What Does it Take to Become a Sommelier?

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Monarch recently had a discussion with Casleah Herwaldt to discuss becoming a certified sommelier through Court of Maser Sommelier (CMS). Casleah has an approachable and enthusiastic take on wine which we find refreshing: 

1. How did you become interested in wine? 

My dad actually grew up on a vineyard in Michigan. I remember walking through the vines as a young girl. Since the day I turned 21, I loved sweet wines. I remember Kung Fu Girl Riesling was my jam. It wasn’t until a few years later when I was living in Kansas City, a knowledgeable sommelier walked me through the tasting notes of a Cabernet Sauvignon and I fell in love! From that moment on, I wanted to learn everything there is to know about wine. I found a cute little wine boutique called Buckley’s Wine Market that put on tastings, events, and classes. I attended everything they offered. It came to the point I was there so much that they offered me a job! I poured tastings of “Casleah’s favorite wines” and got exposure to the sales and retail side of wine. I was encouraged to start my wine education through Court of Master Sommelier and received my introductory certification. Then we moved to California and I continued my education through the WSET (wine and spirit education trust) programs and am now taking my Court of Master Sommelier Level 2-Certified Sommelier this winter!! I also got some experience as a floor Sommelier in a Michelin star chef restaurant in Studio City. I love everything about wine, but one of my favorite things is taking part in someone’s “ah-ha!” Wine moment, like I had with that Cabernet in Kansas.  

2. Can anyone take the Court of Master Sommeliers level 1 exam? Is certain work experience or professional experience required? 

I believe anyone can take CMS level 1, but they recommend some experience working with wine. It is actually a pretty tough course! I spent about 6 months studying prior to the exam with flashcards and everything and I felt like that was barely enough. Not everyone passes level 1, but if you have some experience and spend some time studying you can definitely do it! 

3. What level of wine knowledge should one obtain before taking the level 1 exam? Level 2? 

If you have no level of wine experience or wine knowledge I would recommend starting with the WSET program. WSET 1 is very easy and everyone passes but it is a good starting point to get your feet wet. Level 2 of WSET is much harder than level 1, but in my opinion, still easier then CMS 1! However, this is not a requirement of CMS but a good option! In order to take level 2 of CMS, you must have taken and passed level 1 within 3 years. They also recommend 2-3 years of experience of working with wine. 

4. Was the level 1 exam more or less difficult than you expected? How difficult was it? 

It was definitely harder then I expected!! The majority of people passed, but I definitely saw grown men cry because they didn’t pass! Also, the blind tasting is intense! The master somms really drill you! But it is fun and I don’t want to scare people away from it. If you put in the time to study, you will pass! 

5. How many bottles of wine should an educated sommelier taste over the course of a year?

The best way to learn is to taste!! You should not only have tasted all the major varietals but should be very familiar with them. And not only the varietal but the different regions the varietal can be made. It’s hard to put a number to the amount of bottles but honestly, I try to taste different wines 5-6 days a week. Also, a Master Somm once told me, “if you haven’t been kicked out of a produce section of the grocery store from fondling the fruits/vegetables/herbs too much, then you’re not trying hard enough!” It’s about training your senses. If you don’t know what blackberries taste like in your mouth, you’ll never pick up blackberry flavors on the wine! 

6. I understand there are 4 levels of certification within the Court of Master Sommeliers. Do you plan on working toward all 4 Levels? How long should one prepare for taking the exams for all levels?

Yes, there are 4! Level one is Introductory level, level 2 is Certified Sommelier, level 3 is Advanced Sommelier and level 4 is Master Sommelier. There are only 256 Master Sommeliers worldwide and it is rated the hardest exam in the world. It takes years and years of studying. There’s a great Netflix documentary called “Somm” and it showcases what it takes to become a Master Somm. As for me, I’m just taking it one step at a time. I can’t imagine stopping my wine education as it has become quite an obsession, so if that leads me to Master Sommelier someday, that would be amazing!! 

Casleah is a wine blogger and sommelier based in Southern California. Visit her blog at www.bythestem.co

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