A Matter of Taste: On Becoming a Master Sommelier (Questions)
SOME QUESTIONS ABOUT SCIENCE, EDUCATION, AND WINE TASTING
This topic pertains to sensory biology, memory, and subject knowledge. All combine into something that’s truly extraordinary.
Today, I want to discuss wine tasting. Even those of you who aren’t into wines should find this interesting. More specifically, let’s talk about sommeliers and try to understand how and why some people — apparently very gifted people — are able to overcome amazing challenges and pull off something that I consider near magical.
Becoming a *Master Sommelier* might be one of the hardest things to do in any profession. Being a Master Sommelier is about as rare as winning a Nobel Prize.
Right now, there are only 269 professionals worldwide who have earned the title of “Master Sommelier.” Only 172 have attained this status as part of the Americas chapter since the organization’s inception. Of those, 144 are men and 28 are women. READ MORE HERE
Part of becoming a Master Sommelier requires taking an in-person tasting test that’s given only once a year. The candidate must blindly taste wines. Somehow, they must identify not only the wine’s country of origin, but the grape varietal, the vintner, and even the year! With 20,000 different wines (more actually), many dating back decades, this seems impossible.
First, there’s the written exam testing wine knowledge. Then, there’s the tasting. Imagine lining up 12 wines (I think that’s how many are in the test) and you must get 9+ of them correct (again–correct me if I’m wrong on the pass number).
Note: The exam has one of the highest failure rates of any test in the world, with a pass rate of approximately 10 percent. Only nine candidates are reported to have ever passed the exam on the first try. Given the high failure rate, each candidate has three years in which to try to pass.
Now, a few questions. How is it possible to differentiate so many complexities in taste? Moreover, think of the unfathomable taste/wine memory required to recall previous tasting experiences from months and perhaps years ago. How is this possible?
Next, think about the exorbitant cost and experience required to become a Master Sommelier. It would require tasting thousands of wines over many years. Yes, thousands.
In my own experience, I have probably consumed 5,000-6,000 bottles of wine in the past 30 years (average 200 bottles/year). It’s not even physically possible for me to have experienced enough wines to take the test, let alone pass it. Then, let’s assess the high cost of wines. Some bottles are $50, $150, $300, and up. So, how would an aspiring Master Sommelier be able to afford this level of wine exposure?
There’s a new show on CNN now, called Nomad, which is hosted by Carlton McCoy. It’s a knock-off of Anthony Bourdain’s previous show (I”ll write more about this later, with reviews). I’m not impressed with the new show (yet), but I have to admire McCoy. He grew up in the inner city of WDC and didn’t get into food and wine until he was in his late teens. Somehow, he’s one of the 269 people in the world who passed the Master Sommelier’s exam. So, how does someone afford to drink so many wines and attain such an extraordinary level of knowledge and sensory recall?
Yes, this comes down to a question of sensory recall. Or put another shorter way — how do they do this and how can they afford it?
All comments are welcome.
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