Welcome to the Court
The Court of Master of Sommeliers: The name conjures images of a secret society where smartly dressed connoisseurs meet in ivy-encrusted stone buildings lined with mahogany bookshelves and musty leather couches to wax philosophical about the merits of merlot.
You can imagine the conversations that might take place—spirited discussions about malolactic fermentation or screwcaps versus corks. Heated debates about the nuanced differences between syrah and shiraz. Who knows? Perhaps the masters are working up a fiendish plan to control world leaders by spiking the wines served at state dinners. It is a club so exclusive, you can only speculate about its inner workings.
Only 197 people in the history of the world have passed the four grueling exams required to gain entry into the Court of Master Sommeliers. It is one of the smallest professional clubs in existence. The immense knowledge required to pass the increasingly difficult tests, all four of which have multiple components, tends to weed out the chaff. To give you just a small sip: students have a measly 25 minutes to blindly taste six wines—three reds and three whites—and correctly identify the grape varietals, the vintage, the country of origin along with the specific district and appellation of the wines tasted. It’s a test only 5 percent pass.
“There are probably over 100 factors you’re taking into account when tasting. It’s really about breaking the wines down into components,” says Geoff Kruth, who earned his Master Sommelier pin in 2008 and now serves on the board of directors for the Court. “There are different climates that give you different fruit characteristics. You learn how to deductively conclude where the wines come from based on wine theory.”
That’s it? It just comes down to knowing your grapes, color and aroma? Surely that can’t be all. There must be some mystical super-sense bestowed on the sacred few with the nose and palate to recognize how that slight floral note can signify a wine is Argentinean versus Australian. Not so, says Kruth.
“It’s much more of a detective process than a magic show,” he says flatly. Although he admits it’s a party trick he’s often asked to perform—it is, after all, an enchanting skill to possess.
But despite its air of exclusivity and mystery, at its core, the Court’s mission is to educate—both other sommeliers and the average person. Just as important as knowledge and theory is wine service and salesmanship in the Master exams. Master Sommeliers are ambassadors for the industry wherever they go—the friendly faces that strive to make wine accessible.
“It’s a lot about furthering the trade and spreading information. Mentorship is a big part of the organization,” he says.
So, what is the benefit of learning the intricacies of every wine region on the planet? Kruth says it largely comes down to personal satisfaction and a way to make unique professional connections more than financial incentives.
“On day two, after you pass your (Master) exam, your phone doesn’t necessarily start ringing with people throwing lots of money at you,” Kruth says.
In fact, it’s almost a conundrum. By the time a person passes the final Master exam, which takes an average of 10 years to complete, he or she often isn’t interested in working as a hands-on sommelier. “There’s not many that want to close a restaurant at 1 a.m. at that point in their careers,” Kruth points out. Some seek work with distributors, some become consultants helping restaurants perfect wine menus and service, some get their hands dirty in wine production.
Kruth has found happiness in balance. He works both as the wine director at the Michelin Star-toting Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant in Forestville, California; and as the director of operations for the nonprofit Guild of Sommeliers, a trade organization focused on education through workshops, podcasts, and online resources.
“When I started getting my (Master) certification, it was about me. It’s become less about me and more about how I can help others and provide mentorship in the industry,” he says.
So what has he learned from his years of study and amassed expertise?
Don’t buy the hype—it’s just fine to like what you like. Following what wine magazines or industry experts say is not as important as personal taste.
“Wine is equally as subjective as film or music or art or anything else. If you get 10 Master Sommeliers in a room, we’ll agree on nothing,” he laughs. “Many of the wines that are considered the best in the world you couldn’t pay me to drink. A lot of my favorite wines are $15 to $20 bottles of Italian whites that aren’t anything over-the-top, but I like the way they taste with dinner. It’s just about drinking what you like—that’s the first step.”
That’s it? Just drink what you want? There isn’t some secret skill known only within the hallowed halls of the Court of Master Sommeliers that, perhaps, could be covertly passed to an inquiring ear?
“Not at all,” he says, “when you hear about super-tasters, that’s really just bunk.”
While wine is his hobby, his passion, and his profession, Kruth says far too much is made of what constitutes “good wines” versus “bad wines.” Sometimes he just needs a break from it all. “Wine isn’t the only thing I eat or drink or like to talk about,” he says. “If I’m at a dinner party and I’m not working, I am just as happy drinking a can of beer.”
From the 2012 Fall issue of SONOMA