and aperitifs are important as well. No mystery that geography is vital to a sommelier’s body of knowledge; knowing where a wine is produced down to a single vineyard (if necessary) is paramount to success in the MS program.

Example: if a guest is asking about a vintage of Savennières “Clos de la Coulée de Serrant” from the producer Nicholas Joly, the sommelier/student should know the following about the wine:

  • It’s a dry white wine
  • It’s made from the Chenin Blanc grape
  • The Clos de la Coulée de Serrant vineyard is located in the Anjou region of France’s Loire Valley, specifically in the AOC/AOP of Savennières
  • The Clos de la Coulée de Serrant is actually a single vineyard AOC/AOP itself
  • Owner Nicholas Joly is one of the major proponents of biodynamic farming

Once again, it’s important to note that MS theory exams focus on geography and being able to connect grape varieties to styles of wines made in specific places. From there students also need to study country and regional laws, classifications, terms about grape growing and winemaking, and major producers for important wines such at prestige cuvée Champagnes.

Service Examination

The MS title is all about being a world-class sommelier and thus service is a vital part of the Certified Sommelier Examination.

*A thought: with the increasing popularity of the sommelier profession in the last few years due to movies, TV, and other media, more and more non-industry people are taking the Certified Exam after taking the Introductory Course. Many have little, if any, experience working the floor. It’s imperative for them to somehow get the needed exposure/experience of working the floor—as in serving wine in actual restaurant–to have any chance of success with the exam.

The service segment of the Certified Exam is based on Champagne service. Here safety is key. There are any number of ways to open a bottle of sparkling wine or Champagne incorrectly—even dangerously—but only one way to do it right. Here are some vital pointers to do just that:

General Service Points

  • Remember to serve from the right and to move around the table clockwise—ALWAYS–even if just returning to the service station.
  • Never reach across a guest’s space to place or clear glassware or serve wine–even if the chair is empty.
  • PRACTICE CARRYING A TRAY. This is the one part of service that cannot be faked. If you don’t regularly work with a tray, lots of practice will be needed for an exam setting. Odds are you will be nervous. Practice!

Mise-en-Place—Setting Up

  • Fold two—and ONLY two—serviettes for service. One will be used for opening the bottle and the other will be left on the bucket tableside if a bucket is used for service. In other words, don’t fold all the napkins on the service station.
  • Always line the tray with an unfolded cloth napkin; no fancy origami folds as they result in an uneven surface on the tray almost guaranteeing you’ll lose glassware in a spectacular fashion.
  • Place the glassware consistently at each cover. Placing a glass at the point of the knife is the most straightforward method.
  • Place glassware starting with the host or the person to the host’s left. Placing glassware is NOT gender specific so one trip around the table clockwise will suffice.
  • Place two under liners or coasters to the right of the host; one for the cork and the other for the bottle in case the host decides to keep the bottle on the table.

Opening the Bottle

  • Watch where you’re pointing the bottle when opening. Never point the bottle at the table or anyone else in the vicinity. Doing so is dangerous and cause for deductions on your exam score.
  • Always place a serviette over the top of the bottle when opening. Drape a serviette over the top of the bottle when opening to prevent spilling any wine if the cork exits the bottles suddenly and tragically.
  • Never take the top of your hand off the bottle when opening. This is utterly crucial to opening the bottle safely and properly. Loosen the cage ONLY after placing a folded serviette over the top of the bottle and then holding both serviette and bottle FIRMLY. After loosening the wire cage, slowly remove the cage and cork at the same time by twisting the bottom of the bottle back and forth. Remember, the cage is NEVER removed before the cork. 
  • Open the bottle as quietly as possible. A no-brainer. This is proper wine service and not the end of a Formula 1 race. Opening a bottle of sparkling wine quietly is a matter of practice and repetition.
  • Present the cork to the host on an underliner, which has been placed to the host’s right.
  • Wipe the top and lip of the bottle with your serviette after you’ve removed the cork and before pouring a taste for the host.

Serving the Bottle

  • Hold the bottle with a still wine grip. Do NOT hold the bottle with your thumb in the punt of the bottle when pouring; this method does not provide enough control and stability and the odds of dropping or losing control of the bottle increase significantly.
  • After presenting the cork, pour a 1-to-1.5 ounce taste for the host. Wait for them to approve the wine and then serve the table always moving in a clockwise direction. The host is always served last.
  • Fill the glasses at least ½ to ¾ glass full with a maximum pour of an inch below the top of the glass.
  • Fill the glasses one at a time with a maximum of two pours for each glass; partial pouring and/or going around the table multiple times is not allowed.
  • Make sure the pours are even!
  • Gauge the pour level/amount based on glass size and number of glasses to be poured so you don’t run out of wine.

Service Exam Theory

  • Work on major cocktails, aperitifs and after dinner spirits. Lists of all of the above are on the Guild site (guildsomm.com). Study cocktails and aperitifs by category, i.e., vodka cocktails, gin cocktails etc.
  • Food and wine pairing: have specific wine recommendations with producer and vintage in mind.
  • Be able to take a specific style—be it a high acid red wine or a white with residual sugar—to multiple places in the wine world.   
  • Above all, know why the pairing works! Be able to explain why a wine works well with a specific dish in terms of the structural components of the wine (i.e., high acidity, lack or oak or smooth tannins). It’s the entire point of selling a specific wine with a certain dish. 

General Service Advice

  • Taking care of the table is paramount. Even though you’re in an exam setting remember that you are a sommelier and your job is to take care of the table—NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS. In a real life service situation, you do not have the luxury of freaking out or giving up on a table or “failing.” Your job is to take care of the guest and give them great service. The exam should be no different. Take care of the examiner(s) as you would any guest in your restaurant. To do so will translate into success.