Lisa Redwine, general manager and wine director at Molly's in the downtown Marriott, hands a sheet of paper to Dan Chapman, a captain at George's at the Cove. "Are these examples of questions you'd see on the certified, or are these more advanced-level?" Redwine will take the Society of Wine Educators' exam to become a certified specialist in wine on December 11. Chapman has already passed the advanced-level exam -- the second hurdle on the road to becoming a master sommelier. "These are more advanced-level," answers Chapman. "'What is the newest Grand Cru of Alsace?' -- that's a good one. Is that the one that's a Sylvaner?"
It's something you might very well need to know. Besides the name of the new Grand Cru, the question asks what varietals are allowed, the percentages permitted in blending, the village, and why it has never been classified as a Grand Cru in the past, "even though it was always considered one of the true Grand Crus."
Megan Burgess, GM at Roppongi and corporate sommelier for the Sammy's restaurant group, tells Redwine that when she took the certified exam, "There were a ton of questions on Australia. I'd say almost a third of the test. Questions along the lines of, 'Which of the following is not an appellation in Southern Australia?'"
Redwine, Chapman, and Burgess are three members of a sommelier tasting group that has been meeting every Monday for the past six months in order to prepare for either the certified or advanced (or even master) sommelier exams. The other members: Paul Krikorian, sommelier at the La Jolla Country Club; and Catherine Henson, national accounts rep for the Henry Wine Group. (Henson, because she doesn't work on the service side of the business, is aiming to become a master of wine -- a degree with a more academic emphasis -- instead of a master sommelier.)
"For the certified exam," explains Chapman. "There was a book that basically said, 'These are the things you need to know.' It was nice."
"But there's no curriculum for the advanced or master sommelier program," says Burgess. "They give you a list of recommended reading," and that's it.
"It's much more elusive," continues Chapman. He didn't pass the advanced exam on his first try. "I just didn't know what I was supposed to learn. Having gone through it, I got a sense." He passed on his second try. Now, he serves as the moderator of the group -- which is not to say that he is merely a teacher, passing along information. "If you talk to any of the master sommeliers, they all have a group like this," says Burgess.
"You've got to create a community to make sense of wines," adds Chapman. "It's too expensive to buy your own. And you learn about what other people know."
"I don't work with Italian wines, for example," says Redwine. "We studied them for three weeks. I'm just barely getting it, but it's great exposure when you're tasting with people who really know Italian wines."
Chapman says that even the masters "are always learning. Sometimes, someone will correct them, and they'll say, 'You're right.' Things are always changing. That's part of the reason they're always teaching, I think -- it helps them keep track." (The group should know -- they've played host to a few of the masters. "Peter Neptune's come down twice" from Newport Beach, says Burgess.)
"Think of an athlete," offers Burgess. "You have to be constantly using your ability. So it's important to have a group that is pushing you. And if you know somebody's going to meet you at the gym, you're more inclined to go."
In some ways, the meeting is more like an academic test than a trip to the gym; you're expected to have studied beforehand. Everybody brings reading material: the latest edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine, a trade book on Spanish wines, a Xeroxed article on a tasting of Clos Ste. Hune Riesling. But the gym analogy is also apt. The group meets to taste and analyze wine; it is exercise, and you have to do it regularly. "It's a selective group," says Burgess. "Consistency of showing up is the most important thing. Restaurant hours are never short, but anybody who gets brought on has to have the same amount of dedication. If you're not here, if you're not following the format, you're sort of holding everybody up. I was in a group before this one, and I got tired of being the only one who showed up."
After consistency, what matters is congeniality. "Everybody's supporting everybody else," says Chapman, "trying to make sure that everybody's learning. There are some people that are certainly plenty knowledgeable, but they might not be the best suited for this group."
"We don't feel nervous," agrees Burgess. "We say, 'What happens in this room stays in this room.'"
Chapman elaborates. "It's a funny thing when you take a glass of wine that you don't know anything about. There's a vulnerability in sitting in front of people, when you're supposed to be an expert, and smelling and tasting and telling everybody what the wine is. Sometimes we're right, but a lot of times we're just totally wrong."
"If it was easy," notes Krikorian, "there would be more than 124 master sommeliers in the world."
Part of the master sommelier exam, says Chapman, involves analyzing six anonymous wines, and you better be right about five of them if you're hoping to pass. "And Peter said that in the ten years he did it, they threw in every wine they could, trying to screw him up," says Henson. "They would throw in a Bierzot," says Chapman, referencing a relatively obscure region in Spain that produces Mencia, a wine that might get mistaken for the much more familiar Cabernet Franc. But the advanced isn't so brutal. There, he says, "The wines are true as true. They don't try to cheat you. They won't give you a wine from Jumilla, or Priorat" -- up-and-coming Spanish regions. "If they give you a Spanish wine, it'll probably be a Rioja, and it'll be pretty straightforward. They taste the wines first, and there are certain things they want to make sure you're getting."
"And you're never told if you got it right," says Burgess. "There's a massive discussion afterwards. When I took my certified, there were just two wines, and when I walked out, I said what I thought they were, and half the people said, 'Oh, no, no, no, no.'"
"The real goal is this," concludes Chapman. "You're standing at a table, and somebody asks you a question, and you know the answer. And you can answer in a way that's really articulate. The final goal, I think, is to be able to help make sense of these wines to people who don't speak the language we speak."
"And the better you are, the less pretension will come across," agrees Krikorian. "You can get pretentious, and then, when you get really good, all the insecurity goes away."