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What I’ve learned from taking my first MS exams

With lockdown, reopenings and staffing pressures, Collective member Klearhos Kannellakis’ preparation for his first round of MS exams wasn’t ideal. He tells us what he’s learned from the experience and how he’ll bounce back stronger.

I took my Introduction and Certified exams on the same day in 2016. There was a tasting, a small practical and a questionnaire.

Two years later I took the Advanced Master Sommelier. That was a big step up. We had six wines blind instead of two, a written exam and a practical with many tables where you also had to answer questions. It’s almost like a junior Master Sommelier.

After that you have one or two years to prepare and sit for the Master Sommelier exam.

With Covid it’s not been easy to form a tasting group and being super-understaffed at work when we started again it’s not been perfect conditions either. The only plus side was that we had a lot of available time for studying the theory.

‘My mistake was that I didn’t have the right plans to prepare myself. It wasn’t lack of time that was the problem.’

Here’s what I’ve learned, and how I’d prepare differently next time.

The Theory

The exam is an oral exam, designed to replicate talking to a customer, it’s not a written exam paper. Someone asks you and you have to answer straight away. I found this hard.

Imagine being in a room for an hour, getting approximately 100 questions from two examiners – you have around 45 seconds to answer questions from anywhere on the planet. One question could be France, the next could be sake, then New Zealand. And you either know it or you don’t. You can’t go back to it later on.

Preparing flash cards and studying books, publications and websites are all vital in preparing for the exam. But so too is the verbal aspect of it. It’s important to team up with someone and ask questions face to face about the subjects you have studied and I didn’t do this.

The other mistake was that I tested myself by learning whole sections and testing myself on them. So doing all of Italy at once, say. But I needed to mix countries because that’s more difficult.

It’s important to mix up your flash cards

Covid and then reopenings meant that I didn’t have a mentor towards the end. That was another mistake. Having someone who’s been through this before can really help tell you what the examiners are looking for.

I prepared things I thought were important, but it’s probably twice the effort of doing the Advanced. The detail you need for every part of the world is really tough. In Tuscany, for instance, you don’t just need to know the 11 DOCGs and the permitted grapes, you need to know what a producer can call his wine if he doesn’t follow the laws. It gets more complicated.

You need to get 75% to pass, and I was far away from that.

For theory you need to learn a lot of information about a lot of places, such as all the Washington State AVAs

The Practical

In the practical there are four tables, each requiring different skills that I believe can change slightly from year to year.

In my exam, the first table had three wines from one region to identify and I had to do a ten-minute presentation – like staff training – on that region. It’s to show that you understand a region and can communicate it before service: climate, grapes, soils, appellations, food-pairing and so on.

How not to pass the ‘opening sparkling wine’ section of the practical paper… pic: Frank van Mierlo, Wikimedia Commons

The next table was serving sparkling wine and they ask you questions about it. It’s not just champagne. You need to know every style of sparkling and all the trends. In fact, that’s a key part of the MS – they really want you to be up to date with everything that’s happening around the world. Who’s buying land, new laws, new labels etc.

The third table was decanting a red wine, and there were questions about the specific wine I was serving: different vintages, which ones I’d recommend, whether I’d decant it or not – and then questions about the region, including other producers from that particular area.

They asked about pairing it with the local cuisine, but I didn’t know any local dishes from that region so that was my worst table in the practical. I scored highly on all the others.

The final table was to do with the business side of things. We had ten minutes to do three different tasks calculating staff wages, working out costs and breakages for stemware, and calculating cost and selling prices – GPs.

I was close to passing this section, and I really like that in the practical paper you have to describe and understand regions; I just maybe needed to be a bit more structured and systematic in my approach. Maybe I’ll create a template that I can use to answer questions whatever the subject, so I make sure I cover it all and don’t miss anything.

The Tasting

Everyone knows the tasting paper is hard. You have to get a score of 75% for the whole tasting. So you can’t make too many errors with this. The structure – alcohol, acidity, tannin, fruit descriptors, winemaking influences, climate and of course grape variety must be very accurate.

Out of the nearly 30 candidates this year, nobody passed the tasting paper – probably because it’s been a crazy year – people closed, open, changing jobs, reopening restaurants with fewer staff. It’s been hard for everybody, but we’ll probably all do better next year.

My problem was that I didn’t have somebody giving me feedback – I was just tasting blind by myself. My girlfriend would pour the wines for me and I would try them and describe them, but I didn’t have any feedback. You need a group or a mentor to talk to about the wines with. With Zoom and Skype I will now look at networking with other sommeliers and colleagues.

Tasting with other somms is essential

Some grapes have many different styles – like Grüner Veltliner which can be light and high acid or full-bodied and botrytised. So you need to be familiar with all of the different styles, all the different areas (Wachau, Kamptal, Kremstal, etc.) and the characters of the vintages, too.

The key is to be really focused on training your palate consistently for the whole year before the exam: trying similar styles next to each other – not blind – to understand the differences. Get that deeper level of familiarity and working on the mental preparation. Once you have a structured approach decided you are less likely to be stressed.

This year’s examiners – a terrifying bunch!

I think the real purpose of the exam is to achieve ‘mastery’ in each region, country, style of wine. This can’t be achieved by just learning lists but an overall understanding of history, climate, geology and geography, localised winemaking styles and the best producers and vintages.

You have to be able to speak confidently about all of the above, to truly understand how all these factors influence how the wine tastes. All while confidently decanting a bottle of wine with a nice smile!

Overall, I’m disappointed that I didn’t pass any of the papers – even if I was really close on one of them. But you learn and you come back stronger, and through the whole process – pass or fail – you become better.

With another year of studying, concentrating on my tasting, perfecting my service techniques, it can only make me better at my profession as a sommelier.

The tasting paper is notoriously tough and needs a LOT of practice

‘I’ve been in hospitality since the age of twelve…’

Having been introduced to wine through his father’s cellar – nosing wines and trying to guess the vintages – Jan van Heesvelde knew from an early age that hospitality was the career for him. And he has pursued that goal with single-minded dedication ever since – as the surprised winemaker at Chateau Rayas found out!

You actually started to study hospitality at secondary school didn’t you?

When I was 12-18 years old I went to the Culinary Arts School in Bruges. I wanted to be a chef at first, and in the first three years you do chef, bakery and butchery. Then I did chef and restaurant manager for three years. After that I specialised as a sommelier. So I’ve been in hospitality since the age of 12.

But you weren’t instantly attracted to service…

In the fourth year of school – aged 16 – I hated waiting on people. Especially at school where it’s for your friends and it’s like a big performance, which you obviously don’t like because they’re trying to play jokes on you. But after a while wine just took over from the chef side – it just felt more interesting, and I had a bit of a vibe for it. I’m very lucky. I’m determined, and I knew where I wanted to go from an early age.

Have you always taken drink seriously?

When I was going out with my friends [as a student] we would all have a 10 Euro allowance for the night. They would buy 24 beers for E0.50; I would buy four for E2.50 apiece because I’d rather have four good beers than 20 lesser ones. My dad always told me, if you can buy smaller quantities but good value, then do it. That’s something I always live by.

You seem incredibly focused. Have you made any wrong decisions?

I graduated from school winning ‘best junior sommelier of Belgium’ in 2014. It’s a competition held between the hospitality schools in Belgium. I thought ‘well, I have a plan B, so let’s try university’, and went to study Business Management, which was very fashionable at that time. It was the worst decision of my life. The first six months were amazing – I passed all my courses. The second part – disaster. I had to resit everything. I did one more term, and then said ‘that’s enough’. It did teach me one thing, though. ‘Don’t do anything you don’t like…’

So you went back into hospitality?

I worked for two years at Tafeltje Rond in Belgium, then decided to work abroad. I was talking to restaurants in Scotland, Portland and LA before Hide offered me a job. I came to London in September 2018.

Hide. That’s quite some wine list…

I tasted things there that I would never have tasted in a lifetime in Belgium, opening a bottle, having a small taste and sharing it with the team. I don’t think anywhere has a list as crazy as Hide.

So what was the attraction of L’Enclume?

At L’Enclume [in Cumbria] we’re about breaking the rules for service. Everyone does everything. Everyone is in at ten in the morning, from commis to the restaurant manager, and everyone leaves at the same time. Everyone works together, and no-one is afraid of doing any job: folding napkins, mopping the floor, cleaning things – there are ranks without there being ranks. I’d never have expected it for a two-star Michelin. It’s an amazing vibe. We’re like a nest of ants running all together, but moving gracefully like swans. I definitely got more attracted to service there.

Have you managed to keep your wine education going?

I passed the Court of Master Sommeliers Advanced level in February just before lockdown. I always knew I wanted to become a MS, and it’s something I’ve been pursuing for quite a few years now.

How do you fit studying around the work?

We’re four days on, three days off – and Monday is always free – so there’s plenty of time to study. You can put time in after and before service, too. When my friend Davide Dall’Amico and I were going for the Advanced, we both had flash cards on us, and we’d test each other before service. You need to be creative with your time.

Which do you think will be the toughest bit of the MS – theory or tasting?

It’s a comprehensive exam and everything is hard! Right now I’m taking a break from studying after the Advanced, to go for the Best Belgian Sommelier competition in October. It’s not about lines on the CV, it’s about representing your country and showing your best at the highest level.

Do you have a favourite wine style?

As long as it’s good and drinkable, I’m fine. I like everything from old Shiraz from Australia to the most natural wines from Friuli. Lately, though, I’m most into Chenin Blanc. There’s plenty of young producers in Swartland making amazing old-vine Chenins. From the Loire, the one I still love the most is Le Clos de la Meslerie Vouvray, made by Peter Hahn. The 2014 is my go-to Chenin at the moment.

Do you have a favourite visit?

Chateau Rayas in Chateauneuf du Pape. I didn’t even really know what it was. I know now, but I didn’t then, that it’s one of the best producers in the appellation, at a very high price point – and very difficult to get in. I just knocked on the winemaker’s door and he said ‘come back on Friday, there’s some Germans coming in’. I think it was the most epic tasting because I had literally no clue – I’d never tried a Rayas. And it was incredible.

What are you hoping to gain from being part of the Sommelier Collective?

To become a better sommelier, in terms of knowledge, building a network and – the most important part – help each other to make a strong sommelier profession.

Find the wines

Clos de la Meslerie is imported by Dynamic Vines

Chateau Rayas is imported by O W Loeb

‘You have to have passion…’

The professional journey in hospitality is rarely straightforward. You can begin as a sommelier and end up running a hotel, or start by pulling corks and polishing glasses, and end up as a world-beating bartender.

Take Giovanni Ferlito.

It might be hard to believe, but the current head of wine and beverages at the Ritz Hotel began as a bartender at the Hard Rock Café in his home town of Catania. His main influence was not Gerard Basset or Paolo Basso, but Tom Cruise in Cocktail.

The Sommelier Collective caught up with him to find out how he got to where he is now, and who and what has inspired him on his amazing journey.

You said you came into wine ‘sideways’ – tell us a bit about your journey

After Hard Rock Café I worked for a big Italian resort company, Valtur. That job took me all over the world and I made my way up to Bar Manager, then F&B Manager. It was an opportunity to understand the whole hospitality operation, to know a bit of everything about costs and leadership.

When did you come to the UK?

In 2010. I planned to continue as an F&B Manager, but the problem was that my English at the time meant that I wasn’t even able to do an interview! It was really, really poor.

So you started to study, I guess?

Yes. I would have taken any job just to pay my studies. I knew a lot about hospitality, spirits and cocktails, and I’d taken a few wine courses, but I wasn’t a real professional sommelier. I sent out a few applications, and got a call from Locanda Locatelli. Virgilio Gennaro was the head sommelier, but it was really funny. He did the interview in English, even though we were from the same part of Italy. He really wanted to put some pressure on me, to see my potential.

And was that what lit the wine spark for you?

It was my first experience as a sommelier, but I wasn’t yet sure that it was going to be my new career. I was just learning something new. It’s Virgilio’s fault that I’m in wine. He was so passionate about it, and he transferred that passion into me.

Where did you go from there?

To Hélène Darroze at the Connaught. I found another passionate wine lover with great charisma as my boss: Hugues Lepin. And I though that’s the person I want to work with – I want to learn everything from him. Then it was clear that I wanted to do wine.’

Do you think qualifications are an essential part of wine education?

It depends. It’s important to take courses, but something that is non-negotiable is that you have to have passion. You might have the knowledge, but if you don’t have the passion you won’t be able to share it with your guests. Hugues Lepin, for instance, has no qualifications at all. But if you speak to him he knows the producers, the soils, the stories, everything. You can learn more from someone like him than taking WSET Level 3. For someone at my level you’d probably already expect that I am a Master Sommelier or have a Diploma, but in fact I started my Diploma last year.

How do you go about working with your suppliers?

I’m a big fan of building the relationship with the suppliers, rather than just looking at pure contract. My job would be much easier if I just worked with ten suppliers, signing contracts based on retros and volumes, but it would lack dynamism and uniqueness. With wine we have 20 main suppliers, and we work with another 15. I’m more interested in the story behind each product than the retro stock they might be offering.

What do you love most about the job?

The variety. It’s like being an entrepreneur – I need to do a bit of everything. I need to be on the floor, but there’s a lot of work to do behind the scenes too. I’m lucky to have a strong team – I couldn’t do this on my own. I delegate a lot.

What are your favourite wine styles?

In general I’m interested in the expression of the terroir, and I like diversity. I prefer wines made with indigenous varieties – a Nero di Troia from Puglia, for instance, or a Lacrima di Morro d’Alba from the Marche. And I love Germany. I really appreciate Riesling.

And what excites you about being part of The Sommelier Collective?

I’m looking forward to sharing my knowledge and transferring my passion to youngsters in the hospitality industry – and to be able to talk to my peers. There’s nothing else in our industry that brings all the sommeliers under one roof.

Contact Giovanni or view member profile.