Four Tulsans reflect on becoming certified sommeliers
The role of the sommelier has changed drastically over the years, especially here in Tulsa. It wasn’t long ago that when the guy in a tie at a restaurant came to the table, he was regarded as a used car salesman trying to hock his overpriced products. Today, after being depicted in television shows and movies, the sommelier has attained somewhat of a cult status, inspiring a slew of would-be sommeliers. Even in Tulsa, you can find aspiring somms sitting alone at local bars, their noses planted purposefully in glasses of and books about wine.
But cult status leads to some confusion—like what it actually takes to become a certified sommelier and, more importantly, what the certification means.
There are about a dozen certified sommeliers working in downtown Tulsa, and four them recently gathered around a table to talk about their journey to certification. The similarity in their origin stories is uncanny.
TC Ryan, operating partner/general manager of PRHYME Steakhouse, started in the restaurant biz at 16 and could appreciate a fine glass of wine even though he was only in high school.
Joe Breaux’s first job was as wine manager for Fleming’s, and now he runs and operates his own wine distribution outlet, Bevworks.
Jared Jordan, owner of MixCo Bar, worked in his uncle’s liquor store, stocking bottles on shelves as a teen.
And Noah Bush, one of Tulsa’s most prolific downtown restaurateurs, became a bar manager at a restaurant before he was even legal to stand behind one.
“I was working at the bar one day and I was talking about wine and a person at the bar asked if I was a sommelier,” Bush said. “I was like, ‘what are you talking about? No, I’m not from Somalia!’ But they started explaining it to me and I realized I could have a career in this.”
Each of them, young and a bit naïve, did not realize that they had already established roots in wine and would grow within the Tulsa restaurant scene.
To become a certified sommelier, one must pass certain criteria set forth by the Court of Master Sommeliers, an organization created to improve and implement standards of knowledge about beverages in the restaurant and hospitality industry. There are four levels one must pass to become a master sommelier. Currently, only 147 people in the Americas’ Chapter have passed the final master level since the Court’s inception in 1977. Needless to say, it is a very elite club.
The introductory-level examination is a multiple-choice, 70 question theory exam that covers everything from regions to varieties, history to hospitality. LeRoy, Breaux, Jordan and Bush all took their level one together in 2007.
“I failed miserably,” Bush said, “but I retook it and passed in 2008, then became certified in 2010.”
Step two, the certification examination, is comprised of three parts: a blind tasting, a written exam and a service practical,
where one must not only know the service components of wine (how to present and serve, for instance), but answer a vigorous interrogation by a master sommelier on everything from cocktails to sakes.
“They are intentionally asking you questions you don’t know to see how you handle yourself. They grill you and, if you show weakness, they will poke at you until you want to walk away and cry,” LeRoy said.
Access to information about what to expect at the certification level, let alone access to the wide variety of wines one must know, can be limited.
“In the program, you lean a lot on people who have done it before,” Jordan said. “It’s supposed to take on a mentor/apprentice situation. So you reach out to someone who is a level or two ahead of you and they tend to be very helpful.”
Breaux points out that having experience in the restaurant business is the best way to be exposed to the information needed to pass.
“In the trade, you have much broader access to wines, because you are getting visited daily by people bringing wine to your doorstep, telling you all about it, and drinking it. And you learn the mechanics of serving them in a hospitality environment.”
Jordan notes how being in the business can give test-takers the edge.
“I don’t want to call people ‘civilians’ who do it without hospitality experience; but for people who aren’t from the trade, it’s got to be harder.”
Those who pass the rigors of the second level are accredited as certified sommeliers and are bestowed with a lapel pin. But the path to becoming a master-level sommelier has two more levels, and Bush has recently completed his first prep course for the advanced sommelier examination.
“It’s still very intense, but I honestly think it’s a stark difference from certified levels,” Bush said. “You’ve got a litany of wines in front of you and they are all completely different colors—bright pink to brownish-black wine—and there’s a Master Sommelier making you smell all of them. You are totally confounded by all of it; but they are there encouraging you. It was honestly very inspirational for me and reinvigorated my passion for it.”
The role of a certified sommelier has been glamorized a bit, but not undeservedly. Those who have passed have put in the time, effort and money necessary to be successful.
“The pin is great; the credentials are great. But there are a lot of people out there who have an incredible amount of knowledge and have incredible palates who have never sat for the exam,” Breaux said. “I don’t think their opinion should be diminished just because, by God, I have my CS pin on.”“The role of the sommelier is to make wine more accessible, so ask us questions,” Bush continued. “We want to start the conversation for you. The wine is asking you to get to know it. A beer just happens to you. A cocktail just happens to you. A wine is wanting to speak to you.”
Considering the cumulative knowledge among these four sommeliers, the advice they pass along to those who want to enjoy wine like a sommelier is simple: drink as much of it as you can.
Cheers to that.
Tips for Aspiring Somms:
Immersion: Being in the restaurant or hospitality industry allows for maximum exposure to the wines and mechanics of wine service.
Time: The tests require you to know about botany, chemistry, geology, meteorology, anthropology, geography and history. And that’s before even a drop of wine touches your tongue. The average sommelier allows themselves at least a year in between exams to absorb the information.
Money: Part of the course materials are bottles of wine—lots and lots of bottles—not to mention books and the cost of taking the examinations (prices start at $500).
Friends: Find like-minded people who enjoy popping corks and talking about wine. There are several groups in town who meet regularly.
Resources: For more information about the application process, visit mastersommeliers.org and for more generalized information about wine, guildsomm.com is highly recommended.
For more from Angela, read her article on having chocolate cake for breakfast.