Education Makers & Players Wine

Somm School, Q&A with Tatiana Kelly

If you’ve ever thought about going to school to become a master sommelier, you’re going to want to read our interview with Tatiana Kelly, a graduate of the Intensive Sommelier Training Program at the International Culinary Center. She gave us the skinny on the highs and lows, ups and downs, ins and outs of Sommelier School below:

Why did you go to Sommelier School?

I spent some of my formative years in France and was around many oenophiles who not only shared their appreciation of wine, but also made me realize that wine isn’t just about drinking, it’s about the history, the agriculture, the techniques. So that really sparked my passion for it. Also, my parents are devout wine drinkers and have a great wine cellar in their house.  Becoming a sommelier was a bucket list item I’d wanted to do since I was a kid.

What is the application process like? 

The amount of time you have to spend taking the course and the price tag is what filters out quite a few people, so the application process in and of itself was very basic. That’s the least daunting step in the process!

Describe a typical day at Somm School.

Half the day is dedicated to wine tasting and understanding your palate as well identifying wines. The other half of the day is dedicated to wine theory and the basics of oenology, such as viticulture, wine-making techniques, the history of the grape depending on the region, understanding the marketplace, etc. There’s an incredible amount of information to learn which is why the wine tasting generally happens after the theory portion so you can retain it more easily. 🙂
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Photo: Total Food Service

What courses does one take? 

Courses are broken up more by region and wine type versus different courses. And then there are other components such as wine and food pairings which is a critical part of the exam as well as service. It’s very diverse and you cover a lot in a short amount of time.

How were your instructors? 

The school I attended has the highest number of master sommeliers teaching so that really sets it apart and gives you an advantage since master sommeliers are the ones who administer the sommelier exam. There are so few master somms in the world (last I heard there was only 236), so it really is the most prestigious title given in the wine world, so they can be pretty intimidating!

One of my teachers was in the documentary “Somm” and the others were sommeliers at top restaurants or teaching around the world, so they really are rock stars in the wine world. It was really nice to have such prestigious people at the front of the class. It was mind-boggling how much information they have and how steeped they are in the wine world. Thankfully, they were incredibly supportive and you really felt that they wanted you to pass the exam so that helped ease the nerves.

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Were there tests along the way? How is the curriculum organized?

We had tests every week covering the region we’d just covered; we also had regular blind wine tasting tests, as well. So it’s all extremely fast-paced to make sure you cover as much as possible as the exam’s questions can be selected from a very wide range of topics.

How was the final exam? 

You first have to pass the intro level exam, which is a multiple choice exam. If you pass that, then you can move on to the sommelier exam. And the sommelier exam is comprised of blind tasting, wine theory as well as service–and you need to pass all three to pass the exam.Some folks feel more comfortable with the service portion if they’ve spent a lot of time in a restaurant, others prefer theory. I was incredibly nervous about the service portion because you have to wait on a master sommelier at a table as though they’re in a restaurant. They ask you lots of different questions regarding what they should eat, what they should drink, cocktails and what’s in them, the price point of certain wines, what wine to pair with certain foods, etc.

You also need to do a sparkling wine service which could entail opening a bottle of champagne without making a pop or losing control of the cork. We must have practiced opening champagne without making a pop a hundred times (side note: thank you Trader Joe’s for your affordable prosecco!).
You may also have to decant wine with a candle. The blind tasting can be challenging, as well— you never find out what the wine was, so of course you and your classmates all commiserate after the exam asking what they thought it was. Even if you don’t guess the exact wine, you get points for saying if it’s an old world wine versus new world, the range of years it was made in, characteristics of the wine, etc.

Lastly, there’s the wine theory portion which covers such a vast amount of information that can be pretty challenging, but at least you only need 60% to pass. The 60% pass rate shows just how difficult it is to actually pass the test!

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Photo: International Culinary Center 

What did you not know about wine going in that that you learned while you were there?

Everything! Throughout my life, I had taken a wine class here and there and gone to wine tastings but the industry is changing rapidly given all the new wines that pop up everyday so there were lots of new things to learn.

Studying and discovering wines from Greece or Austria, for example, was really interesting because they’re not generally offered on a wine list–so I didn’t have much exposure to those varietals. Also, although I’ve worked in restaurants, I didn’t have much in-depth knowledge regarding how to pour properly, creating a wine list, how to properly store wine, etc. Walking into the class, I didn’t realize how critical service and understanding the restaurant side of things would be to the class but that’s all part of being a sommelier.

How long does it take to become a sommelier?

It’s really up to you and your experience level. The exams are administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers, which is a very elite organization that promotes excellence in the restaurant and beverage service.  In order to be eligible to pass the Certified Sommelier exam, you first need to pass a Level 1 exam, then you can take the certified sommelier exam.

Anyone can take the exam, so it really depends how prepared you feel walking in. You can take a 2 day prep course for the exam, but if you’re not in the wine industry or haven’t taken extensive classes in advance, it’s very difficult to pass the exam with just the prep course. In my case, I knew I needed the help so I decided to move to Campbell, California and take the Intensive Sommelier Training Program at the International Culinary Center for 10 weeks. (There’s also another British organization that can certify you called WSET – Wine and Spirit Education Trust.)

What’s your favorite memory from Somm School?

Definitely learning about something that I was passionate about was a real luxury. Also, being able to do so with a group of strangers that ended up becoming friends makes it that much more rewarding.

My favorite memory, however, was hearing my name called out and hearing that I passed the exam. The master sommelier put the sommelier pin on my jacket and I nearly cried with joy! I truly wasn’t sure if it was going to happen. So that was a huge personal achievement. But I studied my butt off, so it was nice to be rewarded with that tiny little pin!

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What advice would you give to someone thinking about Somm School? 

It’s really hard, so you have to go into it taking it very seriously. There were a few people in my class who thought that being a bartender or working in restaurants would be enough to help them get through the class, but when they failed the first test, they realized they had to treat this very seriously.

You review information very quickly and move on to the next region, so you have to be prepared to study a lot on your own time and create study groups because having other students doing wine tastings together and testing one another was incredibly helpful.

Also, if you hate flash cards, this course isn’t for you! I have hundreds of them and stayed up all night testing myself.

Any last words of advice for wine lovers?

Even though I took the class, I’m not in the wine industry, so if you love wine and want to learn more about the world of wine, the course can still apply to you!

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