Ask a Somm: Master Sommelier Exam

Sage’s Nick Hetzel was the only candidate to pass July’s master sommelier exam in Dallas.

Sage’s Nick Hetzel was the only candidate to pass July’s master sommelier exam in Dallas.

I heard the master sommelier exam is really difficult. Have you taken it? Has anyone from Las Vegas passed?

Four of the world’s best wine tasters stare at me as I sit before six unmarked wines. They’re waiting for me to identify each, and I’m terrified. I pick up my first glass, and I feel my hand trembling. As I smelled and tasted the reds, I thought, “I don’t smell anything, and I can taste the sweat dripping from my face into my mouth.” I took a deep breath, remembered how hard I had worked to get here and proceeded through the blind-tasting portion of my third master sommelier exam.

The master sommelier exam is a three-part test consisting of service, blind tasting and theory. Each candidate can take the test once a year (there are two tests dates per year), with three years to pass all three parts, or you have to reset—that is, start all over. Of the 211 people in the world who hold the title of master sommelier, 19 are women. I passed the service and tasting portions in the July exam in Dallas.

Craving Sage restaurant’s foie gras crème brûlée as a reward, I decided to indulge in crème brûlée and a chat with my tasting group partner and Sage’s newly minted master sommelier, Nick Hetzel, the only candidate out of 70 to pass the July exam.

Going into the exam, Nick was on his third year with just the blind tasting left. I asked him what was going through his mind during tasting, being under the intense pressure of a possible reset. “I was terrified,” he said, “and to be honest I really do not remember much of it. I got in the zone and stayed there.”

Candidates have deemed the blind tasting the toughest part to pass. One of the keys is to have a committed tasting group. “We have a talented, passionate group of master sommelier candidates in Las Vegas who want to pass. I predict we will see more master sommeliers from Las Vegas in the upcoming exams,” Hetzel said. “It is impossible to pass this test alone. You need help.”

My own long-distance study partner, D’Lynn Proctor, recently visited Las Vegas. He’s one of the featured sommeliers from the 2012 documentary Somm. We met up for a glass of wine at Delmonico Steakhouse, where we got a lesson from master sommelier Kevin Vogt. We found out that, like Nick, Vogt was the only candidate to pass his exam in 1999. Proctor and I both looked at each other and thought, “It would be awful to pass alone.”

“We were all at the Krug reception, my name was announced, I received my diploma and handshake,” Vogt said. “Across the room I could see all my friends’ bittersweet expressions. I wanted all of them to pass. Later, most of them did. I just did not get to celebrate that moment with any friend right then. It was lonely.”

The last master sommelier to pass from Las Vegas before Nick was Joseph Phillips in 2008, now wine director at MGM Grand. Today, Las Vegas has 12 working master sommeliers and about 10 active candidates. A high concentration of wine knowledge exists on Las Vegas’ 2-mile Strip, and that knowledge is zealously shared to help more candidates pass. And like them, I’ll next sit for the exam in February 2014.

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