This is the Part II continuation of my wine story, as started in the previous post. Many thanks to the instant support and love I’ve received from my Twitter friends. Y’all give me the courage to keep going! @jessicabword, @1WineDude, @PhoebeBrain, @RVimmerstedt, @demilove, @abcwinejimg, @NWTomLee, & @Sassodoro. I apologize for the length — what can I say, I’m chatty.
So where was I? Oh yes, life was swiftly pulling me along in a wine direction and it was time to swim with the current. Before, I’d just been a little wine-and-cheese retail clerk who helped wash and polish glasses. Occasionally people would ask me for wine advice (Seriously, you’re asking me? Let me go get Shawn…..), so I would fake it by talking a good game and being charming enough to disguise my ignorance. I mean, I was acutely aware of how very little I knew about wine, but people seemed convinced that I knew something. In an effort to look and feel less like a fool, I’d begun reading voraciously and asking an obnoxious number of questions of people who knew more than I did (which was just about everyone). Eventually some of the information must have started sticking, because my bosses decided I knew enough to promote me — to this day I’m so grateful that they had that much confidence and trust in me. So, suddenly in the Fall of 2011, I’m the brand-new Wine Retail Manager of a huge inventory of fabulous wines connected to the Cellar’s brand new Bistro.
Woohoo, go me, right? Cut, celebration over, now it’s time to learn this job at full-speed from the ground up at an expanded business whilst NOT SCREWING THE POOCH. In the midst of writing and editing wine lists, learning a new POS system, studying our seasonal food menus, teaching our suddenly-huge staff about wine, meeting with sales reps multiple times a week, and keeping track of all deliveries and invoices, I also found myself working more and more on the restaurant side of the business, giving advice and recommendations to our customers as well as performing wine service tableside. Without even realizing it, I was a “sommelier”…….
Say that again? Somm-what? Most of my friends and family to this day still can’t pronounce it, much less have any clue what it is that a sommelier does (Parents: “It’s so much easier to call you an English teacher, y’know….”). I’m not sure I even have a succinct definition , cause I’m still figuring it all out myself. My own study of this profession only started when the Executive Chef of the Bistro said, “Well, why don’t you do the Court of Master Sommeliers?” (my reaction — wait, there’s a court of people who are masters at this thing?!). Okay kids, it’s time to get serious about all of this, so I looked into the Court of Master Whatchamacallits. Wow, these people have super high standards (and some super high class fees…I’m a po’ wino). The CMS is broken up into 4 levels, with the highest Master level being invitation-only — you actually have to apply to be allowed to even attempt the test (heh, how ’bout them alliteration skillz?). Only about 200 people in the world have been granted the status of Master since testing began in 1969. If you can pass just the Level II certification though, you get to put initials behind your name (see Mom, my “career” is legitimate!) Oh yeah, my anal-retentive, perfectionist-student-nerd, never-saw-a-test-I-didn’t-like gene was going into overdrive. This was for me!
All petty, vain, and competitive reasons aside, though, I saw the Court as a way to finally formalize my haphazard wine education. Up until my promotion, wine was a hobby which I was lucky enough to get paid for part-time on the weekends. But now I had business cards, an official email address, a fancy title, and I really needed some solid education to back it up besides “Hey, I’ve drunk some wine and read a few books”. Some people believe that going through the CMS is expensively unnecessary in the real-world of the industry. Honestly, that opinion isn’t all that wrong. There are plenty of excellent wine professionals and sommeliers, even right here in tiny Tampa, who have never done the Court or any other of the certifying bodies (Certified Specialist of Wine, Master of Wine, or Wine & Spirits Education Trust) and they achieved their places through old school bottle-up knowledge. I frankly believe that every person’s wine education, no matter how far he or she might take it, should start simply — with a bottle and a glass of wine. Passion for the juice begins, obviously enough, with the juice. For me, though, I saw the Court as a tool that I can use while I explore the possibilities of my career, as well as a focused learning approach to help me internalize and synthesis the vast oceans of information out there (if nothing else, the Guild that is associated with the Court and it’s educational materials is worth every penny). The best bonus of all is the people of the Court themselves, from students right on up through the masters: a collection of wonderfully nerdy wine geeks like me to whom it’s just a sheer pleasure to talk, socialize, and learn with. Conclusion: being a Certified Sommelier certainly won’t hurt my career any, and there are several instances where it could very well help.
So I scraped together the money and registered for the Level I Exam that was offered in Miami in June 2011. I gained 2 very important things out of that weekend: I developed a huge girl-crush on Master Sommelier Laura De Pasquale (1 of 4 MS’s that trained us — she was the only woman. Plus, she’s just awesome), and I passed my Level 1 certification. The whole thing was actually pretty fun — tasted lots of wines, met lots of cool people, got to take a break from work and hang out in Miami for a day or 2. And the test? Pssh, never even broke a sweat (hey, I’ve read a Bible on wine, y’know). Almost like a vacation actually, and now that the required practice round is over, I can move on to the real goal: Level II certification. As noted earlier, if I can pass my Level II, then I officially get to put the initials CS behind my name. That’s right, not just a sommelier but a certified sommelier, bitches! However, I’d have to wait a whole year for the Court to come back to Miami…………. or! I could fly to New York City in September and do it then! (Ego: “Yes, yes, do it now! You’re ready! You’re a rock star!”) Clearly, I needed to be a CS as soon as possible, so I opted for New York — plus, hey, it’s New York. (And here is where I give an incredibly inadequate THANK YOU! to all of my customers, friends, and family who supported me throughout this whole endeavor. All of them generously donated tips into my Somm-Fund Beggar’s Bottle to help me raise the cash for fees and travel.)
In retrospect, perhaps I could have chosen slightly better timing to attempt the Level II, considering that the Cellar’s 12th Bi-Annual colossal 2-day Wine Fest was the weekend before I left for NYC. And that year, being fancy-title-girl, the Fest was my baby. It took a massive amount of work and preparation, as well as coordination and help from others, but I am proud to say that the Fall 2011 event was the biggest and most successful Wine Fest up until then for the Cellar. Planning it sucked up more time than I’d anticipated, but I thought I had a handle on everything, including my Certification. The Level II exam consists of 3 parts: Written Theory exam, Blind Tasting, and Tableside Service. I was slightly nervous going into the exam, but nothing unusual. I felt that I had a fairly good grasp of knowledge and theory — hey, I’d rocked that Level I exam, plus I had been teaching wine classes all summer. I’d also found a great tasting group that did wonders for my blind tasting skills, and I was practicing tableside service every night in the Bistro (though I was terrified of Champagne service — please don’t let it be Champagne!). So a couple days after the Fest, I flew up to NYC with some general anxiety, but feeling confident that I’d come home a Certified Sommelier. And, at the end of the day-long testing process, I passed Blind Tasting, I passed Service (even though I got the dreaded Champagne service!), and ….. I didn’t pass the Written?!?!?! (?!?!?!) Ugh, instead of Certification, I’d come home with a mortal wound in my pride……..
My nerdy student heart shriveled up in agony, yelling at my stupid brain all the while for failing to perform. That devilish Ego also had to finally shut up in embarrassment. One tip for anyone else attempting the CS — the Written is very short and highly specific, with almost no multiple choice (unlike the Level I Exam). It ensures that there is little room for error, and my broad wine knowledge, while good, was sadly not in depth or nimble enough to conquer it. (Plus Australia killed me — why oh why can’t I get Australia to stick in my skull?!)
So clearly, I’d let my overconfidence and, well, arrogance trip me up (“Hey, I don’t know if you know, but I’m The Wine Retail Manager. I’m kind of a big deal around here…”). I was feelin’ a bit of road rash on my face from that fall. But though I’ve been knocked down a few deserved pegs or so, I still haven’t given up on attaining my Level II Sommelier Certification (CS baby!). I’ll even probably be a better CS for it anyways, having been humbled a bit (that’s my Ego’s story, and we’re stickin’ to it). I can’t give up on the CS dream because at the end of the day, I really, truly, and honestly love doing what I do. I became an accidental sommelier, but oddly enough, it seems to particularly suit me. I want to do the Court to prove my competence and for the satisfaction of the challenge, but I also want to do it because I want to be able to provide my customers with the very best service, abilities, and knowledge that I can acquire. There is no better feeling than meeting new people at a table, exploring a wine list together and listening to their experiences and preferences, all to help them find a bottle that they’ll love. It’s even better when I can help someone select a bottle they wouldn’t have necessarily chosen on their own. What an awesome job where part of the description is to share wine stories and make new wine friends.
Huh, maybe that’s my own definition of a sommelier right there………….
Some upcoming posts:
- Moving on and trying to move up — Job searching in the wine industry.
- Wine Tastings at Pelagia Trattoria and Datz Deli
- Recommended Wine Reads — some for knowledge, some for fun!