Who Wants to be a Sommelier?

When a simple trip to Napa just won’t do, oenophiles can take a few notes from the real wine experts.

Imagine tasting an anonymous white wine for the first time. a glass filled with yellow-gold liquid fading to a clear meniscus is placed in front of you, and you point out that it has a medium-plus viscosity, no sediments, and it smells fruity—like apples and pears. Aromas of vanilla and smoked oak, indicating new oak aging, also enter your senses. Th ere’s no earthy character to this wine. Instead, it’s youthful, and when you swoosh it around in your mouth, you pick up on toasted butter-scotch flavors, red delicious apple, high-intensity vanilla and a slight hint of pineapple.

After deciphering a myriad of other details—grape variety, acidity, etc.—you believe that it comes from a warm climate in the new world. You proceed to conclude that it is three to five years old, and that, in fact, it is a Napa Valley Vintage 2012 Chardonnay.

This process is a glimpse at the Deductive Tasting Method, one of the founding pillars of The Court of Master Sommeliers organization. It’s also what you can learn to do at The Court’s annual Introductory Course and Certified Sommelier Exam.

The Court of Master Sommeliers is internationally recognized as a dominant force in upholding superlative standards for beverage service and knowledge in the hospitality industry. Like a fine wine, the nonprofit organization has gotten better with age, establishing itself over the last 46 years as the premier examining body for expertise in the field. It is only through succeeding at four levels of zealous and well-rounded testing—the last of which holds a mere 8to 10-percent pass rate— that one may earn the elite title of Master Sommelier. To this day, only 140 professionals in North America, and 220 worldwide, have reached this climax of distinction.

Throughout much of its history, the term Master Sommelier has remained quite elusive to people outside of the industry. Over the last few years, however, thanks to a growing need for highly qualified restaurant-service professionals, as well as an increase in exposure from the 2012 documentary “SOMM,” which profiled the examination process, the public has not only become more aware of what it means to be a Master Sommelier, but it also has come to understand that, in actuality, these experts are widely regarded as some of the most friendly, accessible and excellent service providers within the business.

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By way of education, Master Sommeliers aim to share their prowess so that anyone in search of a fantastic glass of Zinfandel, Chablis or the like, to pair with their gourmet meal, may be satisfied. The professionals also guide others down the grapevine of knowledge, whether mentoring those who hope to follow in their footsteps or fostering an adult’s serious wine hobby. Regardless of one’s end goal, this vino-journey begins with an exhilarating Introductory Course and Certified Sommelier Exam open to all.

For the past four years, island residents have had easy access to both, as the Introductory Course and Certified Exam are held annually in Kailua at Mid Pacific Country Club and Formaggio Grill, respectively. Unlike Chuck Furuya, who had to travel to partake in the examination process to become HawaiÊ»i’s first local-boy Master Sommelier in 1989, kamaÊ»aina today can deeply immerse themselves in the many microcosms of wine right here at home.

As Kathleen Lewis, executive director of The Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, shares, it’s a class perfectly suited for the islands.

“The HawaiÊ»i area is known for its recreation, resorts, eloquence, and with that comes the sommelier in the restaurants. I think our program is geared to the sommelier being able to work with such an eclectic group of people that are going to the Hawaiian Islands.”

During two fast-paced and invigorating days, Introductory Course participants are poured into the theory of wine, taking a virtual trip around the globe to study major Oldand New-World wine-growing regions and their intricacies. Wine is a unique beverage in that each glass has its own sparkling personality, made up of the terroir, or environmental conditions, from where it was produced.

Th rough the Deductive Tasting Method, attendees will learn to pick out each detail of a particular wine’s identity via visual, aromatic and palatable clues to determine exactly which bottle they are drinking.

Th is blend of history and tasting comes together in what Lewis calls the philosophy of cause and effect pertaining to wine. “We feel that a sommelier really needs to know about the wine regions: What’s important about that region; what gives that region the specific characteristics; what are the laws in that region for blending? So to have the theory of wine and wine regions, then you move on to this tasting, and in going through Deductive Tasting, you’re using all of that theoretical knowledge,” she explains.

Nationwide, participants receive the best possible instruction from none other than Master Sommeliers themselves. In Kailua, the course is taught by Furuya’s counterparts, Roberto Viernes and Patrick Okubo—who are the only other island-grown Master Sommeliers—as well as Michigan-based Ron Edwards, MS, and Colorado-based Wayne Belding, MS.

Unlike other examining bodies, The Court emphasizes beverage service in its instruction, and it also touches on spirits, beer and sake. Independent study is a component of the testing process, thus participants have access to an array of additional resources.

Inasmuch, as the interactive course and exam are firmly rooted in an academic approach, they are by no means void of fun and romance for prospective industry professionals. Viernes recalls the magic of vineyard culture coming alive for him as an aspiring chef and pupil at the Introductory Course 10 years ago.

“I didn’t know anything about wine at the time … Over the course of the few days, my eyes were just blown wide open to the world of wine, I mean a whole world out there, that I knew nothing about.

And so, I found it completely fascinating, and I was smitten by it,” he shares.

A written exam closes out this two-day enlightenment, and with a 90-percent pass rate, those who successfully complete the course are eligible to take a one-day Certified Sommelier Exam held shortly thereafter. The Certified Exam requires a written theory examination, a blind tasting and a demonstration of beverage-service skills essential in restaurant settings.

From there, endless opportunities open up for earnest wine devotees and professionals alike. Certified candidates may even pursue the more vigorous final stages of MS testing—the Advanced Sommelier Course and the Master Sommelier Diploma Exam.

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