For 3 days the Court of Master Sommeliers would invade PCI’s Sommelier floor. Tests are held for the various levels of Sommelier around the world throughout the year. Our test would begin with 1 1/2 days of lectures followed by a written exam for the introductory level of Sommelier. Assuming we passed we’d be allowed to return on day three for another written exam, a blind tasting of 2 wines and a service exam. If we passed all three of those tests we’d be called Certified Sommeliers.
It would not be only PCI students attending the test. People from around the country had flown in or driven to test their own knowledge against the Courts standards. I had the chance to chat with a few, most were professionals working in the restaurant industry. Some had quite a bit on the line. All of those I met left triumphant. We all tended to huddle with our study friends – the day class looking accustomed to light of day, the night class sucking down caffeine like starving vampires. If you saw a before and after picture of me here, one from the beginning of the course and the other of the first day of certification testing, it would be immediately apparent that I’d been shoved through a 17 week long keyhole lined with electric sheep sheers.
You might also notice a possible height restriction for Master Sommeliers. We would have four MS’s tag teaming lectures for the first day and a half. I would be surprised if any of them broke 5′ 6″. On the final testing day Tim Gaiser, the MS Chair of Education would forever put to rest the myth of an MS height restriction. He would also demonstrate that an MS could speak without once falling prey to MSA.
The PCI Sommelier theater was not designed to hold 40 students, but we managed. In a day and a half we logged about 8 hours of solid lecture time and 22 wines blinded tasted and argued over in class. The lectures were mostly review for PCI students highlighted with an occasional “you may want to remember this if you happen to be taking a test in the next day or so” friendly hint. As ever I was impressed with the MS’s breadth and depth of knowledge. Each speaker was able to step up to the front of the class, entertain, inform and stay relatively within their time limits. Each was a picture of professionalism. Each could argue thoughtfully over blind tasting analysis.
I managed to insult Reggie Narito, one of the MS lecturers when I derided a wine his distributor was pushing at 35$ a bottle (we’ll call the wine “Oak McOak” or “Death by Oak”). He of course would be the MS responsible for testing my champagne service. The day students availed themselves well throughout the testing process, though we all looked pretty bad when the power went out a few hours before the first test.
Campbell in August can be quite balmy. Wearing a blazer in a building in Campbell packed with people, no windows and no air circulating can quickly bring on a claustrophobia panic attack. Rolling blackouts hit the entire city midway through day two. The MS’s lecturing demonstrated their commitment to always wearing a blazer…no matter what. I managed to convince myself not to run screaming from the building. Two sweat soaked MS lectures and a few hours later the power came back on and we were ready for our first test.
I was so primed for this test I relished it. I had learned to receive my tests as gifts, thoughtfully developed by people who wanted me to grow in my knowledge. I had truly joined the cult of Herminone Granger – at least with respect to my introductory exam. The 75 multiple choice questions were exactly what we’d been prepared for. A few unknowable curve balls were dropped in to throw us off our game. Most of us finished the test in about 25 minutes. We had a 100% pass rate for the entire group. Time to go home and try to sleep before the final exams. I was amazed my eyes actually stayed closed for about five hours.
Friday morning, the last day of my Sommelier experience. Pass or fail I would be free. I tried to convince myself I didn’t care but it never rang true. I’d probably be really pissed off at myself if I failed. I could always come back and take classes and tests for free until I got my Sommelier certification – a great gift PCI offers all of its students, even the PBS charity cases like me. Unfortunately that would probably chase all the hair from my head and make moobs a permanent and rather prominent part of my figure. Not worth the price of admission. Remember – I have no idea what I’ll use this certification for. How nuts is that?
My Sommelier costume was perfect. Clean nails, shaved face, no deodorant (to interfere with the wines bouquet), extra wine key, lighter and note pad. I wasn’t worried about the blind tasting, I had paid attention and developed good deductive skills. You’re not expected to nail the wine, just analyze it capably. I felt pretty good about champagne service, though they would always throw in a few curve ball questions. I had started to worry about the written exam. It was only about 35 questions – 10 fill in the blanks the rest multiple choice. The introductory exam was a little tougher than I thought. This one could be really bad. Imagine a list of vineyards in one column, and a list of AOC’s in another column – if you can match them up correctly you’re ok, if not you fail.
I was a testing machine. If I didn’t know an answer I moved on, reserving my review time. By the time I finished I knew I’d gotten at least 60% – the required passing grade. On to the blind tasting. Throughout the day and a half of review the MS’s had been tricky in their blind tasting selections. A Pinto Gris that could have be a Sauvignon Blanc, a Bourduex from a hot year that could have been a Super Tuscan, and a New Zealand Pinot that threw everyone off their game. As David Glancey assured us, classic examples were chosen for the final testing wines…I think. You see we never know our actual test results or the wines that were used for our blind tasting. We would just learn if we’de passed or failed. I think its all part of the super-secrect superhero MS code. In the end most of us agreed we were given young wines, a French Sauvignon Blanc and a Shiraz from Australia.
I finished pretty early, this meant I’d get an early slot for the service exam. Four students would be tested at a time in 20 minute sessions. I had about an hour and half to wait. I hung out with the other early finishers. One was an out-of towner who had only planned to take the introductory exam. He hit me up for my blazer and a lighter as he had a slot before me. While I waited for him to finish with his exam I chatted with one of the first to go. He was a young vinter who was planning to move north after graduating from his program. After years of never dropping a glass as a professional waiter he had managed to drop his tray of champagne during the test. He soaked only himself and not his MS – he was convinced he had failed. It would later turn out the professionalism with which he handled the disaster had earned him his certification.
I couldn’t imagine taking this exam without having had the two PCI service tests to prepare me. Those who had no idea of what to expect were at a huge disadvantage. We were brought in and lined up. “Welcome to the bubble lounge. You’ll be providing champagne service for our guests. Each guest has a business partner seated opposite them, their wives are also joining them. You’ll be serving them from a station. First introduce yourself.” We were each assigned to our various guests, a single MS seated at an empty table in a different corner of the room. Reggie took it easy on me. He’s a smart guy with a quick mouth, I imagine he could have made me look like a fool and forget my own name. Today he stuck with the script.
I was asked to recommend a cocktail before dinner, name its ingredients and how it was made. I was then asked some fairly obscure questions about vin du naturals and … what the hell goes into a Rob Roy? I almost said the blood of Liam Nieson, but thought better of it. The campaign had a lose tin plate covering the cork, I almost lost it. The pop was too loud and I clinked once. I really wanted a perfect maidens sigh. Otherwise I managed to serve without maiming. Reggie had a hard time buying that a Paul Janin Cru Beaujolais would go well with short ribs and wasabi mashed potatoes, but I stood firm. When he asked for the New World I went for a shiraz, another missed opportunity for an upsell. What the hell, so I’m a peasant, I can live with that.
That was it, my best effort. I was done. I now had a few hours to wait until they told us whether or not we’d passed. I had visions of another 100% pass rate for our class. When PCI began their program with only a day class, all of their students passed the Introductory and Certified Sommelier exam. They hadn’t had a perfect record since then, I wanted to do my school proud. I thought I’d likely squeak by. Fellow students of mine weren’t so sure. I knew of at least 4 of us that thought they failed, I hoped they were wrong.
The program had seeped deep into my pores. I felt weightless and free, but changed. Wine and etiquette had gotten under my skin. It was still baking outside, and too early for me to hit the bars with my fellow students. I went to a local mall, got an iced tea and sat down in a bookstore. It was great to get away from the intensity of the test, and enter a world that cared nothing about wine. Hours later I returned to PCI and discovered the relief was thick in the air. Most of my classmates had found a bar not too far away, that day I think they definitely exceeded blood alcohol levels. To hear the combination of cocktails, beer, and wine consumed you wouldn’t think they had any sense of taste at all. I suspect others had medicated themselves in more creative ways. There seemed to be some difficulty amongst the MS’s in scoring our tests. They kept us waiting. Eventually we were all called into our champagne service testing room to receive our results. Apparently this would not be done in private.
Tim Gaiser stood at the center of the room with a stack of certificates. He let us know approximately 60% to 70% of us had passed, which is customary for this level of testing. There just weren’t enough interlopers to allow all of us PCI students to pass and make those percents, some of us had to have failed. Standing there beside my sweating, drunk fellow students I wondered what I would do if I failed as Tim’s stack of diplomas grew smaller and smaller and my name wasn’t called. Perhaps I should have gotten blasted as well. What would I say to my friends? There was nowhere to hide in the banquet hall – maybe I could fake drunkenness. A few students who had a lot on the line had their names called, that made the wait easier. Eventually I was called – a firm handshake, the gift of the Certified Sommelier button (my purple cape at last), some applause. I had done it. How terrifically weird. I came to this strange planet to learn about wine, practiced the customs, and ended up getting a citizenship card.
Not everyone had such a good day. Strange how my understanding that the button I had really didn’t mean that much couldn’t dissolve the wall between me and those who didn’t pass. Still I think I ran out the door first. You know what Rodney Dangerfield said, “I’d never want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.”
previous chapter: “The Break” ~ next chapter: “Epilogue”