Fifty-six candidates descended upon St. Louis last month in an attempt to pass the fourth and final examination to join the elite ranks of the Court of Master Sommeliers. Among those hopefuls was Tyler Alden, the education and training director for Heavy Restaurant Group (the group behind Purple Cafe and the newly opened Claret Wine Bar), as well as James Lechner of Bastille and Stoneburner. These Seattleites are now two of only 273 master sommeliers in the entire world.
The Court of Master Sommeliers is just one of many organizations around the globe dedicated to preserving and advancing the craft of wine experts. For Alden, and others in wine service and hospitality, he says the draw to the Court of Master Sommeliers’ program was its holistic focus. The Court of Master Sommeliers heavily emphasizes the practical aspect of service as well as requires knowledge of spirits and beer.
To become a master sommelier, candidates must pass four different examinations. The first exam consists of an introductory course and then the exam itself. Each exam building on the other, the next exam is the certified sommelier course and test which must be taken within three years of passing the first. The third is considerably more difficult — it’s a three-day examination and is recommended that candidates have a minimum five years in beverage-hospitality experience and take a year between passing the second exam and taking this one to study.
Alden says he fell into the wine world by accident but climbed the ranks quickly, wanting to become more knowledgeable about wine with each promotion within restaurants, leading him to seek out the grand title of Master Sommelier after years serving wine on the floor. The process of which is no small feat — for some it’s an elusive title that they dedicate decades to and never achieve. The pass rate is a scant 8 percent and several movies have been released documenting this oft-tormenting experience.
The last exam to become a Master Sommelier consists of three different parts. First is theory, an oral exam which requires candidates to answer questions on the spot. Once this portion is passed, a candidate has three years to pass the next two parts of the exam held once a year.
The last portion of the Master Sommelier exam includes a “practical restaurant wine service and salesmanship” portion and a “practical tasting.” Alden says words fail to describe this portion of the exam. For the “practical tasting,” candidates must identify six different wines within 25 minutes. Not only that but also identify grape varieties, country of origin, district and appellation of origin, and vintages of the wine tasted.
With less than 300 individuals with this esteemed title, Alden hopes to keep learning and giving back. Teaching others and applying his knowledge to help patrons have the best experience they can.
“You get to improve the lives of anyone who comes into your restaurant just for a moment of time,” Alden says. “I’m just honored and I feel lucky to have had the chance to learn and grow in the field and I’m looking forward to giving back to others.”