Level 1 Sommelier Seminar

I did it! I passed my Level 1 Sommelier exam. Here’s my experience.

First off, I’m not in the hospitality industry. I’ve never worked in a restaurant (not even a Burger King), a bar, or anything even close to that. The last retail job I had was at Barnes & Noble in college between semesters. So why did I decide to do this? It’s something I’ve always found interesting, and wanted to expand my knowledge of wine and service. You don’t have to work in a restaurant to attend the seminar and take the exam. I met people who worked at wineries, as sales reps, and an executive chef.

Here’s what happened. I decided to take the class in Laguna Beach even though I live in Sacramento. Seminars are given in the Bay Area and San Francisco. I chose to go the Laguna Beach where I could fly for cheap and stay with friends. The seminar was at the very swanky Montage Resort and Hotel. I heard a rumor that there was a discount for those of us taking the exam, but this was never confirmed.

When I walked in, I found a spot in the middle of the room at the end of a table, where I had room for my bag, which contained my laptop. Yes, the bag was huge. No, I don’t plan on carrying a smaller one. The room was set up seminar style, with long tables making rows. There were four people to a table, with about 100 people in attendance. Some woked for the Montage and a handful of attendees were taking the Certified test right after we were done with Level 1.

After turning in the exam, we quietly left the room and grabbed a cocktail at the upstairs lounge! Then we all returned and entered the room, grabbed a glass of bubbles and sat back down. They then started calling the names of the people who had passed, giving out pins and certificate of successful completion. They wait until the very end to announce those with the highest score. No mention is made if you didn’t pass.

If you’re taking Level 1 and freaking out – don’t. Here’s what I learned.

  1. The instructors are absolutely amazing, the Masters teaching the seminar were Brian McClintick, one of the Master Sommelier candidates featured in the movie Somm, Peter Neptune, also featured in the film and owner of the Neptune School of Wine, Tim Gaiser, and Thomas Burke. They were extremely approachable and I anticipate running into them again… hopefully!
  2. The second you receive your registration confirmation, open the workbook. These slides are what they’ll be going over during the seminar. Be aware of the contents while you…
  3. …read The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil and Windows on the World Complete Wine Course by Kevin Zraly. Highlight and take notes.
  4. Flash cards, flash cards, flash cards. I used the workbook as basis for my flashcards.
  5. The material is covered at a break neck speed. If you are going into this with little to no experience, you won’t pass. You also won’t learn much. This is a survey course. The Masters run through an incredible amount of slides and don’t spend a whole lot of time on any one of them to go into them in depth. You are expected to have this knowledge going in.
  6. Talk to your fellow students. Network, chat, and keep in touch. If you are planning on taking the Certified exam, it will be advantageous to have them as study buddies.
  7. Know that you don’t know everything. You’re not supposed to….
  8. There are blind tastings. They are prepping you for the Certified Exam, so you will be doing tastings (at 8 in the morning on the second day!) and standing up to talk about elements of the wine using the Court’s tasting grid. Don’t worry if you screw up the tasting and say it’s a Pinot Noir when it’s a Cab Sauv. It’s not a big deal. You’ll be helped down the road.
  9. Eat breakfast. There is no breakfast served, so be sure to have something. There is a quick break for lunch, but be prepared for two long (fun) days.
  10. Questions include things like: What is the soil in Mosel? Where are the Apennines? Which bank will you find Margaux? Which grape has the most tannin? Which of these is a First Growth?
  11. It’s a multiple choice exam. Use the process of elimination if you have nothing else. If you narrow it down to two, you have a fifty-fifty change of getting it right.

What’s next for me? In anticipation of taking the Certified exam at some time, I’ll be taking service and tasting workshops at the Napa Valley Wine Academy (where I’ll get to see Tim Gaiser again!), go through some of the WSET (Wine Spirits Education Trust) track (choosing to do this because it’s guided study), and finally a bartending class (I found one on Groupon). I’m hoping that with all these, plus lots of tasting practice, I’ll be able to make it through the Certified exam! (You need to take it within three years of passing Level 1, or else you have to retake the Intro seminar and exam.)

Good luck to us all!