Wine

15 New Master Somms Share Their Top Study Tips and Insights

From building a tasting cellar to adopting an athlete’s mindset, MSs reveal their strategies for success

New Master Sommeliers announced in September 2018.
New Master Sommeliers announced in September 2018. Photo courtesy of the Court of Master Sommeliers.

On September 5, a stunning total of 24 men and women earned the title of Master Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers. While it’s the largest number of candidates to have passed in the court’s history, the success ratio remains low: 141 candidates sat the exam, including 56 who took the tasting and/or service portion.* SevenFifty Daily caught up with 15 of the new MSs—including the Krug Cup winner—to learn more about who they are, how they did it, and how they celebrated.

Greg Van Wagner, MS; Krug Cup Winner; Aspen, Colorado

The wine director at Jimmy’s and Jimmy’s Bodega in Aspen, Colorado, Greg Van Wagner runs the wine programs at both restaurants. This year he became the first person in six years to win the Krug Cup—the award given to a candidate who passes all three sections on the first attempt (and, if more than one person qualifies, to the candidate with the highest score).

What was the one thing that got you through?

Working with a very strong group of other sommeliers going for the same goal was truly key. Having six people all doing in-depth individual research into the world of beverage, then sharing our findings and questions, was the only way to uncover some of the deeper meaning of each topic. Every person in the world has slightly different views and strengths in the beverage world, so combining it all helped everyone. As a group, we had a lot of success in the exams this year.

Also, it had taken me three tries to pass the Advanced Exam, and the lessons learned through not passing multiple times helped immensely in my philosophy for the Master’s.

What are your best study tips for people preparing for this exam?

It’s impossible to do it all by yourself, so reach out to people and take their advice and lessons because everybody has something valuable to say. Great mentors can help you finally get your head wrapped around topics, as well as give some mental support when you really need it most. Also, it was an interesting revelation when I really decided that this day/week/month was the time that I was going to finally understand a topic that beat me up before. So it often turned out to be just a mental block.

How many attempts did it take you? 

I feel honored to have won the Krug Cup this year, as I passed all three sections on the first try. 

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink? 

It’s still ongoing! There’s been everything from Grand Cru Burgundy and allocated Champagne producers to fun and inexpensive sherry and Greek wine. 

Tyler Alden, MS; Seattle

As the education and training director-sommelier for Heavy Restaurant Group in Seattle, Tyler Alden administers the training programs for all nine restaurants, teaches classes, and works to elevate the staff’s care and overall service of guests. He’s also been helping out on the floor at Heavy’s new wine bar, Claret, in the Wallingford neighborhood.

What was the one thing that got you through? 

I attribute my success to the incredible study partners and mentors I had with me. Having a community of talented, passionate professionals devoted to the betterment of their craft, as well as the betterment of others, is something truly special.

What are your best study tips for people preparing for this exam?

Push yourself and stay the course. Create a study plan that will result in success, truly know why you’re doing it, commit fully, and never stop striving.

How many attempts did it take you? 

Theory: 1; tasting: 2; service: 2.

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink? 

Taking a moment to reflect, breathe, and just experience the moment with friends and family has been wonderful. My fiancée and I keep a special bottle of single malt Scotch that we toast with on the most special of occasions. This definitely qualified. 

Dana Gaiser, MS; New York

Dana Gaiser works for Lauber Imports, selling wine to some of New York’s best restaurants, including Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, New York, and Le Coucou in New York City.

What was the one thing that got you through?

Studying with a Master Sommelier, Brandon Tebbe, who had a lot of similar strengths and weaknesses. In a short time, he helped me tweak my approach. A coworker, Kathy Morgan, MS, also helped mentor me.

What are your best study tips for people preparing for this exam?

The only way to pass this exam is to have a solid, tangible community to work with, and to never be afraid of reaching out to other Masters for help.

How many attempts did it take you?

I first took the exam in 2013. I passed theory in 2014, and then again in 2017 on the first attempt after my reset. I passed service in 2017—which had been my Achilles’ heel—and tasting in 2015 and again in 2018.

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink?

I celebrated with all the new Masters at the New Masters Lunch with a bottle of Sandeman Royal Ambrosante Palo Cortado, which was last bottled in the ’80s from a solera dating back to the 1800s. That bottle has traveled with me to the Master Sommelier exam six times, and I was finally able to enjoy it with my colleagues. I’ll also be celebrating with my fiancée with a bottle of 1999 Coche-Dury Puligny-Montrachet Enseignères.

Morgan Harris, MS; San Francisco

As the head sommelier at the forthcoming restaurant Angler in San Francisco—opening in late September—Morgan Harris modestly says he’ll be responsible for “putting wine in glasses.”

What was the one thing that got you through? 

For me, it was retaking service, a section I’d already passed once. It’s really about not self-sabotaging, staying hospitality focused, and making sure that you’re championing your guest’s experience. Don’t let any small mistakes you might make, or questions you can’t answer, dictate the tone of your service. 

What are your best study tips for people preparing for this exam? 

Figure out why you’re doing it; if your heart’s in the right place and you’re well motivated by good things like community, professional excellence, and hospitality, the rest of the process will fall in line. It’s really you versus yourself. Preparing well for the exam will change you positively. Having the correct motivations solves everything. 

How many attempts did it take you?

I sat in five different exam cycles, starting in 2014. I passed theory on my first go, service on my second, but then I reset on tasting for my third, took theory again and tasting on four, and then re-passed service for the trifecta on five. 

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink?

We had a great lunch with all the new Masters and our proctors, then I got on a 6 pm flight to San Francisco. I had ramen and a pitcher of Sapporo with my girlfriend for dinner, and then, the next day, I spent 16 hours working at the new restaurant I’m opening, which was followed by a celebratory nightcap of Agrapart Vénus 2008. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. To quote the great John Ragan, “Sommeliers do it on the floor.”

James Lechner, MS; Seattle

As the owner-operator and wine director of Stoneburner and the general manager and wine director at Bastille, James Lechner runs the wine programs and manages operations for both restaurants in the Ballard neighborhood. He also sits on the board of directors of the SommFoundation, where he tackles various tasks, the majority of which are related to enrichment-trip programs.

What was the one thing that got you through? 

I prepared for the exam as an athlete trains. It might seem a stretch to think of the MS exam as an athletic event, but there are many similarities. Both require mental and physical preparation, intense focus for long periods of time, and importantly, managing the pressure of “game day.” 

All three portions of the exam are mentally, emotionally, and physically draining, and all three require significant stamina. I embraced the phrase mens sana in corpore sano—”a sound mind in a sound body.” I struggled with test anxiety, fear of failure—all the stuff that keeps many of us from being our best under stressful conditions. I dug into sports psychology, meditation, and physical training via cycling.

I found the rhythm of cycling in particular to be calming. I knew that the fight-or-flight response that I faced on big climbs on the bike was similar to the feeling you get when confronted by that one wine in the flight of six that doesn’t speak to you. If you stop pedaling on a steep grade, you fall off the bike. You have to work through that stumper wine in the same sense—stop thinking about what it is and use your technique to identify its constituent parts. If you can do that accurately and have intimate knowledge of the classic varieties, you’ll likely be left with only a few varieties that fit logically. It’s deductive tasting, not magic.

What are your best study tips for people preparing for this exam?

Make certain you are preparing for the actual exam. For example, for years many of us had study groups and tasting groups that met weekly (or more often) but didn’t practice service weekly. You’ve got to perform under incredible pressure during the service exam, and if you do the prep work in conditions that mimic exam day, you’ll find that you can control the anxiety, pressure, and fear that inevitably hit you in the midst of the exam.

How many attempts did it take you?

Sat the exam six times, including one reset. Theory: passed twice; tasting: three and passed twice; service: three and passed twice.

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink? 

I’m still celebrating! The Court of Masters holds a Krug reception after the exam for all candidates. Krug is pretty damn delicious when you pass! Some lovely wines have been poured for me over the past few days, including a ’99 Ponsot Clos de la Roche, a ’96 Sérafin Charmes-Chambertin, and a ’06 Méo-Camuzet Clos de Vougeot. More to come!

Jane Lopes, MS; Melbourne, Australia

The wine director for Attica in Melbourne, Jane Lopes is responsible for purchasing wine for the restaurant. She also manages the cocktail and nonalcoholic drink programs, designs the pairings, and manages a team of sommeliers.

What was the one thing that got you through? 

It is a very hard time, so it’s best to expect that from the outset. What got me through was a sense of surrendering to the moment—knowing that I had done the work and being open enough to let that show on the day.

What are your best study tips for people preparing for this exam? 

Put in a ton of time. Budget 20 to 30 hours per week for at least a year leading up to the exam. Draw your own maps and make your own study guides. Figure out how you retain information best. Aim to truly understand and master the world of wine, as well as your service and tasting skills. 

How many attempts did it take you?

Theory: 2; tasting: 1; service: 1. 

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink?

I was too exhausted to celebrate properly! I spent time with my family and drank whatever was in my parents’ laundry room–cellar. The more I work in wine, the less precious I am about “special bottles.” It’s so much more about the moment and the people. 

Steven McDonald, MS; Houston

The wine director for Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in the Houston Galleria, Steven McDonald oversees the restaurant’s sommelier team and wine list.

What was the one trick that got you through?

There’s not really a trick, but there is a mind-set that you need for getting through blind tasting. Managing your own mental noise is key during those 25 minutes. Tasting isn’t merely a test of acumen and deductive reasoning, it’s also managing pacing and pressure. You have 25 minutes to show what you’ve been training for for the entire year. That kind of pressure is similar to what elite athletes and performers endure. Managing your mental noise and disorientation is key to focusing on the deductive steps you have to take to make an educated guess about the wine.

What are your best study tips for people preparing for this exam?

Surround yourself with people you trust. Make sure that your tasting group are holding one another accountable—and that the wines you’re tasting qualify as “classic.”

How many attempts did it take you?

Theory: 4; Tasting: 6; Service: 6

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink?

We passed the exam in St. Louis, but I waited to celebrate until I was back in Houston. Then I was surrounded by all my work family and friends. We drank all the Champagne. Some that I remember include Pierre Paillard, Hebrart, Pierre Peters, Vilmart, Krug, and Bollinger ‘Grand Année’ to name a few.

Elton Nichols, MS; Seattle

As a sommelier and the assistant wine director at Canlis in Seattle, Elton Nichols is responsible for wine purchasing, the organization and execution of the restaurant’s monthly wine inventory with the beverage team, and the administration of “Canlis U” in-house staff training. He also works with the cellar master to maintain four wine cellars and spends five nights a week in service.

What was the one trick that got you through?

It was a memory trick. You remember things more easily if you learn them in the same state of mind you’ll be in when you need to recall them. So basically, I just spent the last 14 years tired and afraid. I’m kidding! I actually focused on embodying mastery, not just feeling like I’m faking it or performing for an exam. If you start asking yourself what the Master Sommelier version of you would do in a given situation, you might be surprised how much clarity you’ll have. I would never advocate that anyone tell themselves or others that they are a Master when they are not, but acting with the integrity and diligence of one as your daily mode is such a great place to start.

What are your best study tips for people preparing for this exam

There are some useful memory techniques. Find out more about how you learn. You might not realize just how much of a visual learner you are. Get your peers who are also attempting the exams to run you through mocks—and make them intense. Mock tasting. Mock theory. Mock service with noise and bottles of sparkling wine that have been shaken viciously. Write mocks for others. When you have to write a comprehensive exam, you see the whole world through a different lens than when you’re just studying for yourself.

How many attempts did it take you?

Six total. I passed theory on my fourth attempt; the last two pieces were clutched from the jaws of reset. Theory: 4; tasting: 4; service: 4.

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink?

A lot and a lot! The Canlis family and Nelson Daquip, Advanced Sommelier, generously let me sit down to dinner in our restaurant with a bottle of 2002 La Tâche. It has become a tradition at Canlisanyone who passes the MS while working there is allowed to pick any single bottle off the wine list to have for dinner.

Rob Ord, MS; Napa, California

As Treasury Wine Estates’ prestige manager for California, Rob Ord interacts with both on-premise and off-premise accounts throughout the state. He takes care of all the company’s luxury wines, winemaker visits, activations, allocations, and distributor training and works with the staff and Treasury’s distributor in the field.

What was the one trick that got you through?

I don’t think that one single trick can get you through this sort of exam. I believe it’s the cumulative buildup of different aspects. This year I came in more confident and more self-assured in my tasting abilities. My past two years tasting in the MW program helped with this, and Reggie Narito, MS, was kind enough to taste with me (as well as many others) over the past two years. His insights into my tasting have been invaluable, especially concerning my blind spots or laterals that I always seem to confuse.

What are your best study tips for people preparing for this exam?

Preparation and a long-term study calendar. I wrote a small packet concerning study techniques and practices that have worked for me; a major component is setting aside enough time—both daily and total overall time—to be able to absorb and confidently own all of the information and skills needed. Last-minute study sessions don’t work because of the sheer volume of material.

I also think that constantly being honest with your own self-assessment is important. If you have a weakness, it’s best to discover and acknowledge it six months before the exam. A sudden loss of confidence during the exam because of a weakness highlighted during theory questions or service scenarios can derail your entire performance and waste an entire year of study.

How many attempts did it take you?

Eight attempts total. I passed theory three times and the service portion three times; however, it took me eight attempts to pass tasting. Theory: 3; tasting: 8; service: 3.

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink?

First off, it’s incredibly gratifying to see other people—like Max Kast, Andrey Ivanov, Dan Pilkey, Jill Zimorski, Josh Orr, and others—with whom I have shared many disappointments at various exams pass with me!

I haven’t really celebrated yet. I returned to work almost immediately. I have some older Burgundy in my cellar that I’ll open with friends next weekend. To be honest, I think my celebration will be paying it forward and helping someone else achieve their goal. There are quite a few people I helped before I passed, but I think it will really highlight my celebration to see them get to their goals now that I’ve met some of mine.

Dan Pilkey, MS; Chicago

As Midwest regional manager for Paul Hobbs Wines, Dan Pilkey works with distributors across the Midwest to educate buyers and young wine enthusiasts about the company’s wines. 

What was the one thing that got you through?

My network. My friends, family, wife, and tasting group were there to encourage me to learn and progress. Because if you want to go somewhere fast, go alone. But if you want to go somewhere far, go together. 

What are your best study tips for people preparing for this exam?

Put a due date on the calendar of when you want to be or think you’ll be ready … then add two more months for fine-tuning.

How many attempts did it take you?

For the MS, it took roughly eight years. All in all, from start to finish, it was a 15-year journey. 

In 2010, I took all three sections and passed service. Then, in 2011, my restaurant, Ria in Chicago, got two Michelin stars, and I had to withdraw my seat—I couldn’t get the time off—which counted as a fail. Then, in 2012, I took theory and tasting and passed nothing, which caused an automatic reset. I’ve tested every year since. I passed theory in ’16 and tasting and service last week. Theory: 6; tasting: 6; service: 4.

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink?

The night I passed, I drove home to Chicago, and my wife and I shared six-month barrel-aged Manhattans from our wedding in 2014. I bottled it in vials and have been saving it for a special occasion … this felt like it qualified. I also drank 100th anniversary Grand Marnier Centenaire that night because it was featured in a test question. 

Chris Ramelb, MS; Honolulu

As an on-premise sales manager for Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, Chris Ramelb supports the on-premise team and tries to increase SGWS’s sales to restaurants in Hawaii. 

What was the one thing that got you through? 

Experience and consistency. All of the candidates exude the passion and put in the hours necessary to pass. The only thing that was different was that it was another year—and it was a rough one. I learned to cope with loss and deal with difficult work and financial situations. The passing of my father a day after Christmas was an extra push, as he always supported my goals.

A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor. I was forced to learn to navigate in a hurricane—almost literally—which sucked but ultimately helped get me over the hump. 

What are your best study tips for people preparing for this exam? 

First and foremost: Work hard. Figure out what works for you. Surround yourself with people who want the best for you and for whom you want the best. Do things that you might not feel ready for yet. Most importantly, never ever lose your passion and humility. For some reason, wine people feel they need to be great right away. Don’t fall victim to that mentality and burn out your love of the game as a result. Enjoy learning and improving, and when you finally know enough to be dangerous, pay it forward. And don’t be a dick about it. 

How many attempts did it take you?

Two. I failed theory last year—my first failure in the court—and passed all three parts this year. Theory: 2; tasting: 1; service: 1.

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink?

Beer (of course!) with some fellow classmates and Masters. Camaraderie is the best part about these exams. I’m not one for self-celebration, but I can’t wait to share this with my colleagues and ’ohana [family] in Hawaii. It’s a team win. I’m only here because of them. 

Steven Robinson, MS; Ottawa, Canada

As the general manager and head sommelier for Atelier restaurant in Ottawa, Steven Robinson manages all front-of-house operations. 

What was the one trick that got you through? 

Freedom from expectations, along with a strong mental game.

What are your best study tips for people preparing for this exam? 

Study helps, but experience is the key. You must go beyond the computer screen.

How many attempts did it take you?

Theory: 2; service: 1; tasting: 1.

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink? 

I played some blues on the banks of the Mississippi, and then I drank a beer.

Justin Timsit, MS; Los Angeles

As a salesman at Martine’s Wines in Los Angeles, Justin Timsit represents a portfolio of fine wines from around the world, including historic domaines; a few next-generation producers throughout France, Portugal, and Italy; and a new wave of producers from Australia.

What was the one thing that got you through?

Something really resonated with me after reading Dr. Bob Rotella’s sports psychology book How Champions Think: In Sports and in Life. He talks about how some of the greatest athletes prepare for pressure-filled moments and can still perform at their highest level. His psychology really inspired me, and it’s how I approached my blind-tasting preparation leading up to this year’s exam. I learned from some great mentors that it’s the process, not the outcome, that’s most important. Rotella’s phrase for this is “Train it and trust it.” I learned that if I could focus more on calibrating the wine accurately, then the answer would reveal itself under pressure if my theory was strong enough.

What are your best study tips for people preparing for this exam?

Be obsessed and be relentless.

How many attempts did it take you?

Theory: 1; service: 1; tasting: 3.

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink?

With a few fellow new Masters in town, and with a lot of tequila and cerveza—and maybe some Champagne too!

Jessica Waugh, MS; Las Vegas

As assistant director of wine education for Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits of Nevada, Jessica Waugh spends her days educating the Nevada Southern team and the trade about wine and sake. 

What was the one trick that got you through? 

I don’t think there is a trick, or one thing, to get through this exam. It takes a lot of time and dedication to your craft and passion to get through this exam. This year I really fell in love with the process of studying, and I feel that’s extremely important. The point of doing this is to be the best at what you love and to share that knowledge with others; the bonus is a pin and the initials. The big difference for me this year is that I had a solid foundation of the wine world, so I was then able to really dig into the details of what makes each specific region what it is.

What are your best study tips for people preparing for this exam? 

Don’t just focus on subjects you’re interested in and put the others on the back burner. Find something that interests you about the regions you’re not interested in—whether that’s a soil, a grape, a producer, or whatever—and build from that interest. Read what the top producers in the region are doing to make their wine what it is—when you understand the producers of the region, you’ll better understand the region.

How many attempts did it take you?

Theory: 2; service: 1; tasting: 1.

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink? 

Oddly enough, I haven’t popped a special bottle … yet. I’m waiting to open something special until later this month, because I turn 30 on the 10th. So I’m pacing my liver and combining celebrations.

Jill Zimorski, MS; Chicago

As the Champagne specialist of the Strategic Group in Chicago, Jill Zimorski represents the Champagnes in Moët Hennessy’s portfolio and works with approximately 50 restaurants in the city. Her focus is on education, so she presents the Champagnes to sommeliers and buyers; conducts staff, trade, and consumer education and training; and plans and executes Champagne events. 

What was the one thing that got you through?

One thing that helped me tremendously was the book How Champions Think: In Sports and in Life by sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella. He works with athletes—mostly professional golfers—but has counseled all kinds of folks, including LeBron James and Seal. The gist is that people attempting to do extraordinary things (like make the PGA Tour or, say, pass the Master Sommelier exam) often have the same kinds of doubts, fears, and anxieties.

He describes—very plainly with lots of anecdotes—his principles for helping these folks with these issues. It was so straightforward, and much of the advice he dispenses I’d heard before but not in this manner. It resonated deeply. My parents sent me the book, and I read it twice before the exam. I can’t recommend it enough.

What are your best study tips for people preparing for this exam?

Every part of the exam is different, but with each I tried to take a holistic approach: For theory, I would write study guides for myself, draw maps, record podcasts of myself talking and listen to them, and use flash-card apps for review.

For tasting, I changed some things up this year: As much as possible, I tried to blind-taste just with Master Sommeliers, especially those who proctor the MS exam. I also built up a “tasting cellar” at home (I got this idea from Michael Meagher, MS) of multiple high-quality examples of all wines with a high probability of appearing on the exam, and with my Coravin, I would taste wines every day nonblind and keep track of what I was tasting on my kitchen calendar.

Sometimes I would taste all of a certain variety, sometimes different examples from a category (like aromatic white wines) next to each other, or I’d do single-blind tastes—where you know what the wines are but you mix the glasses up so you don’t know what is where—and laterals, where you taste wines that are easily confused for each other next to each other. It helps with speed identification and differentiation. I don’t know that there’s a single best approach, but I tried to vary it so it was broad, deep, comprehensive, and not boring.

How many attempts did it take you?

Five: I passed theory and service on my first attempt in 2014, and then after not passing tasting the following two years, reset in 2016. I then took and passed theory and service—but not tasting—in 2017. This year I passed tasting.

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink?

I enjoyed a couple of glasses of Krug Grande Cuvée at the reception, and we had some lovely wines at the New Masters Lunch. That night I laid pretty low; I was just beat. Then, on my drive back to Chicago the next morning, I blew a tire about an hour outside the city, so we had an unexpected detour in Channahon, Illinois. I was carpooling with my friend—and MS candidate—Anthony Minne, and while my tire was being fixed, we ate cheese pizza and drank cans of Dr. Pepper at a place called Pizza For U next to the auto-body shop. It was super glamorous.

*Editor’s note: According to the Court of Master Sommeliers, the MS exam consists of three parts—a theory examination (an oral examination), a deductive tasting of six wines, and a practical wine service examination. Students must first pass the theory exam, and they then have three consecutive years in which to pass the remaining two parts. A student who passes one or two parts may retake those he or she failed during the next two years. If all three parts are not passed during the three-year period, the entire exam must be retaken.

When she’s not writing about beverage, travel, or weird science, Julie H. Case can be found deep in America’s forests, foraging for mushrooms.

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