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Posted: Tuesday, 23 July 2013 17:21

Easier to be a ‘Somm’ than a Master Sommelier

July 23: While every Indian after passing the one-day WSET-level 1 likes to claim to be a Certified Sommelier, the ultimate wine challenge globally is to be a Master by becoming a member of the UK-based Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) which is so difficult to enter that during the recent exam held in Dallas by the US Chapter, only 1 student passed out of 70. With only 202 of these ‘Somm’ - Master Sommeliers in the world, it is even more challenging than the extremely difficult Master of Wine, writes Subhash Arora

It is difficult to say whether the number of students aspiring to become a Master Sommelier increased after hearing about the movie ‘Somm’ or watching it when released on June 21, 2013 at the Seattle Film Festival, but only one person could clear the Exam out of 70 appearing in Dallas, Texas recently, making it even tougher than Master of Wine which is one of the most coveted titles for wine professionals. It is easier watching the movie and calling oneself ‘Somm’ rather than years of misery to be called a ‘Master’ on the completion of the Master Sommelier exam.

The movie ‘Somm’ is about the efforts of a handful of young American wine connoisseurs who set out to earn the title of Master Sommelier, a Herculean feat that requires advanced degrees in wine theory, history, geography, service and, most crucially, tasting - all the factors which the movie examines in crisp and quaffable style. The movie is going to make the programme much more popular and its success and spillover effect on the wine education might be on the lines of ‘Sideways’.

The Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) was established to encourage improved standards of beverage service, particularly wine, in hotels and restaurants. The first Master Sommeliers examination was held in the United Kingdom in 1969. By April 1977, the Court of Master Sommeliers was established as an international examining body for sommeliers. It was set up under the supervision of the Vintners Company, The Institute of Masters of Wine, The British Hotels & Restaurants Association, The Wine & Spirit Association of Great Britain and The Wholesale Tobacco Trade Association.

Kenny Koda, who has taken the exam every year since 2006, noticed what he calls, a ‘change in regimen’, according to Decanter.  ‘There used to be a bank of questions, and as those got passed around the test became predictable.' Now, he says that the candidates are expected to show that they can not only memorize things by rote but also be able to explain why the wines from certain regions taste the way they do.

Shayn Bjornholm, the examination director for the American chapter of the CMS, said; ‘Certainly, it is getting more and more difficult, but not because we are trying to make it more difficult.’ He points to a combination of a rapidly evolving wine world and more of the younger experts entering the field than ever before; adding ‘We have the same standards but the whole world is blowing up.’ He says the recent result of only one examinee passing has given the Court ‘no pause whatsoever.’ He adds ‘We think the questions are fair. They are difficult, but we are happy with the level of difficulty we have established.’

The pass rate fluctuates year to year, hovering around 10% between 2001 and 2013. In 2005, 26% of candidates passed, but in 2010, only 3 passed out of 84! In the four decades since the first exam, 202 candidates have earned the MS pin so far. Incidentally, Chicago-based Master Alpana Singh is the youngest woman ever to achieve the rank of Master Sommelier in 2003. She is the first Indo - American, born to Indian Fiji parents who cleared the exam and is now a well-known consultant and a TV star.

If you don’t mind being a cheat (we don’t expect our readers to be in this category) or believe that the Port from Goa is the same as the Port in Portugal, you could pick up the Certificate from a hotel management school Scuola Alma Cucina in Parma Italy until the CMS is successful in getting the suitable legal remedy. (Details are on the CMS website).

The other option is to watch the movie ‘Somm’ and sweat it out to see if you are able to get the real certification done. It might be slightly, only slightly easier to clear the Master of Wine programme which has had 304 people qualify so far, with more women clearing it than men in 2011 and 2012. For more information and faqs on Masters of Wine Programme, visit or better visit an article written in February 2010 when there were 270 MWs, by our columnist John Salvi MW, one of the most senior members of the Institute of Masters of Wine.

It sounds a herculean task to pass either of the two programmes-certainly the highest certification possible. But Gerard Basset, whom I had met at Vinisud in France last year and reported in delWine,  did both and then some! He is not only an MS, MW and MBA but has also been the World’s Best Sommelier and not surprisingly, was knighted by the Queen with an OBE, being a French National now settled in England. Quite easily the benchmark you might want to set for yourself, if the ultimate wine qualification is your goal.

Subhash Arora

The article has been written as a service to further the education and knowledge  standards and motivate a few wine aficionados to aspire for a MS or MW program or at any rate make them aspire to get the Advanced Diplomas of either of the Institutes that govern these programs. Editor

Tags: Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), Master Sommelier, Somm, Sideways, Kenny Koda, Alpana Singh, Scuola Alma Cucina, Master of Wine, Gerard Basset, World’s Best Sommelier



Subhash Arora Says:

Thank you Brian for your comments. Coming from the CEO of such a prestigious insitute, I feel honoured. I take it as a compliment that you found the article to be excellent and in most respects an accurate commentary on the Court of Master Sommeliers and its MS Diploma. Being a holder of an MBA and an MS degree holder of another kind (Master of Science in Industrial Engineering from the University of Minnesota, USA) I respect and uphold the high traditions of such a title. Regarding Master Alpana Singh MS, I would like to clarify that I mentioned she was the youngest WOMAN to have received the MS. I had got this info from Wikipedia which says, and I quote 'In 2003, she passed the final exam to become the youngest woman ever to achieve the rank of Master Sommelier.' Indian Wine Academy prides to catalyse the wine culture in India and in fact the world, through education at several levels-none of which are formal, at least so far. But we have counselled several youngsters who have gone on to Adelaide, UC DAvis, Bordeaux and advised many to pursue the tough goals of MW or MS or at least pursue the Advanced certificates whenever we find them suitable. Regards, Subhash Arora. President -Indian Wine Academy

Posted @ June 25, 2013 15:41


Brian Julyan Says:

Dear Sir I read your article on the Court of Master Sommeliers with interest and would like my comment to be added to your excellent article. In most respects this artical is an accurate commentary on the Court of Master Sommeliers and its MS Diploma but I would like to add one or two comments. One fact which is incorrect is that Xavier Rousset who passed in 2002 was the youngest person to pass the Master Sommelier Diploma, not Alpana Singh. Additional information is that out of 23 candidates who sat the MS exams in London 2012, none passed, but a number passed one or two parts as was the case in Dallas. Candidates have three years to pass the three papers before starting over again. As has been stated the pass rate fluctuates from exam to exam, partly due to candidates having one, two or three papers to complete, so one exam may have zero passes, the next one may have six. The Tasting and Theory papers are considered by most candidates to be the most difficult but unless the candidates have had good experience working on the floor of a restaurant, they will find the Practical test equally difficult. Regarding the suggestion that the theory paper is more difficult now than in previous years, all the papers are moderated by the UK and the USA examination committees ensuring they are fair and of a consistent standard from examination to examination. FOUR people have passed both the Master of Wine and Master Sommelier qualifications, Ronn Wiegand, Gerard Basset, Doug Frost and Eric Hemer. With Regards, Brian Julyan CEO Court of Master Sommeliers Europe 1 Seaway Close Torquay, TQ2 6PY Devon, UK Tel/Fax (0)1803 605031

Posted @ June 25, 2013 12:56


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