Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Tasting wine has never been less relaxing.
Before me stand two mystery wines in two tall wine glasses. One is a red, the other a white. The white displays some melon and papaya nuances. It lays weight on the center of the tongue and doesn’t seem like it has come in contact with oak. It’s pretty clean, with good acidity that isn’t very intense.
This is all good information. Only it’s not nearly enough. From these clues I have 10 minutes to determine the year, varietal and region of both wines. As my mind wheels through wine regions across the world, time evaporates quickly. Is it a Chardonnay from the township of Pouilly-Fuissé or a fat Alsacian Pinot Gris? Maybe it’s from Chablis in northern Burgundy? It has to be from a cool climate, but the fatness it expresses makes me think it could be Californian.
Now the red. It’s got some dark berry character with black pepper subtleties. The color is an intense purple. The faint taste of vanilla leads me to believe the vintner used “old oak”—it has to be from Europe, but where? Its jammy characteristics scream “warm climate”; its earthy flavors remind me of a barnyard in the country. Syrah from Southeastern France—no, an Australian shiraz. Maybe it’s a Mas de Gourgonnier? A Zinfandel? They wouldn’t choose something as obscure as a Crljenak Kastelanski from Croatia, would they?
And I haven’t begun to ponder the oak. American? French? Hungarian? The questions swirl in my head—then two words freeze them in place. “Glasses down.”
This is just the beginning; written and service portions follow. Sommeliers who pass will qualify to be recognized by the Court of Master Sommeliers as certified sommeliers—which results in a big boost in prestige, pay and credibility. All told the exam takes more than eight hours. It feels a lot longer.
Some test-takers have 25-plus years of experience in the industry. Most wear matching shoes and belts. All paid $250 a pop to give it their best at Burlingame Marriott in San Francisco.
The written questions are intentionally tricky. Virtually everyone taking the exam has the chops to know that Chateau Lynch Bages produces a robust Cabernet Sauvignon from Pauillac, a township located in France’s Bordeaux region. On the test, though, they want you to decide whether Chateau Lynch Bages is a fourth-growth from Pauillac or a fifth-growth Bordeaux.
Chateau Lynch Bages is from Pauillac, but it’s not a fourth-growth. It’s a fifth.
Food questions come next. “Which would you serve with an apple flan?”
In retrospect, though, the written section was easy going compared to the subsequent service portion, where seasoned master sommeliers batter test-takers with relentless demands and unique scenarios. I am slated to go near the end; the anticipation doesn’t help. One student leaves the testing room with sweat visibly dripping from his face. A woman relays her horror at dropping an entire tray of champagne flutes.
And then I’m up. A master sommelier pretends to be an alcoholic customer going through withdrawal, impatiently asking for champagne. Somehow I pour all of the wine into eight glasses evenly, like they asked, finishing the bottle. I realize they were setting me up—a splash should always be left in case another person joins the party.
Now it’s time to pair their food with a wine. “We’re having Korean barbecue short ribs. Which wine should we have?” they ask. I tell them that the ‘02 Gevery Chambertin from Armand Rousseau would be nice. I explain how the tinge of sweetness from the Pinot Noir would be a nice juxtaposition to the spiciness of their short ribs. As I finish the thought, I realize a Riesling would be a better match. Too late.
The questions pile up from there, not unlike an oral exam with some of the top wine professors on the planet. “Which fortified wines would you recommend other than port?” “Which style and what producer would you have?” “What’s a floc de Gascogne?”
Somehow mercy finds me—the questions finally stop. The master sommeliers recommend a drink to ease the pain—not wine, but beer. Someone paraphrases Napoleon. “One must celebrate a victory with a drink,” he says, “or in times of defeat, have a drink to ease the pain.”
The results are in after a few pints. I wait and watch people receive their diplomas and pins. Some jump with glee. One woman actually cries with relief.
My paper reads, “No Pass” and “Never remove cage until the cork is out of the bottle. Never leave pen in outside pocket and always move clockwise.” And this: “Work on age assessment, grape varietals, cordials, aperitifs, and wine regions. Need lots more study.”
The proctors hand out a glass of Riesling from a rare vineyard in Germany for a final toast. No sipping this time: I chug the glass and leave.