Monday, September 12, 2011

Behind the Scenes: Being a Master Sommelier

A version of this article was published in the September 2011 issue of Rooster Magazine, of which I am the managing editor. Enjoy!

How to be a master sommelier
Your exams are nothing compared to this.
Photos and interview by: Amy Segreti

Take it from Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey, co-owner of Frasca, winner of a James Beard Award and runner of marathons—even if you fail an exam five times, you can still be a baller. Rooster sat down with Bobby to get behind the scenes of becoming a master sommelier, which involves passing an exam that 90% of testers fail every year, due mostly to its rigorous tasting requirements. Want to try it? Let us put a glass of wine in front of you and then tell us all about it—acidity, grape, country of origin, district and appellation of origin, and vintage. Exactly.

Bobby Stuckey

What made you want to become a Master Sommelier?

I had been a sommelier since 1994, and when I went after the master sommelier diploma, I really struggled. So many people meet resistance with the master som degree, and a lot of my peers were wondering why I wanted to do it. I said, I’m not doing this for you or for an employer, I’m not doing it to get a raise—I’m doing it for myself. So I kept plugging away. I joke that I think I spent more on my MS degree than on my college education.

How many tries did it take you to pass the exam? 

It took me six times. If you pass [the parts of] service and theory, you have two more tries to get through tasting, or you have to give up all the parts you’ve passed and take them again.

How did you train your palate to be able to pick up incredibly subtle nuances in wine? 

The hardest part is recalling your olfactory memory when you’re stressed out. So I developed a new technique. The six months before my last attempt, when I passed in 2004, I totally changed how I tasted. I began tasting red wines before whites, and it made it much easier for me.

Interesting. At wine tastings, you almost always taste white wines first.

Exactly. But I felt that I personally tasted the nuances of acidity in white better after I had the red, so at the exam I asked to taste that way. It worked for me, but it was a crazy idea.

Take us behind the scenes of the tasting part of the exam. 

You walk into a room and you have six wines in front of you; there are two master sommeliers in front of you and one taking notes behind you, writing down what you say. It’s you against the clock and you have 25 minutes to get it done. Say you’re tasting a white wine—before you came in, the master soms wrote down five flavors off the palate: lemon lime, cut grass, bell pepper, etc. Then they labeled it: alcohol medium, acidity high, length long, etc. So when you’re tasting, you name those elements, and they check off those boxes [on a tasting sheet] for you.

So you don’t need to give a description of say, “mustard seed,” to gain points. 

Right. Some people will try to use shotgun descriptors trying to get a point or two, but that’s not what they’re looking for.

What was the strangest thing you had to learn in order to pass the exam? For example, we heard you get to learn about Havana cigars…? 

Yes, I had to do a whole cigar service in London. But once I learned what I was getting into, I learned it was all relevant, learning those classic things. I mean, other than the Flagstaff House, there isn’t a restaurant in Boulder that has really old dishes, like beef rossini, or an old-school prep of fish—and those are the types of questions you get asked in service. A lot of young soms haven’t worked in an environment like that, and that becomes stranger and stranger for them.

Frasca Food and Wine

Do you feel that becoming a master sommelier was worth it in terms of running Frasca? 

Worth it? Totally. There are very few master sommeliers that run a restaurant, or at least that stay on the floor. The business is tough, and it’s a young person’s activity; for example, last Saturday night [August 13] we had our busiest night in seven years, and the older you get, the harder it is to put out that wattage every night.

We overheard you talking to a table of diners who asked you what your role was at Frasca and you joked, “I’m the head bus boy.” 

There’s a lot of people who don’t even think I own this place, and that’s my style—being part of the craft of the service. Being a master sommelier definitely helps me run this restaurant, because I’m better able to deal with those thresholds of effort.

How has earning this degree affected you personally? 

It makes me more empathetic. When Matthew, my employee, didn’t pass tasting this time, it was a lot easier for me to understand what he was going through. It’s nice to mentor younger people. It also teaches you humility. You see a lot of young sommeliers who are arrogant, but very rarely do you see a master sommelier who is arrogant.