The Sommelier Next Door
There was a time when I thought I wanted to be a Master Sommelier (pronounced suhm-uhl-yeyz). The dictionary will tell you that a Sommelier is the person in charge of wine in a restaurant, bar or club, but it is oh so much more than that. At the time, there were only a couple handfuls of Master Somms in the world, and you could count the number of females on one of those hands. Still today out of a little over 140, only one fifth are women. How cool would it be to blaze the trail for women in wine?!
What I didn't know was that to become a master, you were expected to know more than just what wine to drink with fish and which to enjoy with beef. You had to pass four rigorous courses, including a blind tasting in which you had to taste and identify the country of origin, the varietal (grape) and the year. I had tasted a lot with my French father-in-law, and was told I had a "good nose," so I figured, how hard could it be?
I joined the Guild of Sommeliers, purchased my study guide for the Level I exam and spent six months sitting at Starbucks making and studying flashcards. Level 1 does not have a tasting component and is the only level of the process where you can actually take a two-day in-person course. However, it was still highly recommended to study in advance, as even with the course, there was a decent percentage of students who fail.
"I also could immediately pick up on the superior attitude coming from the masters."
The closest I could find to take the course and exam was Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a four-five hour drive from home. I had lived in New Hampshire and worked in Portsmouth years prior and figured I'd take the opportunity to see a friend upon arrival. Nice relaxing couple of days in my old stomping grounds, or so I thought.
The classroom was in a nice hotel by the seaside. When I arrived we were introduced to the teachers - three Master Sommeliers, all men, but still, wow! Three of only a few dozen in the WORLD. So cool. What wasn't cool was all of the glasses set at each chair. Wait, what? I thought there was no tasting. I also could immediately pick up on the superior attitude coming from the masters. Ugh, I was scared and to make things worse, we had to go around the room and introduce ourselves.
Of the 40ish other people there, it seemed I was the only one doing this "for fun." I was surrounded by restaurant owners, distributers and serious collectors who all had more experience and knowledge than me. Being married to a Frenchman was not exactly a resume bullet in this room. I didn't think it could get worse.
"I think my turn stacks up there with one of the most humiliating and uncomfortable moments of my life."
While tasting was not going to be part of the exam, we tasted plenty of wines and the masters randomly selected students to identify what was on their tongue. I think my turn stacks up there with one of the most humiliating and uncomfortable moments of my life. My fellow students were snickering as I suffered my way through...questions like, "Is it old world or new world? "Would you say this wine is fruit forward?" Answers like, "Um....yes???" Gees, why so pretentious? I was suddenly not digging wine people.
At the end of the two days, my mind was jam packed. I laid in bed all night prior to the exam..."What areas of France have limestone in the soil?" "What are the seven wine faults?" "Where in the world can you get the best Sauvignon Blanc?" The morning came and I actually thought of not showing, but I paid too much money and spent too much time not to give it a try. After all, no one has to know if I fail. Right? Wrong!
When I arrived, we were told that after the 45 minute, 70-question exam, the masters would let us know how we did...in front of the entire class! A grueling hour later, one of the instructors began to read the names of those who passed, but not before informing us that not everyone was successful. I slowly started to slink toward the door. In a matter of minutes, there were only about five of us left standing and that's when I finally heard it..."Tracy Villaume!" I went up to get my certificate and pin and breathed a huge sigh of relief. I felt for the three who did not pass, but my high took me all the way home. Four hours of phone calls and thoughts about the next step...
I very quickly knew that I did not want to continue onto Level II. Too much money, too much pressure, too much time for someone who ultimately decided she just loves to drink and try new wines. However, as not to let all this new found knowledge and grueling experience go to waste, I ultimately decided to be that friend who knew a bit about wine and could make great recommendations. I also vowed to take the snob out of wine - one great bottle at a time.
You won't find me making pairings in a swanky restaurant or teaching in the big city, but I am certainly willing to share with anyone who wants to learn a thing or two (without judgement) - just think of me as your friendly neighborhood Sommelier.