Viewed from the outside, sommelierhood always seemed to me like a high-fenced country club—snobby, exclusive, and yet as hopelessly alluring as the Groucho Marx aphorism promised. I was a sometime food writer and full-time wine lover, and the studied rituals (the dainty stem pinch, the little swirl, the deep sniff) and the pretentious adjectives (“chewy,” “herbaceous”) seemed to me like Skull and Bones with a buzz.
So, late in 2000, I decided to try to gain admission. Formal wine training generally falls into three camps. First, the horny amateurs, who show up at functions thrown by the Wine Brats or Fun With Wine in search of Mr. or Ms. Right (or, after a few too many glasses, Mr. or Ms. Right Now). Then, the rich amateurs, who have more money than time, and take one of any number of intensive courses that convey just enough information to impress friends. Both accomplish their goals, but neither gets you into The Club.
The only route for me was professional certification. Technically, sommelier is a just job title, like welder or garbage hauler; anyone can call herself a sommelier and many do. But becoming a certified sommelier requires a class and a test. And the doors to the highest levels of sommelierdom are even more firmly gated: To become a Master of Wine or a Master Sommelier, you need to be invited just to take the famously rigorous curriculum and tests. But basic sommelier certification remains open to anyone with six months to kill and $800 or $900 to blow.
Two organizations certify sommeliers in the United States. The original group, the Sommelier Society of America (SSA), started as a union in 1954 when the wine captains at Manhattan’s haughty 21 Club didn’t feel they were treated as well as the waiters, and has evolved through the decades into a New-York-based education and accreditation body. Then, three years ago, came the Great Schism—a group of nationally ambitious renegades started the American Sommelier Association (ASA). Now these groups battle like two alphabet-soup boxing federations, each determined to prove that its belt-holder is indeed the true and worthy heavyweight champ.
The SSA boasts about its rotating lecturers, the ASA about its weekly quizzes, but as the limited anagram combos suggest, there’s not much difference—each mixes lectures with tastings and lasts about 20 weeks, covering a different wine region each week. The competition keeps both vigilant about their certification parameters. The courses are thorough, with mandatory attendance and vast readings, and the tests are ridiculously hard. For both organizations, roughly one-third of those who take the class don’t even bother taking the test, and then half of those who do fail it—a winnowing process that keeps the fraternity small and the accreditation valuable.
My choice was easy. The traditional SSA had an opening, and its course started almost immediately. That’s how I found myself in the appropriately clubby saloon area of the classic Oyster Bar, tucked neatly in the basement of Grand Central Station, as eager as a 14-year-old on his first day in high school.
High school is a pretty apt description, except that here the teachers pour you booze instead of confiscating it. Gazing about at my 40 or so classmates, it didn’t take long to see the cliques emerge. The trade professionals were the jocks—confident, pack-oriented (wholesalers, distributors, and others often send entire teams in for training), and full of the ease that comes with not personally paying or particularly wanting to be there. The waiters were the nerds—working stiffs diligently trying to move another notch up the restaurant industry ladder. Next came the foreigners—like the exchange students at your high school, they were a bit aloof, smoked in the hallway, and took exception whenever their country’s reputation came up.
I was the odd duck, a journalist who fit into none of these categories. The class loner. Which was fine, because it was hard enough to drink wine at 9 a.m., much less kibbitz. The restaurant-friendly start time was supposedly a great hour to taste, since our tongues begin each day relatively uncorrupted. This is also how I learned to appreciate spitting. Previously, spitting had represented to me everything wrong with wine snobs. Tipsiness, after all, is part of drinking wine. But given that nothing kills a day quicker than a midmorning buzz, I began filling water glasses with my own version of rosé.
It was a shame because we tasted some beautiful wines. A $60 Napa cabernet. A $65 Bordeaux Sauternes. An $85 Burgundy Corton Grand Cru. Up to 10 per class, all donated by vintners or importers trying to wow these future beverage directors. The one day that spitting was not allowed was when Claudine Pepin, daughter of Jacques, drilled us in food and wine pairing, resulting in both the most social class of the year and the least productive Tuesday I’ve ever had.
Guest lecturers like Pepin were fairly common. Richard Dean, the Mark’s master sommelier, taught German wines, his specialty. Jordan Ross, a noted barrel expert, lectured on “cooperage” day. Jeffrey Goldenstein, a former SSA student made good, who started New York’s Rhone wine bar, came back to his enological alma mater to discuss that region.
By the end of the semester, however, even the best lecturers were struggling to keep the class engaged. Like in high school, everyone was focused on the impending test. For many, passing meant a new career. For me, it was all ego. Vouching that you attended some six-month wine course gets you laughed at by the wine fraternity; a certified sommelier degree gets you in.
So, I crammed my ass off. For a week, I cloistered myself in my apartment, distilling each region of the world into its most essential components. It wasn’t enough. As with history, you could study wine forever and still not know everything. The test itself was a cruel exercise—for instance, the multiple-choice section allowed multiple answers and no partial credit.
Example: Which of the following wine label descriptions would likely indicate the presence of grenache? 1) Chateauneuf-du-Pape; 2) Pomerol; 3) Gevrey-Chambertin; 4) Mosel-Saar-Ruwer; 5) Somontano. Well, Chateauneuf-du-Pape hails from the southern Rhone, where grenache is a dominant grape, while Pomerol and Gevrey-Chambertin are areas in grenache-free Bordeaux and Burgundy, respectively. Mosel-Saar-Ruwer is a throwaway—not much grenache in Germany. But what to make of No. 5? It sounds ever so vaguely Spanish, and Spain has lots of garnacha, its version of grenache. But it also could be Italian. Either way, I’ve never heard of it. So, what to do? Take the safe 1 or roll the dice and go with 1 and 5.
The clock was ticking toward the two-hour limit, and I hadn’t even gotten to the blind tasting, another gut-punch. Three wines sat there, demanding to be identified by dominant grape type and country. There are entire tournaments devoted to blind tastings, and sommeliers who emerge triumphant rightfully prance around like the biggest cock on the walk. But for us, the thought that we might (correctly) identify the asparagus hints of a New Zealand sauvignon blanc over American or Bordeaux versions bordered on the absurd.
After the test, the mood outside the Oyster Bar was glum. I was sure I failed. Then again, so was everyone in the class. Thus, it was to my great surprise that, a month later, a perfectly caligraphized diploma arrived at my door.
So, now I have the pedigree. Has my life changed? Maybe a bit. There are some benefits of being a sommelier. At bad restaurants, when a bungling waiter (and when it comes to wine, they’re almost all bungling) brings the wrong bottle, I can confidently shoot down the invariable B.S. explanation. At good restaurants, the sommelier will cut to the chase: This is what you should order.
With a discerning eye, I now drink better without spending any more money. All my pals let me order the wine, and because I picked it, they think it’s better than it probably is. And my family now has an easy time buying me gifts. Sometimes, I detect a sommelier-to-sommelier wink, as if we’re two Swedish speakers coincidentally meeting up in the Andes. That said, I haven’t been invited to any secret meetings, taught any new handshakes, or given any fabulous new friends. Maybe it’s because I still act like an interloper. I’ll never be able to utter the word “jammy” with a straight face. But now I know what it means.