James Tidwell ’98, Master Sommelier
Imagine having to describe and identify six wines, including grape type, country, region of origin, vintage, and quality level, within 25 minutes. This is only one part of the challenge facing those who wish to sit for the Master Sommelier diploma examination. The practical and theory portions are equally difficult. In the service practical, seasoned Master Sommeliers role-play guests in a restaurant environment. They challenge candidates with service tasks and practical knowledge of the beverages. In the theory portion, a panel of Master Sommeliers asks the candidate comprehensive beverage questions. Only 100 people in the United States, and 171 people worldwide, have successfully accomplished the task of passing the rigorous exam. I was fortunate to become one of those people this year. My diploma capped eight years of study and progressive testing.
What would drive someone to invest that amount of time, energy, and money into such a long process? Most people assume the answer must be the prospect of an immediate salary increase. While becoming a Master Sommelier does create opportunities, the achievement is usually not linked to a salary increase. I personally tackled the task for the satisfaction of achieving a difficult goal, keeping my skills sharp, and being better able to help others. But a few common qualities can be found in all of us who have met this goal.
The most important of these qualities is passion. Your enthusiasm must transcend the consumption of wines, beers, and spirits to include research, service, and business. In studying for the Master Sommelier exam, I spent hours doing research about places, laws, grape varieties, spirits and liqueurs, cocktails, and service rules. In addition, I honed math skills for buying and pricing options, strategies and techniques for sales scenarios, and diplomacy skills for guest relations.
I met and studied with equally passionate colleagues who helped me progress through the Court of Master Sommelier exams. Peers and mentors are important because only a handful of schools for sommeliers exist. Dedication, self-motivation, and self-discipline are essential for success. Aspiring sommeliers do not have instructors encouraging them to perform, nor do they have regularly scheduled classes to assess their progress. Yet, hundreds of hours of traditional study are involved to attain the Master Sommelier diploma. Developing a routine, especially with a core network of fellow sommeliers, helps maintain motivation and discipline.
While I needed dedication, I needed perseverance even more, as I had to make several attempts before I passed the Master Sommelier exam. I had to refocus and renew my commitment each time, which gave me a greater appreciation not only for the rigors of the exam process, but for the many people whom I met along the way. Restaurant guests, business associates, mentors, and fellow candidates all encouraged me in my pursuit of this goal.
I am fortunate to be in one of the best professions in the world; one in which hard work is balanced by equal amounts of fun in the form of wine, food, and friends. Now, as with all Master Sommeliers, I get the opportunity to assist and encourage others along this path. And in the end, that is the real reward of the accomplishment.