Sunday, April 13, 2014

Certified Sommeliers Celebrating with the 2009 Château Cos D'Estournel - St-Estèphe

Château Cos D'Estournel

On Monday and Tuesday March 24th - 25th, two weeks after we graduated from the Intensive Sommelier Training at the International Culinary Center, we had a two-day (8 hours per day) overview of the world of wine accompanied by a number of blind wine tastings. There was so much information covered so quickly that if any of it was new to you there was no way you were going to have time to take notes and remember the information. But, a book with all the information is provided and most of the people there had just graduated from ICC so it was all old-news. At the end of the second day we took a multiple choice written exam that was fairly easy for a wine geek, and yet the average wine consumer would not pass it. Everyone passed the exam and subsequently received the small red Introductory Guild of Sommeliers (sometimes referred to as “Level 2”) pin and certificate.

On the following day, Wednesday March 26th, we then took the Certified Sommelier Exams. Having studied for 17 weeks the stress and anticipation of taking these exams was quite intense. I didn’t sleep well and couldn’t stop going through my flash cards in my mind. I wasn’t concerned about the blind tasting, it was mostly the written exam and even more so the service exam that I was concerned about. The stress was so intense that the previous week I had difficulty doing my job as I found it difficult to focus on anything but thinking about my flash cards and going through all the steps for service.

So, I took the entire week off from work for the exams as well as the Friday of the week prior to the exams as so I could do NOTHING but study the Friday – Sunday before the exams.

After we passed the introductory exam and got the red pin on Tuesday the 25th I went home and practiced service - going through the entire process twice of setting the mes en place, setting the table, folding the serviettes, naming old/new food & wine pairings for basic salads, various types of fish, shellfish, chicken, pork, game and beef and I opened two bottles of an inexpensive Champagne. I had my living room and kitchen set up as a restaurant with white linens, a small serving table, silver coasters, an ice bucket, stemware, a serving tray and white serviettes. Doing that extra practice actually helped me relax as I felt more confident about the service exam, which concerned me the most as I had no prior restaurant experience.

The first portion of the Certified Sommelier exam consists of a blind tasting of two wines, one white and one red. The white “grid wines” which may be on the exam consists of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier. The red “grid wines” are Gamay, Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Syrah, Merlot/Cabernet (or a blend such as a Bordeaux), Malbec, and Zinfandel. So, you’re not going to get an Albariño or a Tempranillo, those wines are reserved for the Advanced and Master exams. The regions that these wines could come from include the well-known wine regions of the world, but they will only pour wines that display a typical profile from a classic region. So, you’re not going to get a Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa or a Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile.

The second portion of the Certified Sommelier exam consists of a written exam with some multiple-choice questions, some matching questions, and “fill in the blank” questions. There were a few questions about everything imaginable (viticulture, viniculture, grapes, sparkling wines, dessert wines, appellations, vintages, producers, wine laws, climates, soils and whatever else about wine you can imagine) so there is no subject that you could just focus on nor was there any subject that you could ignore. The exam is very broad and comprehensive but it wasn’t extremely deep. But there were also a few questions which I considered to be somewhat advanced. Personally, I thought the written exam was somewhat easier than the WSET Level 3 exam that I had taken a few years ago but there were multiple people who thought the exam was too difficult.

The third portion of the Certified Sommelier exam is a service/practical exam, which takes place in a mock restaurant scenario. The exam consists of doing proper table service which I won’t explain here, but it isn’t a simple common sense table restaurant service. The practical exam may include a sparkling wine service or a decanting service, but typically it is a sparkling wine service which is the most dangerous so I am sure they want to make sure a Certified Sommelier can properly open a bottle of champagne without losing control of it. During the service you are asked to identify a couple cocktails out of a list of about 120 cocktails which you should have memorized, including the primary ingredient (Gin, Vodka, Rum, Whiskey, Scotch etc.) and suggest a producer. Then after properly opening and serving the Champagne you have to answer some food and wine pairing questions. All of this takes place within 12 minutes and it goes by very fast. If someone fails the Certified Exam, out of the three tests this is probably the exam which most people fail.

While they could give us all the blind wine tasting and written exams at the same time they could only give few people the service exam at a time. The exam is 12 minutes but it takes a few minutes for them to set things up before and after each exam so it takes several hours to get approximately 40 people through the process. Each person is given their time (10:30 AM, 10:45 AM, 11 AM...) and as you wait for your turn you spend your time going over flash cards for cocktails and your memorized wine list for the food and wine pairing questions. Then when your time comes, you and a few others are escorted into the “restaurant” where you are given basic instructions – the name of the restaurant, the name of the wine being served and the name of your guest.

One of the oddest things is that you only have one Master Sommelier at the table but there are 3 other imaginary guests sitting that you pour wine for and you have to remember which are male and which are female so that you do the proper order of service. In real life, you wouldn’t have to memorize who was male or female and try to remember not to hit the invisible person in the head with your elbow as you pour the Champagne.

While I made a few mistakes here and there, I felt fairly confident that I did okay in the service exam. I remained professional, I did okay with the cocktails, the food and wine paring went well but then I had to clear the table and walk back and forth across the room with the tray in one hand carrying four full glasses of wine– THAT was something that I had not practiced. I had only practiced setting the table with empty glasses.

After everyone had taken the exams we took a break for about 3 hours so everyone could eat lunch and the Master Sommeliers could grade the exams. We were told that we had to return by 3 PM and would have the results by 5 PM.

Then the time came for us to hear the results. We were all assembled into a large room and one-by-one they called the names (in no particular order) of those who passed. As the numbers dwindled and there were fewer diplomas and pins in the MS’ hands I began doubting and kept telling myself, “Dude, if you didn’t pass, take it like a man and maintain your composure.” I was one of the last people called and when I heard my name the emotional sense of relief and excitement overwhelmed me as they handed me my Certified Sommelier pin and my diploma, but then my heart sank for the four people who had taken the same 17 week ICC course, either in the morning or evening, but did not pass. There is no guarantee that if you take the course that you will pass the Certified Exam and I am sure that if I did not take the course I would not have passed. But you have to dedicate yourself to focus on the task at hand and spend a lot of your time studying your ass off!

The 2009 Cos D'Estournel - St-Estèphe

After receiving our diplomas and pins we celebrated with some sparkling wine, taking copious pictures and then a bunch of us headed over to Vintage, a wine bar in San Jose, for further celebration with one of our instructors, Eric Entrekin MS.

After opening a few more bottles of wine at Vintage a smaller group of us (about 10 or so) gathered at the home of one of my classmates and newly pinned Certified Sommeliers. I had brought two bottles of a 2nd Growth Bordeaux, the 1989 Grand Vin De Leoville Marquis De Las Cases, for our last class together but now that we had actually passed the Certified Sommelier Exams I wanted to celebrate with something really special. 

Among several other wines, I brought a bottle of the 2009 Château Cos D'Estournel from St-Estèphe, a Super Second Growth from Bordeaux. The vintage is considered to be “perfect” and this wine received 100 point scores from many well-known wine critics such as Robert Parker and James Suckling, not that I’m a follower of any wine critics or chase point scores, but everyone has raved about the vintage so I knew I couldn’t go wrong.

I decanted the wine and let it breath for about an hour and during that time we tasted numerous other fabulous wines that others brought, but I was pacing myself as I wanted to have my wits about me when I tasted this wine. It was still a bit young and would undoubtedly improve and become more complex with another 5-10 years of ageing, but I wanted to celebrate the perfect occasion with the perfect wine and there were no better friends to share it with than my fellow ICC alumni and newly Certified Sommeliers.

This wine is a blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot with a wee-bit of Cabernet Franc (2%). On the nose and palate this wine displays layers of cassis, blackberry liqueur, blueberry, raspberries and dense fig with additional notes of plum cake, mocha, spice and sweet oak. On the finish, there is an intense iron and graphite minerality that I have never experienced in a wine before followed by hints of anise and a lingering mélange of black fruits. The tannins are firm but supple, the acidity is well balanced and the finish lingers.  Yet, having said all that this description doesn’t really do the wine justice as there is so much more to it that can’t be put into words.

Plans for the Future

You would think after studying so intensely and passing the Certified Exams that I would have taken a break. But the night after we passed the exams I still had flash cards going through my mind and there were some things I wanted to review and some new things I wanted to learn about, so I spent the rest of the week studying…. albeit at a more relaxed pace.

I will continue to learn about wine for the rest of my life and I have plans to be part of a study group that meets regularly. Tentatively I plan to move to the other side of the San Francisco Bay, closer to San Francisco, and once I get settled in I’ll host a study groups at my home. I also hope to do some part time work in a restaurant so I can get some experience working the floor. Then, if everything goes as planned, I’ll prepare to take the Advanced Exam, perhaps within the next two years before my 50th birthday.

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