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The Master Sommelier examination originated in the United Kingdom in an effort to create standards for professional wine service. The first exam was held in 1969, but the Court of Master Sommeliers wasn't established until nearly a decade later in 1977. Today, the Court is the premier authority on wine service. Armed with the expertise to create profitable beverage programs anywhere in the world, some Masters go on to consult for distributors, or work in the world's best restaurants. The MS diploma basically functions like a PhD, allowing graduates to become speakers and teachers. Depending on the gig, MS paychecks can crack six figures.
To get to the Master level, candidates must first pass three exams — Introductory, Certified, and Advanced — that each get exponentially harder. The MS exam is a daunting, three-day brain warp held twice a year. It is invitation-only and consists of three parts: service, theory, and blind tasting.
Candidates are tested on a massive body of knowledge, including being able to speak with authority on all of the wine-producing regions in the world, the accepted grape varieties in the regions, and how wines are produced and stored. They must be familiar with international wine laws, fortified wines, the distillation of spirits, as well as beer and cigar production. They must have impeccable wine service skills (expert pairing ability, never obscuring the label with the hand) and be able to describe and identify correctly six unmarked wines — the body and acidity, whether they're oaky on the palate, muddy on the nose, etc. — earning points for each right answer.
Geoff Kruth is an MS who passed in 2008. He lives in Petaluma, Calif., and serves as the chief operating officer for the Guild of Sommeliers, a membership organization of about 6,000 somms worldwide. He's also on the Board of Directors for the Court of Master Sommeliers.
"I think it definitely takes a certain amount of OCD. It's just an awful lot of knowledge retention. You have to be a little on the obsessive side, maybe to the point of being a little kooky," Kruth says.
At 9 a.m. every Tuesday, Bradford, Ballard, Amick, Crane, Lim, and a handful of lower level somms gather for a weekly tasting session. Sunshine sparkles off the Chattahoochee River and streams into the dining room of Canoe, where the group is seated at a round table covered with wine glasses, spit buckets, notebooks, and iPads.
Bradford, 37, founded the group in 2009 as a way to practice the art of deductive tasting. Bradford has worked in restaurants ever since his first job at McDonald's as a teen. He met his wife while they were both working at Goldfish at Perimeter Mall. For the last seven years, he's served as Canoe's wine director.
Each member takes turns as the group's proctor. It is Lim's turn this month, which means he's in charge of selecting a flight of six unmarked wines, three whites and three reds, for the rest of the group to swish and swirl and study. A mysterious, rose gold white wine sparks some heated debate.
"It's like an orangey color. It's fucking weird," Amick says.
Amick, 32, joined the tasting group in 2010 while preparing for a second attempt at the Advanced exam. Amick is currently general manager and wine director at the Spence. The Tulane grad, former Division I basketball player, and son of restaurant mogul Bob Amick says that failure is not an option.
"On the palate the wine is sound and clean," says Linda Torres, sommelier at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead.
"Really? Are you sure about that?" Crane asks.
Crane, 42, is also an Advanced Sommelier and the director of training and business development for Empire Distributors in Atlanta.
"It's sound. I'm not sure if this is clean," says Amick.
"I'm not sure this is wine," Crane says. "It's not Bonnaroo day three, but it's definitely got a medicinal funk goin' on."
They continue swishing and swirling and spitting into the tiny silver buckets.
"The acid is really high," Ballard says. The Newnan native is more timid than the rest, and when she does offer an opinion, it's with a soft, Southern twang. Ballard, 35, oversees the Southeast region for wine importing company Vias Imports. After working restaurant jobs for years, her love of wine led her to a job with a distributor where she mentored under Laura DePasquale, the 13th woman in the world to become an MS. Only 19 women currently hold the title.
"I think this wine's from the Old World. It's got hard edge, green tendency here, and it's neutral with high screaming acid. Elevated alcohol, which is gonna put me possibly from Austria. Grüner Veltliner," Amick says.
"Grüner would be that color?" Crane asks.
At the end of the tasting, Lim returns with the bottles. The wine in question was a 2005 Zind-Humbrecht pinot gris from Alsace. In utter disbelief, Amick examines the label himself. Lim reveals the remaining identities of the six mystery wines. There's some celebrating and plenty of groaning. There's also a lot more studying to do.
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