On March 7, some of the country’s top sommeliers will descend on three U.S. cities—Atlanta, Dallas and San Francisco—to take on one of the most grueling assessments in the beverage industry: the master sommelier theory examination. This 50-minute verbal test spans global wine knowledge and is the first in a series of three to be passed in order to achieve coveted acceptance into the Court of Master Sommeliers; the final two—tasting and practical service—will be held in May. Montage Laguna Beach Beverage Manager Troy Smith will be one of the participants sitting for next week’s theory exam in San Francisco, and Laguna Uncorked caught up with him to discuss his studying regimen and outlook.
Laguna Uncorked: What has your studying regimen looked like over the past few months and how will you tackle these last few days?
Troy Smith: I try to study for at least a couple of hours each day, an hour or so before and an hour or more after shift. On my days off, I commit six to seven hours on average. I always write a syllabus of all the topics I need to cover and then I include each topic on a calendar to keep myself on pace. It’s not always easy to balance my work responsibilities and personal life with the rigors of study, but I enjoy the challenge and it affords me the opportunity to improve my time management skills.
LU: Have you been studying with any master sommeliers, and how have they aided your preparation?
TS: I’ve had the privilege of studying for the tasting portion of the exam with a number of different master sommeliers, including Tim Gaiser, Fred Dame, Reggie Narito, Michael Jordan, Peter Neptune and Steve Poe, to name just a few. The masters are not permitted to quiz us on theory, but I’m part of a large group of candidates that has been trading emails with some very difficult sample questions which encourage further research.
LU: What aspect of the theory examination do you consider the most difficult and why?
TS: The most difficult part of theory is simply trying to remember intricate details extemporaneously. Since the theory exam is given orally, the exam situation is always stressful. If you make a mistake or can’t think of the answer when a question is posed, you simply miss the question—there is no going back to make corrections.
LU: What would it mean to you to earn your master sommelier diploma?
TS: Earning the MS would be a validation of the time I’ve spent in the industry. One does not earn the MS designation by simply passing the test; the test is proof that you’ve spent a tremendous amount of time not only studying, but also in service. Having the MS designation would afford me the opportunity to mentor a wider audience of up-and-coming sommeliers. I firmly believe that while the CMS [Court of Master Sommeliers] exams are largely a personal achievement, each of us owes a debt to the larger sommelier community whose responsibility it is to foster a culture of true hospitality and service to our guests.
LU: Should you pass, what are your plans for the next two sections of the exam?
TS: Regardless of whether or not I’m successful in passing the theory portion again this year, my next steps will be to organize practice service and tasting exams for other candidates who are preparing for those portions in the coming months. It’s essential to participate not only in taking exams, but also to proctor them for others. The best way to learn is by teaching.
—Written by Kristin Scharkey