This month marks one year since I passed the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) Certified Sommelier Exam in Houston, TX. It was one of my proudest moments! I will always remember the exhilaration, validation and vindication I felt when they called my name. Another thing I’ll never forget is how that entire day wore me out—from the travel to the over thinking. Wine friends, I never second guessed myself so much. I was in my head and in my feelings in ways I didn’t even know were possible.
A Look into my Journey and Decision for Taking the Exam
I went back and forth with the idea of pursuing Certified Sommelier after passing the Introductory course in 2017 as I was simultaneously pursuing WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust). Part of my reluctance stemmed from the fact that I was no longer “on the floor” (“on the floor” is an industry term that references working service in a restaurant). Being completely transparent, the real reluctance came from the fact that I was completely and utterly terrified of the process of preparing for the exam. The process included putting myself out there in front of my colleagues and getting past the story I had drummed up in my head. The story of being laughed at when I missed a call and blundered at Blind Tasting Practice. This same story convinced me that my colleagues would question my CMS pursuits, despite already having an Advanced and Master Sommelier encourage me to do so. I agonized about their snickers behind closed doors when I struggled while practicing Service since I hadn’t worked on the floor in about 10 years. All those pieces of that little story grew into an entire novel in my head, and as a result I tried to study covertly, with the idea that I would surprise everyone when I got to the other side.
Well…I was completely wrong, and it backfired on me in the worst way when I went to Raleigh, NC to take the exam for the first time. While I passed Theory and Blind Tasting, I missed on Service (the part of the exam I was the most concerned about). I was devastated, I cried and endured a LONG flight home. Then to add insult to injury, I had to wait 90 Days before I could retake the ENTIRE exam (unlike WSET 3 where you only retake the section of the exam you missed).
The Breakdown: CMS Certified Sommelier Exam
So, what does the exam consist of? What about this exam could trigger my anxiety an entire year later? Well, for starters, it has a first time pass rate of 60%. Yes, you read that correctly. In addition, there are three parts, and if you miss one, you have to take it alllll over again. The three sections are Blind Tasting, Theory and Service. I was confident on Theory because of my WSET studies. Level 3 prepared me to know enough to pass. However, if you’re not currently studying WSET 3, there is a list of study resources provided. The Blind Tasting portion consists of two white and two red wines. Passing this portion is all practice. In my opinion, in addition to practicing at home, you HAVE to join a tasting group (or two) that focuses on the CMS Certified testable wines and CMS verbiage. There are notable differences in WSET & CMS Tasting notes, and they are not all interchangeable. Unless you currently work or have worked in a restaurant setting (contingent on how long ago it was), Service can be the most challenging. Envision executing the proper steps of service like always approaching and serving guests on the right side, pfft’ing open a bottle of sparkling wine, knowing the order to serve the guests and pouring correctly, to name a few. All of this is happening while a Master Sommelier is grilling you about old world vs new world wine (you need to know producers and vintages) and food pairings, classic cocktails, spirits, beer, and notable producers from specific wine regions. It’s MADDENING!
Cheers to Your Village and Life Lessons
While this might sound crazy at this point, I’m sharing this information and my experience to prepare you, not scare you. My experience shows that it will take a village to help you get on the other side of the CMS Certified Sommelier exam. When I finally did away with that nagging novel in my head about how my colleagues were laughing at and judging me, I found a wine community that was more than willing to help me. They welcomed me with open arms! You have to get out of your own way. This was a lesson that helped me in other areas of my life as well. You’ll fumble at Blind Tasting practice. You’ll fumble while practicing Service. You’ll fumble on practice Theory exams. But, it’s better to fumble while practicing than on the day of the exam. Turning those fumbles into teachable moments will prove to be invaluable on the big day.
On your big exam day, remember to take a deep breath, and feel confident in the work you put in to prepare. If the big day is not your day, as much as you feel disappointed, own the fact that you set out to do what most are too scared to try. Take the experience and use it to prepare for the next go round. If I can do it, so can you!
I hope you found my perspective helpful on your wine journey. If you decide this is the route for you, I look forward to sharing a Cheers (virtual or literal) with you when your name is called!