Serious oenophiles study for certification 

Well-Schooled Winos

click to enlarge Ian Johnson, co-owner of the Trusted Palate, is currently working on his Master of Wine certification - LESLIE MCKELLAR
  • Leslie McKellar
  • Ian Johnson, co-owner of the Trusted Palate, is currently working on his Master of Wine certification

The wine list at Charleston Grill comes in at around 30 pages and contains more than 1,000 wines. The thing literally bears weight. Holding this tome in a bustling restaurant filled with the clink of crystal toasts and the chatter of voices only adds to the nerve-fraying pressure. Your wine choice can make or break a dining experience, and without a wealth of knowledge such a decision can cause you to dance the line between ignoramus and poseur. What's worse? Not knowing anything or pretending that you do? That's when Charleston Grill sommelier Rick Rubel or his assistant Sara Kavanaugh step in. With a deft touch they can easily recommend a crisp, minerally white to pair with your oysters. If you're not a fan of the mineral notes, they might smoothly segue to citrus without missing a beat. They are professionals, and they are prepared.

Despite his vast knowledge and professionalism, Rubel has attempted (and failed to pass) the Master Sommelier (MS) exam twice over the past four years and will try again in March 2008. Wine certification programs establish a code of honor for the professional wine world. Sommelier simply means wine steward in French. This title usually applies to the person at a restaurant who decides which wines to buy and present on the list. Sommeliers should be well versed in enology (the study of wines), but no formal education is required. Truthfully, most restaurant sommeliers (a.k.a. wine directors) work their way up from being a server, and anyone could anoint themselves with the title of sommelier.

This is where certification programs come into the picture. They set standards for knowledge and give titles based upon one's level of knowledge. In short, they establish a hierarchy that generally carries credibility around the world. Most serious wine professionals who choose this path align themselves with one of the two major certification programs — the Court of Master Sommeliers or the Institute of Masters of Wine. Both began in the United Kingdom over 30 years ago, but they vary greatly.

The Court of Master Sommeliers applies most directly to the restaurant world. It focuses not just on wine knowledge but also on liquor and on service. The certification program consists of four levels/exams — introductory, certified, advanced, and master. Locally, many industry folks have taken at least the first level of this program. Richard Pogue, field sales manager for Ben Arnold-Sunbelt Beverage Company, says most people who work with wine would be able to pass this first level. Pogue has passed the second level and hopes to make a second attempt at passing the third in 2008.

While the first level consists of a two-day course followed by a written exam, the higher levels offer no structured coursework and involve much more than a multiple choice test. The Court presents applicants with service situations where they must demonstrate grace under pressure, and they test their palates in blind tastings where they must analyze various wines.

As the levels increase so does the esoteric nature of the material. Pogue says that at the third level they demand such minute detail as breaking down the subregions of Greece and Hungary, and at the fourth or master level your knowledge must be almost encyclopedic (especially since it is entirely oral in format).

For his upcoming test, Rubel estimates that he needs to spend three hours each day studying (after working a 12-hour day.) Much of the challenge comes from keeping up with wine laws as they change continually. Rubel realized during his last exam that he forgot to look into the fact that the north shore of Ontario had come out with new sub-appellations.

The tasting portion of the exam proves challenging as well, even to someone like Rubel who spends every day tasting wines for the restaurant. "You must show logic and explain decision-making," he says.

Dennis Perry, the sommelier at Peninsula Grill, recently made his second attempt at the third level, and explains that you really need to taste every day in a blind situation, preferably with a master sommelier, which can be hard to come by. Only 25 percent of those who attempt the third level pass, and only 10 percent of those who attempt the master level pass. But aspiring members would not have it any other way. "I'm glad they hold their standards," says Rubel. "Otherwise it wouldn't mean anything."

Clint Sloan, sommelier at McCrady's, has passed the first two levels and hopes to take the third in 2008. He likens the Court to a secret fraternity. "You don't see an ad in Wine Spectator, and it's not really in any books. But it's out there if you want to find it."


Similar esteem surrounds the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW), but their emphasis tends to be more academic. To even be accepted into their course of study, you must first earn a degree from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, a London-based group that offers courses around the globe. Locally, Ian Johnson, co-owner of the Trusted Palate, has done the most work toward his Master of Wine (MW). Due to many years of industry (specifically distribution) experience, the IMW grandfathered Johnson out of the WSET requirement, but that's really only eliminating a year or two of study. Unlike the Court, the IMW does not codify its course work into different levels with corresponding titles. Rather, you must work as a "First Year," then as a "Second Year," and finally as an "Exam Prep" toward one huge exam.

Johnson remembers the first year as "terrifying," finding himself in a room surrounded by famed MWs. "The truth hits you," Johnson says. "It's like, 'Wow, I know nothing about wine, and the ways I have been thinking about it are totally wrong.'"

Such anxiety seems natural when you consider that the final exam is an essay centering on theoretical and practical knowledge. The theory section requires four essays that delve into pre-fermentation (or growing the grapes), post-fermentation (making the wine), the business of wine, and contemporary issues in the wine industry. The practical section consists of blind tastings but once again in an essay format. Where the Court focuses on grape varietals, the IMW wants a breakdown of how the winemaker achieved the perceivable characteristics.

Johnson thinks it will be the most exhausting week of his life, and he holds it up there as the crowning achievement of a wine professional's career.

"The day you sit and pass, your knowledge is at an all-time high," says Johnson. "You are like an Olympic runner."

Of course, Olympians don't have to write dissertations after their races, and that just happens to be the final requirement for MW candidates. Johnson is considering writing his on East Coast viticulture in the United States.

The IMW tends to attract fewer restaurant workers and more winemakers and wine writers. But Brad Ball, owner of Social wine bar, plans to earn his WSET diploma in spring 2007 and enter the MW program shortly thereafter. Incidentally, Ball already passed both the first two levels of the Court and hopes to take the third soon. Ball says that he will probably stop after the third level of the Court to focus entirely on his MW.

Other programs do exist but tend to pale in comparison to the Court and the IMW. The Society of Wine Educators is a Washington, D.C.-based group that offers two levels of certification and tends to attract more wine professionals from the distribution side. John Julius, sommelier at Red Drum Gastropub, has taken both levels, and uses it as motivation and structure for his Court studies. Julius has passed the first two levels of the Court and hopes to take the third in 2008.

Ultimately, the knowledge gained by this certification program winds up being so removed from the public sector that they rarely use it on the floor in their restaurants. If they achieve the status of MS or MW, they could probably have their choice of jobs in Las Vegas, but most of them are not interested in moving. They love Charleston, and it's this type of commitment that can really boost the city's hospitality industry.

All have seen a growing interest by servers interested in furthering their wine knowledge, and most of the mentioned restaurants have servers that have passed at least the first level of the Court. Assistant sommelier Sara Kavanaugh at Charleston Grill has passed the first two levels of the Court and hopes to take the third in 2008.The next time you dine at the Grill and pick up that hefty wine list, breathe a little sigh of relief, because Kavanaugh and Rubel will help you wade through the choices, armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of wine.


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