Peter Vargas, Assistant Manager and Sommelier of Mountain Lake, shares how he prepared for and took the advanced sommelier exam.
Every sommelier has an “Aha!” moment when they take a sip of a wine that changes their world and most of the time the trajectory of their career. Mine came while I was working at the Ritz Carlton Jupiter in 2012. Laura, the Food and Beverage Director, was doing a wine dinner with Krupp Brothers. I took a sip of “The Doctor” and that was it. I suddenly had all these questions about the why, where, how, and what of the smells, tastes, and pairings. Laura saw my curiosity, told me about the Court of Master Sommeliers and pushed me in the direction of my first mentor, Virginia Phillips, who is a Master Sommelier at The Breakers (Palm Beach) with her own wine shop.
Through classes hosted at her wine shop, Virginia helped to set my foundation on wine which I used and built upon through my own studies.
Studying for exams through the Court is interesting and difficult. A lot of it is self-teaching and group studying. There is not a very structured syllabus of what needs to be studied to pass like Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). The Court will lay out what the exams are like at each level and then you have to figure it out from there. Master Sommeliers—if you have the luxury of knowing one—will generally always help if approached by someone with genuine interested, but they will never just give you a laid-out plan of what to do or how it will happen. They will point you in the right direction and then it’s up to you to do the hard work. I believe that is one of the reasons why it becomes so hard once you get to your Advanced and Master level of examination.
There are three parts of the examination and as you progress to each level the examination gets substantially more difficult. First is the blind tasting portion or deductive tasting portion. For the Advanced Exam I had 6 wines (3 red and 3 white) with 25 minutes to fully evaluate all the wines out loud to the Master Sommeliers across the table.
Second is service where a mock restaurant is set for the candidate. In this portion of the exam the Master Sommeliers at the table can ask you all kinds of questions about wine, spirits, beer, sake, or food pairings and then they can ask you to perform champagne service, sake service, decanting service, and make cocktails if they wish.
Third is the theory exam which is exactly that. Theory questions about wine, regions, climate, soils, spirts, beer, sake, service, business, wine menus, steps of service, fermentation processes, yeast strains, and the list goes on. (For example, do you know what multiple parallel fermentation process is or what the differences are between rickhouses and palletized warehouses? There might also be pairing questions, like what pairs well with a pan-seared scallops, but it has to be from Northern Spain, something like chardonnay but not chardonnay. Do you know where to go and what they want?)
In order to prepare for my first attempt at the Advanced Exam, I needed a support team with the same mindset, going for the same exams. I had the very special opportunity to work with another Master Sommelier, George Miliotes, at his wine bar in Disney Springs. There I found two amazing mentors along with many team members who were pursuing their Advanced Exam. I knew I wanted and needed to “stack the deck” around me. I needed a lot of people that knew more than I did so I could learn from them. I knew this crew would push me as well.
As I studied for these tests, I quickly learned that I had to take my ego out of the equation. The people around me knew more than I did. Success meant listening more than speaking.
Going to work offered day-in and day-out practice with regards to service, understanding the customer and what they were looking for, reading the table, opening wine and speaking about different producers from different regions. After work, I’d go home and either blind taste by myself or with my tasting group. If I wasn’t tasting I was focused theory, which would consist of notecards, tracing maps, writing, and memorization of anything I could get my hands on.
George, my mentor, helped me in many ways regarding service, blind tasting and theory. I don’t think he really knows how much I appreciate all of his guidance. Robyn Cohn was another mentor I worked closely with at Wine Bar George. She is a guru on all things spirits and cocktails. (She also knows a lot about wine, beer and sake.) She helped me understand classic cocktails, how and why they are made in certain ways. She also helped me to understand how spirits are made and what makes them different and unique.
Everyone is different in the way they prepare for a test of this magnitude. For a few, it’s easy to study, retain information and go into this exam confident then knock it out of the park. For others, like myself, its like training for a boxing match. It’s a lot of training and you make sure you are disciplined enough to not let outside distractions get the best of you. It even goes beyond the notecards, steps of service and how to distinguish Pinot Grigio from Albarino. It’s mental training, too. It’s training your mind to stay as calm as possible once you finally get to the exam.
In the exam, the Master Sommeliers giving the test will try to throw curveballs to see if you can stay calm, cool, and collect under pressure. If you get rattled by someone or yourself in any part of this exam you’re done. If you are not mentally strong, it’s hard to recover from a mistake and keep going forward.
Going to Phoenix was exciting. I went with the mindset of killing it, being confident no matter what and giving it everything I had every single day. The first day was service. The second day was deductive tasting. The third day was theory. I woke up each morning, rapping to Eminem (when I get nervous, I stutter, so rapping with the quick, rhythmic, and vowel based lyrics over time has helped my flow of speech when I get nervous) and puting on my suit.
On the ride to the test, I did breathing exercises. Once I checked, they made me wait for my turn to take my part of the exam. That’s probably the worst part—the waiting—but its where that mental toughness comes in especially useful.
Teddy Atlas used to tell his fighters, “All you have to do is be strong for 36 minutes. Can you be strong for 36 minutes?!” All I had to do was be strong for “X” number of minutes depending on what day it was and what part of the exam I was taking.
The training was done and now I had to be strong for “X” number of minutes.
Each day a couple of Master Sommeliers would come and get me for whatever part of the exam I was taking. They take you into the room for each portion of the exam. As they speak, your mind is racing a million miles an hour of what’s coming. It’s intense.
After your portion of the exam, they stick you in a room with other candidates who have already taken the exam until everyone is done for the day. This could last for hours depending on when you have taken your part of the exam. In that time, since you can’t have your phone on you, you roast yourself on what you might have gotten wrong and torture yourself until they let you leave at which point you run back to your hotel to look up answers.
When all was said and done I passed 2 out of 3 portions. Even though I was defeated, I learned so much in my time getting ready for this exam. I will face it again—hopefully in 2022—and when I do, I hope to get my green pin.