Wine

How 8 New Master Sommeliers Earned Their Pin

Newly minted MSs—some for the second time—share their mental strategies for conquering the famously difficult exam

September 2019 Master Sommeliers
Vincent Morrow, MS; Joshua Orr, MS; Justin Moore, MS; Mariya Kovacheva, MS; Nick Davis, MS; and Jeremy Shanker, MS. Photo courtesy of the Court of Master Sommeliers.

This September, candidates from across North America sat the Court of Master Sommeliers’ pièce de résistance: the Master Sommelier Diploma examination—specifically, the service and tasting portions. Of the 150 individuals to sit the exam, seven U.S. candidates passed—as did an additional candidate who retested in April—bringing the country’s grand total of Master Sommeliers to 172. Three were among the 23 who passed the tasting portion last September but had their titles invalidated after a cheating scandal rocked the court. SevenFifty Daily caught up with 2019’s new class of Master Sommeliers to find out how they did it, how they celebrated, and how the scandal affected their studies. 

Nick Davis, MS; Seattle

The creative director for Medium Plus, a beverage consulting and events company based in Seattle, Davis has spent more than 10 years in hospitality—the ultimate study guide, he says. This year he passed both the tasting and service portions of the exam on his first attempt.

How did you prepare mentally for the exam?

I worked on embodying the idea of mastery—beyond information and data, taking on the conceptual idea of what a master is, and what it means to be that person. In a way, it’s a bit of an abstraction, as mastery isn’t something attained through intention but through experience. You can’t wake up and decide to be a master of something. 

My mind-set was: I’m going to put the work in, I’m going to take the steps necessary to prepare myself, and I’m going to build the identity of someone who is a master—and that combination of things will lead to the result I seek. But the true foundation of mastery is work and experience, and accepting the results. You have to tell yourself “I am a master” and become a master before the exam. I said to myself, “I will become a master walking into the room,” so taking the test sort of verifies that condition that already exists. 

It’s almost like doing an acid or pH test in a winery—the test doesn’t cause or create the acid or pH level, it confirms what already exists.

In hindsight, what study strategy was the most effective?

Using teamwork and collaboration as much as possible, which meant tasting with friends with different experience levels—from people early in their journey to people far more experienced. Also, teaching and attending and volunteering at as many events as possible—TEXSOM, SommCon, different auction events—and visiting different wine regions like Burgundy, South Australia, the Douro, et cetera. Working 10-plus years in service of guests is the ultimate study strategy, and there’s no substitute for that, but for direct studies in prep for the exam it was activities and engaging with the community.

How many attempts did you make? 

Theory: 3; Service: 1; Tasting: 1

How did last year’s scandal affect your decision to sit the exam—and did it influence the way you prepared?

The events of last year are very complicated and beyond the scope of anything I was involved in. It affected me in that my friends and study partners were affected. In a way, I consider myself lucky not to have passed theory in 2018. The pursuit of this exam has been a long-term endeavor, and I have a lot of empathy for the people—including a lot of friends—who were affected by that event, but I was going to sit anyway. 

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink? 

By watching my three favorite movies, the Ocean’s trilogy—Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen—almost like a marathon. 

I think the best thing I drank that day was a 1995 Château de Beaucastel Hommage à Jacques Perrin Châteauneuf-du-Pape. While the weather is still good in Seattle, I may do a barbecue beach party. I’ve been holding on to a ’96 Krug—if the mood hits me, I might get that going.

Mariya Kovacheva, MS; West Palm Beach, Florida

Mariya Kovacheva, a brand account manager for Pernod Ricard, grew up in the Thracian Valley winemaking region of Bulgaria before coming to the U.S. for a hospitality internship at a hotel. It’s here that she discovered the significance of wine and the wine industry and fell in love with the business. After eight years of testing, she became Florida’s eleventh MS this year. 

How did you prepare mentally for the exam?

It’s been a long journey. I first sat the exam in 2011, and I passed two parts the next year, but my difficulty at the exam was with tasting, although that has been my favorite part because I absolutely love tasting wine. But in exam conditions, I didn’t perform to my fullest. This year, I worked with Tim Gaiser, MS (’92), on mental strategy. He was confident that I had mastered tasting technique but [thought] I needed to master mental preparation for that big day. 

In hindsight, what study strategy was the most effective?

I did a lot of visualizations, running flights of wine or pairs of wines, or wines that usually give me difficulty. Additionally, I tried to visualize moments where wines have given me joy, or times I was successful, so I could recall that positive experience when in an exam situation.

For me, at exam time, that visualizing started the evening before the exam. And then I was preparing early in the morning, even in the waiting room before we went into the exam room. I think that was very powerful. At times, I didn’t even recognize myself or the degree of concentration I was able to achieve.

How many attempts did you make? 

Theory: 5; Service: 3; Tasting: 7

How did last year’s scandal affect your decision to sit the exam—and did it influence the way you prepared?

For me, that was a single act that unfortunately affected so many people. I admire everyone who came back and made the effort, and put everything behind them. I think everyone, even if they haven’t passed again, will probably [pass] in the next year or so because they are so talented. The wine industry in the U.S. has been such an inspiration for me.

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink? 

It’s not so glamorous, because I spent a big part of the day in the airport. But I celebrated by myself at the airport with a glass of Chehalem Pinot Gris from the Willamette Valley. Since then, I went back to Maine, where I first landed for my internship in the United States, and celebrated with a lot of wine and a lot of conversations with friends. It was my first vacation in more than a year. There’s definitely going to be a celebration with all of my mentors and all of my tasting partners and friends—because it takes a village. 

Justin Moore, MS; Las Vegas

Leading up to this fall’s exam, Justin Moore, the wine director for Vetri Cucina in Las Vegas, had an epiphany: He was doing what he loved, so he should enjoy it. “Go open a bottle you love,” he told himself. “Don’t worry about whether it’s testable or not—just enjoy it.” That realization helped him turn what had been a chore into a bit of a game. 

How did you prepare mentally for the exam?

I’ve been really fortunate to have had a lot of great mentors over the years and to have studied with a lot of Masters. Sometimes it gets overwhelming when you get advice coming from multiple directions. This year, I chose a different approach. A few months out, I realized I just needed to be myself and have confidence in myself. Confidence is really what got me through this time.

In hindsight, what study strategy was the most effective?

Confidence and realizing that you do what you love every day, and hopefully you do it because you’re good at it. Before I even knew what a sommelier was, tasting was always a strength, and yet it was the last hurdle for me. This time I decided “I’ve got it” and believed in myself.

How many attempts did you make? 

Theory: 2; Service: 1; Tasting: 2 

How did last year’s scandal affect your decision to sit the exam—and did it influence the way you prepared?

There were two of us in my household taking this exam. [Moore’s partner, Jessica Waugh, was among those who passed the exam last year but had their MS revoked.] We’re really dealing with a lot of stuff emotionally and personally. The good thing to come out of it is that it’s really making us reflect on who we are and how we deal with things, and that’s going well.

Last year, I saw my partner and two of my best friends—including my best study partner from Aspen, Colorado, who won the Krug Cup—pass. I saw everyone go through this joy; and I shared that joy even though I wasn’t successful. 

My whole goal in taking the exam [this year] is to bring some transparency, integrity, and humility back to this amazing organization that we all look up to and aspire to be part of. And hopefully bring it in a more positive direction.

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink? 

I’m not going to open anything big. I’m probably going to open a $30 bottle of Beaujolais from Pierre Cotton. We have DRC and all that stuff at home, and those are fine and dandy, but at the end of the day it’s about what we really want. And that Pierre Cotton is what I want.

Vincent Morrow, MS; San Francisco

Vincent Morrow, the wine director of One65 in San Francisco, is finally going to be able to pull the corks on some of the wines he’s had under Coravin—wines he’d been saving for studying. Now that he knows his title isn’t going anywhere—Morrow is one of three in this cohort who initially passed the tasting portion of the exam in 2018—he also plans to pour them forward, offering flights to local advanced candidates testing in October. “I want to make sure [these wines] get utilized by as many people as possible,” he says, “and are not just consumed by me.”

How did you prepare mentally for the exam?

Preparing this year was difficult because from May 16 to June 5, my company was opening a four-concept all-French-inspired venue. For a good five weeks, I couldn’t physically prepare for the exam. That was disconcerting, but at the same time, it was probably one of the best things that could have happened—I literally couldn’t give the exam more emotional energy than it deserved. I think in the end it made the exam more black and white for me. In some senses, that made it easier to step into the exam and say, “Okay, this is an exam, and if I remove my emotions from it, and take the wines for what they are, then I’m in a good place and I have a good chance.” 

In hindsight, what study strategy was the most effective?

I stuck to a similar regimen as last year, in terms of doing comparative tastings, but I tried to be more efficient and realistic and waste less time. It was more of a realistic, triage approach. I stopped dedicating too much time to wines I was consistently getting right and gave more to wines I felt weaker with. I had to have faith that I wouldn’t miss a wine I’d otherwise get right 9 out of 10 times.

How many attempts did you make? 

Theory: 1; Service: 1; Tasting: 3

You tested—and passed—last year, only to have your MS invalidated. What made you decide to sit the exam again? And how did the events of last year influence the way you prepared?

For me, it came down to the awareness that you always have a choice about how you’ll move forward. It was really a gut-check moment, after sitting in December and not passing, to decide what I wanted in terms of this pursuit, and if it meant enough to me despite everything that happened. I knew I still wanted to achieve it personally, though it came down to deciding what it was worth to me.

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink? 

Honestly, I don’t know that I have celebrated yet. It was a personal victory, and it wasn’t maybe as outward and elated as last year. 

Everyone else left St. Louis, but I stayed an extra day, so I ended up eating some barbecue. I drank the remainder of the Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Champagne Special Club I had used to calibrate [my palate] for the exam. And I had a little bit of leftover Le Macchiole Messorio Toscana Merlot, which is pretty tasty with some sweet and spicy barbecue. It was short-lived.

Left: Jeremy Shanker, MS (photo courtesy of Jeremy Shanker, MS). Right: Josh Orr, MS (photo courtesy of Josh Orr, MS.)

Josh Orr, MS; San Diego 

Originally from Salt Lake City, Josh Orr, the regional sales manager for Southern California and Southern Nevada for Broadbent Selections, was determined on getting his MS title back—maybe as much for himself as for his 4-year-old and 6-month-old sons.

How did you prepare mentally for the exam? 

I was one of those who had their title taken away last year, so the mental was as big as any part of the preparation. Finding some outlets that fostered that was important. Running let my mind wander, but it was healthy as well.

My mind-set became “How can you become so efficient that you can taste five times and pass five times?”

In hindsight, what study strategy was the most effective?

One thing other MSs tell you is that everyone has their own path and learns to taste in their own way. For me, it took a while to take the advice of prominent tasters and tailor it to my own ends. For the last five years, I was tasting five days a week. Going into this, I was tasting multiple times a day. 

Eventually the mentality in my head switched from “Why did I miss that” to “How do I figure that out so it doesn’t happen again?” That made a difference.

How many attempts did you make? 

Theory: 4; Service: 2; Tasting: 8

How did last year’s scandal affect your decision to sit the exam—and did it influence the way you prepared?

People said to me, “You’ve done it once—you can do it again.” My only reference is sports: Just because your favorite team wins the Superbowl once doesn’t mean they’re going to win the next game, or the next Superbowl.

I’d been an MS, and I was hell-bent on getting it back. The second time around, it also became about setting an example for my sons. Eventually, they’ll be able to Google and they’re going to see what happened. I wanted to set a good example for them—that became a powerful fuel for the fire. 

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink? 

That’s a loaded question. I was holding off on opening some of my celebratory wines, and some friends opened theirs last year. 

I drank a great amount of Krug at the reception. It’s great that Krug now tastes like victory again.

Jeremy Shanker, MS; San Francisco

For Jeremy Shanker, the lead sommelier at San Francisco’s Michael Mina restaurant, two times—and a pep talk from an MS—was the charm. 

How did you prepare mentally for the exam?

I’ve taken each portion of the exam multiple times. I had to fail each section once before I was successful in passing. I just tried to remember what it was like to study hard and not succeed, and then to identify the things I didn’t do correctly the first time and change accordingly. I used that mind-set and technique this time too. 

About a week before the exam, I asked four friends who have sat it before to put up really fair flights for me. Morgan Harris, MS [and head sommelier at The Angler in San Francisco], put up a really fair flight and I did well, but not well enough to pass, but I did well. I felt like I was very close, just not quite there. Morgan gave me a pep talk and told me to make the best decision I can with the information in front of me.

Before I walked into the test, I thought back to that, and the fact that I’m lucky to work in restaurants where I get to see all of these great wines. I know what a great Barolo tastes like, what a great Bordeaux tastes like. I’ve had them many times. I reminded myself again that whatever wine they put in front of me wouldn’t be a curveball. It would be very clear. So I put on my best suit and walked in knowing I was going to do the best I could.

In hindsight, what study strategy was the most effective?

I tasted every week. In order to be successful, you have to be disciplined; you have to make it part of your lifestyle. It doesn’t feel like work; it’s just a part of your day. So every day, I prioritized it as part of my routine. Wake up early, taste every single day of the week, and don’t take a break.

How many attempts did you make? 

Theory: 2; Service: 2; Tasting: 4 

How did last year’s scandal affect your decision to sit the exam—and did it influence the way you prepared?

I was in a unique position last year in that I kept the [portion of the test] I passed: I had passed service but not tasting, while most of my friends passed tasting. Last year’s flight was very fair—there were no curveballs. People passed because the flight was so fair and we’d been doing harder flights all year. And yet, last year service was much more difficult. I admire my friends who got back up and took the test again. I’ll never know what that’s like—to pass a test like this and then have to do it again.

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink? 

I started celebrating the second I walked out the room. We didn’t get results until the next morning, but I knew I had passed.

We went out that night and drank as many wines as we could that were older than us, which for me isn’t that hard to do [Shanker is 27]. There was a Marqués de Riscal Rioja from ’47, a Joseph Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches Premier Cru from ’81, and a white Bordeaux from Château Carbonneau from 1973. I was specifically on a mission to drink wines that were older than me, and as many as possible.

Left: Jill Zimorski, MS (photo courtesy of Jill Zimorski, MS.) Right: Nick Davis, MS (photo courtesy of Nick Davis, MS.)

Jill Zimorski, MS; Chicago

She’s back: Last year, Jill Zimorski spent five weeks as a Master Sommelier before the title was invalidated. Now, using some previously successful tactics and a few news ones, the Champagne specialist for the Strategic Group in Chicago is an MS forever. 

How did you prepare mentally for the exam?

It was really, really, really hard. In terms of actual preparation for the blind tasting, I duplicated what I did last year. I was tasting constantly. The book How Champions Think: In Sports and in Life, by sports psychologist Bob Rotella, Ph.D. was instrumental, and I reread that. I also had to find joy again. I had a lot of bitterness; I still do. But I noticed a change in the last week before the exam, and I finally was able to shelve it a bit. I also listened to a fair number of TED talks on adversity, grief, and other things and figured out how to process [what happened].

In hindsight, what study strategy was the most effective? 

I think when you get to this level, you know how to blind; you know how to taste and what makes a wine taste a certain way.

Rebecca Fineman, MS, mentioned something she’d done and it made sense: Making sure you’re really proactive. I worked on speeding up recognition—of aromas and tastes—which was a tactic that was helpful last year and this. 

How many attempts did you make? 

Theory: 2; Service: 2; Tasting: 7

How did last year’s scandal affect your decision to sit the exam—and did it influence the way you prepared?

Last year had a huge impact on everything in my life. I’ve probably gone through every range of emotion—rage, depression, loneliness, sadness. 

I couldn’t shake the feeling I was walking away, that somehow I’d be giving up on something. I was an MS for five weeks. No one should have gone through what we went through; no one should go through it again. It’s easier to change an organization from the inside than the outside. 

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink? 

This year was really different. I had to come back to Chicago immediately after, so I missed the luncheon, et cetera, although I did, technically, have a Krug toast. I was presenting from our portfolio at a lunch on Wednesday, and Krug was among the bottles. The wine director at the restaurant insisted I have a glass. 

I’m still unpacking so much about this situation. Of course I’m happy, but it’s still a bit overshadowed, so it’s been hard for me to feel celebratory. I do have plans to go have a drink with an MS who has been supportive. A lot of the other MSs have vanished.

Scott Tyree, MS. Photo courtesy of Scott Tyree, MS.

Scott Tyree, MS; Stonington, Maine

Becoming an MS has been a long road for Scott Tyree, a wine consultant living in Maine. What began in 2003—when Tyree took his first Master Sommelier exam—culminated this past April, during a retest held for candidates who had tested in September 2018. 

How did you prepare mentally for the exam?

I stepped back. I trusted myself. I trusted my abilities. At this level, one knows how to taste wine. In an exam setting, it’s just a matter of keeping mentally tough and relaxed, and then describing wine and showing mastery. It’s as simple as that. It only took me 16 years to figure that out. 

In hindsight, what study strategy was the most effective?

Visualization and changing my approach to blind tasting—the whole process of blind tasting. Rather than sitting down with six wines and trying to get all the information in 25 minutes, I just focused on what makes a wine what it is. I know how to structurally call a wine. 

I really kept to myself over eight months preceding the test. I think isolating myself helped me focus and trust my strengths. I was ready to go in—I’d never felt more prepared in all my life. If there’s such a thing as a zone, I went into it. To be honest, I don’t really remember a lot, but I tasted through the wines with two minutes left, which never happens. I’ve always gone right to the limit.

How many attempts did you make?

Theory: 3; Service: 3 times but passed every time; Tasting: 10

How did last year’s scandal affect your decision to sit the exam—and did it influence the way you prepared?

Yes, it had an effect on the way I prepared, and I’m still feeling the effects of the events last year, in general—obviously, it was a shock to me and everybody else. 

Last September was my ninth try. I had decided beforehand that one way or another, I was finished. I’d continue with my life if I failed or if I passed. I did fail, and I wasn’t anticipating what happened next or that’d I’d have a chance to retest. Honestly, for a few months I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue. I had to really reconcile a lot of the events of September before I could decide. Ultimately, I decided I could make this a positive experience, somehow, by going forward. The only way to do that would be to try one more time. Even then, I went in with the idea that if I passed, great. If not, I’d move on with my life.

As for preparation, I completely revamped everything and approached [the test] differently. I stepped away from continually blind-tasting six wines in 25 minutes. I realized I knew the process—how to evaluate a wine—so I focused more on how the wines [were made]. I thought a lot more about the winemaking process and relied a lot more on my theory. I sat at home and tasted through my bank of classic wines, and if I missed something, I’d go back and review my theory, then come back to it again the next day. 

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink? 

I was in such shock that I didn’t really [celebrate]. There’s a luncheon after [the exam], but I don’t know if I was celebrating or not. I was the only one, which is such an odd feeling. I was extremely happy, but I was also very, very sad for the people who did not pass. It was an odd feeling.

Then I got on a plane and flew back to Maine and celebrated at a restaurant here with my husband and our two best friends. It was a very quiet night. I don’t even remember what we drank, although we were all very happy. 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include Scott Tyree, MS, who tested and passed his Master Sommelier exam in April 2019.

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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