Earlier this month, Cort went through the Court of Master Sommeliers' Introductory Wine Course, a two-day class that covered the world's wines at break-neck speed and concluded with a 75-question exam. Students must pass the introductory test to be eligible for a certified-level exam, which is followed by an advanced level and, finally, a master level. According to the Court, there's a 90 percent passing rate for the introductory level, but the numbers dwindle as the difficulty level rises. Since the first master sommelier diploma exam was given, less than 200 people worldwide have earned the highest rank.
For Cort, who's spent most of her wine-drinking years firmly entrenched in Michigan products, the class was illuminating. Take a peek behind the scenes at her two-day trip around the world of wine.
When trying to recall the primary grapes of Burgundy, I imagine not the ridges of Cote d'Or but the tasting room of Leelanau Peninsula's Bel Lago Winery, of Charlie Edson proudly hoisting bottles of Burgundian-style Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
At a loss for the great grapes of the Rhône Valley, I picture Wally and Katie Maurer and their tasting list chock full of classic Rhône varietals — Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, Syrah — at Domaine Berrien Cellars in Berrien Springs.
I enrolled in the Court of Master Sommeliers' Introductory Sommelier Course to discover the world, but in the end, it brought me even closer to home.
It was Shannon's idea, initially. He emailed me after noticing that the class — which rotates through locations nationwide — was offered locally Oct. 1-2. My first impression was a resounding no. My excuse: I didn't know enough about wine. But even as I hit "send," my reply gave me pause. Wait, wasn't that the point? Moments after I responded to Shannon's email dismissively, I was writing back in reconsideration. Within 24 hours, I was signed up.
The Court urges students to read up beforehand on the worldwide wine industry, and my studying began in earnest in August, with Michael Gibson's densely packed "Sommelier Prep Course" book. It didn't take long for me to realize that, a decade removed from college, I'd forgotten how to study. Electronic flashcards gave way to hand-written notes (I filled at least four enormous notepads), which devolved into merely reading at a blistering pace as I scrambled to cover the New World in days — after weeks spent on France alone. By the time Oct. 1 rolled around, my brain was a sludge of names, locations and grape varietals.
The Court also recommends that prospective students have at least three years in the industry. Shannon cheerfully opined that three years spent on MichiganByTheBottle.com counted, but I wasn't so sure. Considering I was a veritable blank slate when MBTB started, I feel like I've come a long way since the days when I couldn't get a wine bottle open, only liked Late Harvest Riesling and had no clue how to pronounce "Gewürtztraminer." But when it came to anything beyond state lines — let alone national borders — I was at a complete loss. I probably could count on fingers and toes how many French wines I've had. And Pinotage from South Africa? Assyrtiko from Greece? Albariño from Spain? Madeira from Portugal? No to all of the above, though I do feel confident that I could trump the entire class in Michigan Riesling consumption by volume.
The course was intimidating and overwhelming and enthralling and fascinating all at once, as master sommeliers Ron Edwards, Madeline Triffon and Wayne Belding took us on a virtual trip around the world in 20 hours. They interspersed rapid-fire lectures on the major wine-producing regions with deductive tasting lessons that required us to analyze wine in front of the entire class. Color? Body? Nose? Palate? Are you getting baking spices, herbs, earthiness, minerality? Grapefruit — is it white or pink? Ripe, cooked or dried cherries, and are they red or black? Is it just lemon, or is it lemon peel or lemon zest or candied lemon? You mentioned a floral component; is it red, white or purple flowers — and which kind of flower? Now, is it New World or Old World? What's the varietal? What's the country and region? How about a guess at the vintage?
Though I joked that I would have never taken the course had I known it would involve such a public display of my ignorance, these turned out to be the most valuable segments. When it comes to wine, analysis is one of my greatest weaknesses: I struggle to distinguish tannins and acidity, grope for the right adjectives, and often succumb to the easy descriptors of "like" and "dislike." As the sommeliers stressed, assessing a wine for quality is completely independent of assessing it for enjoyability. A wine can be complex and well-crafted without making your personal tastebuds jump for joy. In the past, I've sometimes sensed that a wine I didn't care for was high quality, yet, I've never been able to quantify why. I'm far from transformed into a master taster now, but I'm edging closer to being able to evaluate and explain those characteristics.
As the class went on, there was no denying that there were — and still are — gaping holes in my knowledge. But I slowly began to realize that there were just as many things that I wouldn't know at all if not for time spent surrounded by Michigan wines. I could recite the typical components of a Bordeaux blend because I'd consumed Meritages from Michigan. I remembered Malbec as the main grape of Argentina because Chateau Chantal, which operates a South American vineyard, has one on its list. My obsession with Larry Mawby's sparkling wines served me well on all things Champagne.
I quickly got over the idea that this was the "wrong" way to remember these facts. After all, Edwards suggested a cheeky phrase about a much-scorned pop star as a pneumonic device for remembering one particular series of European vineyards. "Otherwise," he said, "they're just names on a map." There has to be a way to relate to the information. My way is through drawing parallels to home.
On the first day, I introduced myself to Edwards and confessed that I was looking to expand my wine horizons. Edwards — who lives in Charlevoix, and who occasionally threw out complimentary comments on local wines throughout the course, though Michigan wasn't specifically covered — aptly pointed out that knowing wines internationally can help you better appreciate where quality exists here.
It's impossible to be involved even peripherally with wine without encountering the occasional "wine snob," the insufferable snoot who considers himself the ultimate oenological authority. If anyone could be justified to such haughtiness, it would be these master sommeliers, who have successfully withstood the most rigorous challenges of their wine wisdom to earn their titles. Yet, despite an astounding breadth of knowledge, they were never condescending or patronizing. They displayed nothing but patience, humility and a genuine joy for their work.
Perhaps the most delightful moments of the course were when the instructors deviated momentarily from the curriculum to rhapsodize about their first-hand experiences. Triffon recounted with youthful giddiness her first encounter with Greek wine as a teenager roaming Santorini; Edwards' smile turned blissful as he recalled the three of them sharing Escenzia — the intensely sweet, free run grape juice from 100 percent botrytised grapes — by the half-teaspoonful.
There were periods when I was overcome by the vastness of the information (like when we reached a short segment on beer, sake and spirits and my wine-focused mind downshifted into a stupor). But there were many more when I was completely rapt. Edwards' pre-exam speech left me damp-eyed with its earnest sincerity. I wouldn't dare attempt to replicate it for fear of butchering his eloquence, but it focused on the importance of true kindness — versus faux pleasantry — in the service industry. On using any knowledge you have to help others, versus wielding it against them in an attempt to feel superior. On how it's your duty to uplift a customer who arrives already in a bad mood, weary from the day. On how people will remember those moments of genuine consideration you showed them.
No, I'm not technically in the service industry, and beyond the requisite stint at a fast food joint during high school, I never have been. Yet, the sommeliers emphasized that we're all in the service industry, in a way. We all, in some capacity, serve others through our jobs. When we wake up in the morning, Edwards said, we need to look in the mirror and remind ourselves, "It's not about you," and carry that knowledge as we interact with others throughout the day. It's a concept in which I all too often fall short, but his impassioned speech gave me a renewed commitment to make a greater effort, every day.
For me, the exam was difficult. Very difficult. The abundant geography left my head spinning. Sometimes I could picture the very page the information was on, or recall the exact moment one of the instructors mentioned it ... and then my brain froze. I completed the test feeling confident about some answers but doubtful about many more. Seated on the floor in the hall, thumbing through my course workbook for verification, I silently scolded myself on responses I'd flubbed and allowed milliseconds of rejoicing for those I'd nailed.
The post-exam period was nerve-wracking, as the instructors graded our answer sheets behind closed doors. When we were ushered back inside, Edwards told us that not everyone had passed and gave a pep talk about not letting failure define our destinies. Clutching flutes of Champagne, we sat anxiously as he called us up individually to retrieve our certificates. They weren't in alphabetical order, so as the pile dwindled, I began to panic. I had told seemingly a million people that I was taking this class. I had studied for weeks and weeks. I co-run a wine website, for pete's sake. If I failed … and then he called my name.
A friend recently shared an online meme that showed two circles on opposite ends of the image, with space separating them. One was marked "comfort zone"; the other, "where the magic happens." This course was so far outside of my comfort zone, it may as well have been France. But walking out of the classroom with certificate in hand, my mind already eager to share the news with the MBTB community, I felt like I was coming home.
For more information on the Court of Master Sommeliers, visit www.mastersommeliers.org.