I recently enrolled in the Court of Master Sommeliers Introductory Class held in Waikiki. This
was the first time the introductory class was offered in Hawaii since 1997. It’s a two day class
culminating in a multiple choice examination with a pin from the Guild of Sommeliers and
eligibility to sit for the Certified Sommelier exam.
Our class was held in the Pacific Beach Hotel and taught by a quintet of capable Master
Sommeliers in their own right, Hawaii’s Chuck Furuya, M.S. of the Sansei Restaurant Group and
Roberto Viernes, M.S. Wine Educator with Southern Wine & Spirits of Hawaii, Nunzio Alioto,
M.S. of Alioto’s Restaurant in San Francisco, Richard Betts, M.S. of Montagna at the Little Nell
in Colorado and Jay Fletcher, M.S. of Southern Wine & Spirits of Colorado.
Chuck Furuya needs no introduction as I’ve highlighted his wine expertise in previous columns.
He was one of the first dozen or so Americans to pass the rigorous Master Sommelier exam back
in 1989. Roberto Viernes became Hawaii’s newest addition to this elite fraternity in 2005. I first
met Roberto years earlier when he started as a sales consultant for the R. Fields wine shop in
Ward Centre and even back then, it was apparent that the young man had a passion for wine.
Nunzio Alioto probably also needs no introduction as he hails from the storied Alioto family of
San Francisco. Like Chuck, Nunzio was one of the first Americans to obtain Master Sommelier
status in 1987. Richard Betts is the man behind the 15,000 bottle cellar of Montagna at the
Little Nell, one of the few AAA 5 Diamond, Mobil 5 star award winning resorts. Montagna was
also a Wine Spectator Grand Award Winner in 2004. Finally, Jay Fletcher is known as a lecturer
and teacher at Southern Wine & Spirits of Colorado.
Tension, Apprehension & Anticipation
Since I had no idea what the Introductory class entailed, I immediately purchased two wine
references suggested as study guides; Hugh Johnson’s The World Atlas of Wine and Jancis
Robinson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine. I studied the various wine regions of the world, the
grape varietals of the world and grape propagation and wine production at every spare
opportunity. The 14 hours of lecture basically reiterated what I was studying over the past 3
months though our teachers did prove that beside the M.S. behind their names, they were just
like the rest of us in class, people who loved wine. For those who believe that wine sommeliers
simply exude elitism and snobbery haven’t met your friendly neighborhood Master Sommelier.
They simply live and breathe a passion for all beverages that are fermented, especially fermented
Our class consisted of roughly 75 students, most being wait staff at the various restaurants in
Hawaii – Roy’s, Vino, Sansei and Hiroshi along with several sales representatives from the various
liquor distributors. There were a few students who flew in from that big island of the U.S.,
North America. One student who ran a restaurant flew in all the way from New Jersey.
Around the World in 13 Hours
Saturday morning started with the wines of France. Since France is considered the motherland of
viticulture (I know there are Italophiles who disagree with this), covering every region and grape
of France realistically can take several days. It was covered in 4 hours. At times the lecture
almost seemed like sitting in a physics class, “when does that fly with a static coefficient of 0.37
roll off of that record spinning at 78 rpm”? After a couple of hours of technical grape varietal
information, vinification, barrel fermentation and the like, my mind wandered to a Duke
Ellington interview years ago. When asked what he thought of the various styles of music, he
responded that there were only two types of music “Good music and bad music”. Do I really
care that a grape with 22 degrees of brix at harvest can potentially produce a wine with 13
percent alcohol or that the schist and limestone gives the finished wine it’s characteristic terroir
OR should I simply concentrate on those two important types of wine – wines that I like and
wines that I don’t like?
After our lunch break, the pace continued fast and furious through Italy, Spain, Portugal the
United States then headed south to finish with Australia and New Zealand. WHEW! I love
learning about all things wine but when it hits you at 400 miles per hour, it can be a little
overwhelming! The saving grace was the disclaimer that most of the information wouldn’t be on
the exam though it was pointed out on several occasions that if you intended on continuing
through the Certified Sommelier, Advanced Certificate and Master Sommelier exams, pretty
much everything covered was fair game!
Blind Wine Tasting (for the Wine-Blind)
Interspersed throughout the lectures were blind wine tasting over the 2 day period – we actually
were presented with 21 different wines over the course of 2 days. I am proud to report that I
accurately determined which wines were red and which were white without any prompting for all
21 wines! I also had 100% accuracy in determining which planet they came from! I could
determine – most of the time – whether the wine was Old world (France, Italy, Spain) or New
world (US, Australia, New Zealand). However, when the final tally was in for grape varietal,
continent, region and vintage within a 5 year window, I only missed… nineteen. Hey, that’s a
10% accuracy rate. Give or take a decimal point and that could easily be 100%!
In all fairness (and this is where I really come up with excuses), I was still nursing a sporadic
cough and heavily medicated with OTC cough suppressants so I had to find essences of dried
cranberry, subtle vanilla, a hint of sage and thyme and pale pebbles between the overwhelming
Robitussin cherry and secret Ricola herb blend that was affixed to my palate and nasal sinuses.
Did I Pass?
Since I only enrolled in the Introductory Class, yes I did pass. However anyone with an avid
interest in wine should be able to pass the exam. The next step is where the difficulty increases
exponentially. The Certified Sommelier exam is just that, no class, just a 3 part exam. There’s a
multiple choice exam - like the Introductory Class – though it goes into a lot more detail, blind
tasting of two wines (remember that I correctly only identified 2 out of 21) and a wine service
portion – candidates need to either properly serve Champagne or decant a bottle of red wine.
And candidates do need to take the exam within 2 years of passing the Introductory Class so my
countdown has begun. Say my lucky planets align and I pass the Certified Sommelier exam, how
much further do I plan to go? Unless I change careers, the Certified Sommelier level is all that’s
possible. To sit for the Advanced Certificate and Masters exam, candidates must have 5 to 7 years
experience either as servers or in wine sales and must submit a resume with their exam
application. Furthermore, the Masters level is an invitation only exam – you can’t simply apply
for it after obtaining your Advanced Certificate. And once again, the difficulty level rises with
each exam. Candidates must blind taste 6 different wines – within 45 minutes for the Advanced
level and 25 minutes for the Masters level. And of course, simply determining that it’s a white
wine from Earth isn’t an acceptable answer.
Therefore in the next 2 years, I’ll be tasting many wines (tasting, not drinking), possibly
spitting and narrowing my choices to specific regions of Earth. Hey, my glass is half full – I can
already rule out Antarctica, most of Asia and northern Africa.
Grasshopper in Master Po’s Wine World