The Master Sommelier test is like the bar exam for wine experts—if the bar involved eating the paper your test was printed on and pinpointing exactly where and when the trees were grown that were pulped to create the pages. As I learned from watching the new documentary Somm, the test is amusingly hard (unless you’re taking it, and then it’s just hard hard). Less than 200 people in the world have passed the test to earn the Master Sommelier distinction, and of the 32 people who attempt it in the movie, only six succeed. One of the aspiring somms is Brian McClintic. Recently I traveled to Santa Barbara, California, to meet him and fellow sommelier Eric Railsback. I sought their help.
Like many people who enjoy wine, I thought I knew a bit about it; I can amble my way through a list. Then I watched McClintic prepare for the big test, using something sommeliers call the “tasting grid” to masterfully assess wine after wine: sugar, acid, tannin, density, alcohol, body, fruit, wood, earth, complexity, balance, finish. I felt like an amateur blackjack player watching a professional card counter. I wanted to learn to comprehend wine with the same amount of skill.
- World’s Best Sommelier vs. World’s Worst Customer
- Sommeliers of the Year 2013
- Secret Life of a Sommelier
- What Sommeliers Know Best
- The Wines Sommeliers Love to Hate
- Wine-Tasting Workout: Train Yourself to be a Better Wine Taster
Of course, part of me wondered if that was even possible, or if some people are born with superhuman palates. McClintic assures me that’s not the case. “For years, I had a problem recognizing American oak,” he says. “People were like, ‘Can’t you smell the coconut?’ Nope. ‘What about the sawdust?’ Nope. Then someone said ‘sweet and sour,’ and suddenly, I could smell it.” In other words, taste can be taught, and I was eager to use Santa Barbara’s reinvigorated wine scene as my classroom.