How to Prepare for and Pass the Certified Sommelier Exam

So you've taken the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) Level 1 and want to take Level 2. How do you prepare? Simply put, several hours of study a week for several months along with a healthy dose of service practice. A great way to move from CMS Level to to Level 2 is to take the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) or the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) Level 3 (Advanced) exam. The CSW is like a CMS Level 1.5, and the WSET Advanced is like a CMS Level 1.75. If you know the content of WSET Advanced well, you should be ready for the wine theory portion of the CS exam.


To prep for the theory portion of the Certified Sommelier exam, hit the books and make flashcards of everything you come across that you don't know. You might have a giant stack of flashcards by test day. Which books should you read? Start with the course book for the Intro Sommelier Course. Know everything in there. Next, read Sales and Service for the Wine Professional by Brian Julyan. If you know the content of those two books, you will probably pass theory. That being said, I recommend reading other books, as well, to help the wine knowledge come alive and stick in your brain. Andrea Immer Robinson's Great Wine Made Simple explains wine and its origins in very fun and memorable ways. Hugh Johnson's World Atlas of Wine is a treat for people who love geogrpahy and maps, and is very detailed in its wine information. You should know plenty about all the classic wine regions of the world, and a lot about Bordeaux and Burgundy. How much is a lot? You don't have to memorize the 1855 classification of Bordeaux, but it is a good idea. You don't have to be able to draw a map of Burgundy with every village and Grand Cru, but you should know the villages, what style of wine they make, and many of the most famous Grand Cru vineyards.


The best way to prepare for the tasting exam is to taste with knowledgeable people. I tasted hundreds of wines at the Boston University Level 2 and 3 courses (taught by two Masters of Wine and one MW candidate) and the Boston Sommelier Society (full of helpful people studying for Certified, Advanced, and even Master Sommelier). Calibrating your palate to learn what medium tannins and high acidity feel like really requires tasting with experienced people. If you must taste by yourself, taste with a Court of Master Sommeliers tasting sheet in-hand and look for wines that have been described by someone knowledgeable  Keep in mind that most wine reviews are made to sell wine, not describe it accurately.


Buy a server's tray, serviettes, and eight champagne flutes. Practice setting a table, opening champagne, and pouring. Practice with four, six, or eight glasses. Practice even pours in all glasses and have some wine left in the bottle after pouring. Practice pouring wines at the service station and then bringing full glasses to the table, and practice pouring into empty glasses on the table. Practice leaving the bottle in an ice bucket, and practice leaving the bottle on a tray on the table. Practice opening the champagne silently; keep in mind that room temperature champagne will be much more "explosive" than chilled champagne. And practice decanting in case you are asked to do that.


Memorize all the cocktails in the Julyan book, and then find other common recipes to add to your list. Have a producer in mind for important kinds of spirits. Know where the spirits come from, how they are made, and how they taste.


Create a mental list of wines to pair with meals your guest could have. Know the vintage, producer, variety, and region. Know how it tastes and why you recommend it. Have an Old World and New World example for important wine varietals/styles. Start with food friendly wines like Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon. A New and Old World example for these should be a minimum. Once you have those ten wines chosen and memorized, try to add 40 more. You want a range of varietals, price points, styles, and regions. Ask a friend to choose a dish and you make a full recommendation on the spot: "I recommend a Pinot Noir to go with your [X food]. We have the 2010 Rex Hill Willamette Valley Pinot Noir form the Willamette Valley of Oregon. It has a medium weight that won't overpower the [X food], acidity to cut through the fat, and fruit flavors to bridge with the flavors in the sauce. If you prefer an Old World Pinot Noir, I recommend the 2005 Joseph Drouhin Gevrey-Chambertin from Burgundy, France." Understand what makes a good wine pairing - body/weight, acidity, flavor, tannin, and sweetness. Sometimes they should be equal between the food and wine, and sometimes they should contrast. And practice smiling the whole time you are at the table :) It really helps!


Practice what you will say when you make a mistake or don't know the answer. This will happen, and that's ok. Your job as a sommelier is to help the guest have a great experience, not be an infallible wine encyclopedia. If you make a mistake, recover well and get points for recovering well. I heard of a CS candidate who spilled a tray of full champagne glasses into the host's lap... and still passed! The candidate recovered well and had enough points to pass. Don't give up and throw in the towel, instead say, "I'm so sorry about that! This meal will be complementary and our restaurant will pay for your dry cleaning. We can even buy you a new suit if you prefer." Say something to make the guest feel respected and cared about. Show the examiner that you stayed calm under pressure, and that is what matters.

I also wrote a blog post about my first-hand experience taking the exam

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