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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
wine bottle pouring on wine glass

Service flashpoints and how to avoid them

Smooth and unflappable, almost Bond like, being a good sommelier is an art form, based on knowledge, experience and time.

Every service and every customer is different, so you’re always having to assess situations and make decisions.

And it’s a fine line between getting it right – and creating a memorable experience for your guest – and getting it wrong.

Of course, every sommelier is different and has their own opinions and experiences. But I have selected a few examples here of tricky situations that seem to occur pretty regularly and suggested the best way of dealing with them.

These are all scenarios that I myself have been in (you probably have too) and I didn’t always get them right. So the key thing is to learn from our mistakes, and do the right thing next time. Hopefully this will save you some time!

By The Glass v By The Bottle

crop man pouring red wine in glass in restaurant
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

‘I will have one of those,’ says the guest, pointing at a glass  of Chardonnay (Meursault) from the Coravin page that is listed at £35 per 175ml. The question is, do they know that the price is for a glass, not a bottle? And, more to the point, how do you broach this matter with them without looking like you are suggesting they don’t know what they are doing or (maybe even worse) don’t look like someone who would normally be drinking wines at this price?

The best approach is to confirm their order and show them the Coravin; talking about the wine they’ve chosen and making it obvious that it is a premium GLASS of wine.

If they’ve made a mistake they’ll probably say something along the lines of ‘Oh heaven no! I was looking for a cheap bottle of wine and like Chardonnay! Thank you for letting me know’.

As you walk away a small part of you might be regretting the money you could have made. But your attitude and honest approach have just built a trusting relationship with this guest, and they may even ask you for further advice (and added sales income) when it comes to desserts.

Order Confusion

One of your colleagues – maybe not the sharpest tool in the box – has taken an order from a table. “43” he says to me. I look at the list… It’s a top wine from Margaret River priced in 3 figures. Above that on the list number 42 is a Sauvignon Blanc at a quarter of the price.  You have not sold this expensive wine for over 2 years and your heart beats fast.

The question is, do you go for the gung ho sale or do you go back and confirm with the guest, who at this time is loudly entertaining his party and clearly ready for a glass of wine?

And even if you show them the more expensive bottle, if they’re not really concentrating, they could be in for a nasty surprise when the bill arrives. They’ll leave feeling disappointed and we could have some negative comments on TripAdvisor or a complaint letter the next morning.

My approach here would be to always double check. I would quietly interrupt the table and just confirm with a wine list explaining that my colleague was ‘not sure’ which one they wanted.

Interruptions like this can be annoying for a guest – particularly if they’re in a boisterous mood – but trust me, they would be more annoyed with an expensive bill later on!

woman in black blazer holding pink and white book
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

‘I Like It So You Should Too…’

‘I would like the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc,’ says the customer. ‘But I have a new wine just come in from Greece; absolutely amazing, same price; a bit more aromatic and richer,’ you say, talking them into buying the wine. The trouble is, they don’t like it.

For me the style of communication is absolutely key here.  To gauge a guests’ individual requirements and desire can be very difficult.  Our job is to advise and guide them without being too dogmatic. Enthusiasm is fine, but at the end of the day, it’s their decision.

If you’re trying to shift them into something a bit left field that you really believe in, I’d consider letting them have a try of the wine first, and explain clearly why it will work with their food.  But remember if, at the end of the day, they want to stick with their original decision who are we to say no?

The Wine Flight That Isn’t…

‘I want the wine flight but I only drink red,’ she says.

The price of the wine flight is expensive at £130 and is mainly white.  So do you just adjust the wines to get the sale?

I have had this happen to me numerous times and I believe again communicating to the guest and being honest allows you to take control. You can perhaps give them their own “unique” wine flight, so that they won’t match the food as such, but the customer still gets the spiel and experience and tries lots of wine!

Or you could direct them into choosing a nice bottle of red that you think will go throughout the meal.

The Money Question

Asking what kind of budget a guest has and how much they want to spend on wine is one of the hardest subjects to broach.

Approaching them in a relaxed and soft manner will help prevent them feeling uncomfortable or patronised. Euphemisms such as ‘is it a celebration?’ can be a good way to break the ice.

Using words like ‘accessible’ and ‘value for money’ as opposed to ‘cheapest’ or ‘house wine’ also helps with what is a sensitive topic. Even describing a wine as ‘special’ is fraught.  After all, surely all the wines on the list are special!

The key thing here is that the guest needs to trust you and know you are trying to help them, not rinse money out of them.

There are so many things to think about when in work mode but the guest experience – and trust – should be at the heart of all of it, even if sometimes it means having to park our ego, bite or tongue or say goodbye to an easy big-money sale!

Why First Impressions Are Key to great Service

The first five minutes with any new guest are crucial. Get them right and the chances are that the rest of their meal will go perfectly too; get them wrong and it could be a struggle.

Of course, every guest is different, but there are certain key principles that we can all follow to ensure that those early encounters set up a positive environment.

First, get the non-verbals right

At the very beginning look carefully at their manners and their movements; try to understand who you are going to be dealing with. Then make eye contact and give a smile to establish a connection before stage two: show time.

It’s Show Time!

Let’s start with a positive, personalised introduction: Customers like to interact with humans, not robots. Introduce yourself clearly and make sure they understand your name and your role in the restaurant. Reassure them that you’ll take care of their table. 

Let’s continue “small”

Questions like: “how was your day so far”, “have you been here before”, “how was your weekend/vacation/summer etc” are always an effective way to open a conversation, or, if it’s honest and you feel comfortable enough, you could compliment them. Maybe about a necklace, a dress, a pair of glasses they are wearing. By praising them, you’re making them feel good about themselves, proving that you’re paying attention, and moving the focus away from you. They are at the centre of your attention, remember, so show interest.

Now for the tough part: listening and caring

Listening is the easiest way to make people appreciate you. So genuinely listen to what they are telling you about and resist the temptation to break in with personal opinions. That way you will likely win them over. Care about their needs and desires and do your best to satisfy them. 

Recommendations: your time to shine

Now that you have absorbed their insights and have a clear idea about their taste and preferences, I’d suggest targeting three different products at different price points and make sure you are able to clearly explain the differences between them. Don’t be too cocky suggesting only the product you think they will like. There is a very fine line between aggressive selling and smart selling.  

 And finally, here’s a general list of rules that I like to keep in mind for each table:

  1. Project confidence
  2. Be a chameleon, and adapt. We need to shape ourselves based on someone else’s needs and behaviours to make them feel comfortable, as if they were at home.  
  3. Do not forget to SMILE.
  4. Mind your manners. “Thank you”, “you’re welcome”, “goodbye” and “hello” never grow old.