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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

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