I am constantly being asked for tips to prepare for the Court of Master Sommeliers’ exams. Everyone is terrified by the blind tasting exams, and the studying required to pass any level of theory exams is also daunting. Those who have worked in restaurants for years often take the service exams for granted. For people who do not work in service this is the scariest portion. Either way there is an overall preoccupation with the urban legends of tricks and torment dished out during service exams. I’m here to tell you that the exams provide real world scenarios but pale in comparison to the worst I have seen.
The Court of Master Sommeliers has four levels of exams: Introductory, Certified, Advanced and Master. Introductory only tests theory while the last three levels test tasting and service, as well. Certified service is very straightforward. Candidates have 12 minutes to either open sparkling wine or decant red wine, carry a tray of wine glasses and chat about food and wine with their guests (examiners). In the Advanced and Master service exams sparkling wine, decanting, table set up, free pouring, wine list proofreading, spirits nosing and challenging situations come up in about 45 minutes of rotation between service stations.
So back to the real question, “How do I pass service?” First step is to learn the fundamentals of service. If you already work in restaurants you may need to un-learn some bad habits. Review and know the Court of Master Sommeliers’ Service Standards inside and out. Also, watch the Champagne Service Video and Decanting Video by the Guild of Sommeliers and practice, practice, practice. Now let’s really tie this to the real world and ask ourselves what a restaurant customer is looking for. Other than bringing them what they order in a timely manner, they may have questions about the food and wine. No matter how much the customer knows about food and wine, the server and sommelier should know more about the food and wine in their restaurant. The good and bad of the service exams is that the menu and wine list are imaginary. At some point the Masters will say they are eating such and such and what wine would you recommend. You can sell them any wine ever made anywhere in the world. There is no price limit and nothing is out of stock. At the Advanced and Master exams, the Masters will limit your playing field in ways you might not anticipate, such as your wine list is only Southern Italy, so theory comes into play. The last thing customers might want, and service candidates often forget, is a warm, welcoming smile. It is critical to try to control your nerves. Lots of service practice helps. Remembering that you are unlikely to die during service and thus can always take it again also gives you proper perspective. Yoga, exercise, sufficient sleep and perhaps one shot of whiskey might round out your stress management.
Okay, I didn’t mean to scare anyone away from the exams. How can the real world be worse than a Master Sommelier rejecting your first two suggestions and asking for a third Austrian wine? In restaurants I have had a customer threaten to kill me for something a waiter said to them, two waiters get in a fist fight in the dining room, power failures, guests walking out on their check, rejecting a zinfandel because it was red instead of pink, refusing to believe their duck was a duck, trying to steal a painting from the wall, clogged toilets, drunk and disorderly guests and even a robbery. Give me the exam any day!
What is your worst service nightmare, either from exams or the real world? Do you have any tips for test-takers?