Wine is my passion, there’s no question about that, but I didn’t turn it into a career until late in life. I was a fitness professional until only a year ago! It wasn’t until I joined the Traveling Vineyard on April 1, 2014 that wine became my driving force. I knew I wanted to go as far with it as I could. I find incredible beauty in wine. It isn’t just a beverage to me, it is so much more.
During last year’s Traveling Vineyard convention, which is called Harvest, we had a guest speaker, Eddie Osterland, America’s first Master Sommelier. Our CEO Rick Libby told us to watch the documentary SOMM in preparation, so we would have some understanding of what it was to be a Master Somm. When I saw this documentary, I was hooked. My passion was magnified tenfold. This was something I wanted and wanted badly! Then came Harvest and I got to see Eddie Osterland in person. I was mesmerized. Star struck, even! The way he spoke about wine, about food pairing, about entertaining… I wanted to be part of this world. I craved to know more! I was inspired. I might not be one of the 210 Master Somms in the world someday, but I wanted to be a somm nonetheless. It was on my bucket list. I WOULD become a certified sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers someday, end of story.
Eddie Osterland, MS and me at Harvest, 2014
I went home, looked online, and wow. WOW! The curriculum is insane. The price is hefty, as well! Something to work toward, I thought. In due time. There’s so much information to absorb… the geography, the history, the appellations, the individual terroirs, and then the blind tastings! With the amount of time I was devoting to my job, it would certainly take a good amount of time to also devote to studying to prepare for these exams, so someday!
Fast forward almost 4 months to Christmas Eve. My love Dennis gives me my gift. The first thing I opened was two small boxes, one was a box of pencils and one was a package of pens. ???? I had no idea what he was doing. I opened the next gift, which was a leather portfolio. I opened the portfolio to find a print out that said I was registered for the introductory course for the Court of Master Sommeliers in Manhattan at the International Culinary Center on March 23-24th, 2015. Tears streamed! I couldn’t believe it! Once again, this man is making my dreams come true! In addition, March 24, 2015 is my 40th birthday. What a way to go into a new decade!
Then it hit me… I had exactly three months to prepare for this course and exam. Oh. My. God. HOW? I had ten tastings scheduled for January, ten for February, eight for March, plus a regional meeting to present at, several guest speakings for other teams, my own team meetings to lead. My head was spinning! But this is what I wanted and I was not going to blow this opportunity, so it was time to get down to business. I had to arm myself with the proper books, so we bought the following:
– The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil
– The Sommelier Prep Course by Michael Gibson
– The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson
– The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robinson
Within the first weekend I read the study guide they provide us cover to cover. After that I went back and started picking apart each region one at a time in each book. It was incredibly overwhelming, I’m not going to lie! Trying to remember all these appellations, regions, villages, etc. Yikes! Over the first month or so, I really devoted a good amount of time to studying and was able to balance work and study time, but after that, work just took over.
The closer the course/exam got, the more I freaked out. The weekend immediately prior was going to be insane. I had a local tasting Friday night in central Mass, then had a tasting in Maine on Saturday night, had to drive back home to central Mass after the tasting, got up at 6am Sunday morning to drive 3 hours to Queensbury, New York to present at the Traveling Vineyard Albany Regional meeting from 11am-4pm, then drove 3 hours down to Dennis’s house to stay and get ready to head down to Manhattan the next morning for the course, where I had to check in at 7:30am. To say I was exhausted is an understatement!
We checked in between 7:30-8am on Monday, March 23, 2015. There were just under 60 of us in the course. I had no idea what to expect, but I was incredibly excited. This is what I sat down to.
So exciting! Day one was instructed by Laura DePasquale, MS, Scott Carney, MS, Laura Maniec, MS, and Pascaline Lepeltier, MS. We went through the viticulture, viniculture, food and beverage pairing, the deductive tasting method (tasted three flights of four wines each), all of France, Italy, and Greece. IN ONE DAY! Dennis is such a doll… he took the day off from work to drive me down to Manhattan, and while I was in class he went to visit his old cop friends. During lunch he brought me a lobster roll and lobster bisque from the Chelsea Pier and spent the hour with me. Seriously? Best man EVER!
I was very confident in what I knew about the history of wine. When we got to the blind tastings, I was pretty surprised at how much I didn’t know. I’ve been blind tasting myself for a few months, and I need a LOT more practice. For some reason, practically every single white wine I smelled on day 1 I thought was a Riesling. LOL Of course then I tasted it and realized I was way off, but that really isn’t like me. I can usually detect these aromas pretty well. Wine #1 in flight 1 was a Chablis! How I could ever confuse the Chardonnay grape is beyond me. Then in flight #2, wine #1 actually WAS a German Riesling from Mosel, and I didn’t identify that it was from Mosel! LOL I live for Mosel Rieslings! At this point I was just baffled. Italian Pinot Grigio… thought it was a Riesling. LOL What the hell? These blind tastings really knocked me down a peg, because this is something I’m typically decent at. Guess not! Perhaps the lack of sleep had something to do with my sense being completely off.
On the drive home after this day, I don’t think it’s necessary to say I passed out in the car. We got home and I passed out almost immediately. Sleep, oh heavenly sleep!
Day 2, the alarm goes off at some ungodly hour. Noooo! But hey, it’s my birthday! Let’s get this show on the road! Dennis drives me down to the city again, and day 2 begins with our first tasting flight at exactly 8am! This day our Master Somms were Laura DePasquale, MS, Laura Williamson, MS, Matthew Citriglia, MS, and Michael Englemann, MS.
FINALLY I identified a Viognier. Thank God I’m not losing my mind! I truly think I was just over thinking things. But even the Viognier I thought was old world and it turned out was new world. I also identified a Vouvray AND the year, so I redeemed myself somewhat. Maybe that good night’s sleep had something to do with it. What really blew my mind was when we blind tasted Catena Malbec and I didn’t get this. I drink this particular Malbec often. How this slipped by me is mind boggling. It tasted much more tannic than I am used to. Even when they told us what it was, I was blown away. I kept going back and tasting it in shock. I LOVE Catena Malbec. Super disappointed I didn’t get that one. The last two wines I did get, a Sancerre and a Shiraz, so I guess I ended on a positive note. Much work to be done for the next level!
Before lunch we covered Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Australia, New Zealand, South America, South Africa, and North America. Dennis met me for lunch again and helped me study as much as possible for that hour for the exam. He is such a doll. I truly don’t know what I would do without him!
After lunch we covered dessert and fortified wines, beer/sake/spirits, and wine service and salesmanship. Then it was time for the exam! Seventy multiple choice questions. This level doesn’t require a blind tasting, thank the lord, because I’m just not ready for that yet. The next level does, however. I went into this exam with less confidence than I have had in ages. That is so unlike me. I truly did not feel prepared. The amount of detail required for this is insane! But I’m not one to back down, so I gave it my all.
I finished the exam and passed it in at about 4:25pm. We were to meet back at 5:00 for the results. I left feeling 50/50. I knew a lot of the answers, but there were definitely some I had no idea. I was preparing myself for the worst case scenario… it was a great learning experience, and at least now I know what I need to do to prepare for the next time. Study the hell out of the regions and AOCs!
They didn’t call us back in until 5:15 or so, and at this point I was dying! Thank the lord for my best friend Angi texting me and my wine sister Susan for PMing me on Facebook during the waiting time trying to help me through! Of course Dennis was always texting me words of encouragement. He never had a single doubt. As we entered the room, they handed each person a glass of Champagne. We all walked in and gathered in a circle. Laura DePasquale started off by thanking everyone involved in the course, and then proceeded with the announcements. There was one gentleman who passed with a PERFECT SCORE! Mad props to him! Then Laura announced that the class had a 100% pass rate. I PASSED!!!! OMG!!!! I’m not going to lie… I had to wipe a tear away. Just the release of the pressure! I did it! In the wine business less than a year, and prepped for this course in less than 3 months, I did it! OMG!!! As soon as I wiped the tear away and chugged down that glass of Champagne, I grabbed my phone and texted Dennis that I passed. As soon as I had done so, my wine daughter Stephanie texted me asking what was going on. I replied that I had passed, and her reaction was priceless! They announced each person’s name and passed out our certificates and pins. Once we each received them, we left. I raced down to Dennis and couldn’t wait to celebrate with him!
There is so much information to absorb in this course, but the greatest thing I took away from it is this: wine tells a story, and as somms, we are story tellers. Wine tells the story of everything that happens in the vineyard, from the weather that year, what is growing nearby, what the winemaker did. It is up to us to relay that story. Beautiful!
Dennis took me out to celebrate my 40th birthday at this incredible Spanish restaurant in Greenwich Village we just love called Sevilla. They have the most incredible seafood paella ever! A perfect ending to a perfect day.
I now have three years to take the level 2 exam to become an officially certified sommelier with the CMS, and I am more inspired than ever to do so! Each wine truly tells its own story, and I can’t wait to be able to relay that story to others.