Friday, September 9, 2016


The Court of Master Sommeliers exams are broken up into three components: theory (a written or verbal exam), Blind tasting (up to six wines), and a service exam.

My favorite part of every wine exam or competition is the service component. Here the proctors will simulate an actual dining room scenario during which a candidate will have to safely and correctly open sparkling wine, decant red wine, serve liquors and other tasks- all while answering questions about other products. The harder the test or competition, the more intense and complex the scenarios become. At the highest levels (like the Master Sommelier exam) it’s almost impossible to know what you’re going to have to deal with. At that level, nothing is given away- everything is designed to cripple you with pressure.

It’s been years since I got to participate in a service exam, but looking back- I can definitely say the menu at Public Services is written with an ugly service exam in mind. Although it’s not exactly a balanced list, it does boast outrageous breadth so that we can be put through a completely different ringer of questions every day.

But even that’s not enough for me. I sometimes fantasize about creating a more extreme test that folds in classic action movie scenarios into service. You need to serve a magnum of obscure tete de cuvee to three different tables from cover while your proctor is across the room emptying a fully automatic Saiga-12 shotgun in your direction, barking questions about sake. Who makes Noble Cuvee? What is taruzake? What is the term for undiluted sake? To avoid gunfire originating behind you, move in a zigzag pattern. Don't forget to polish your glassware. Don't forget to line your tray. Use smoke grenades to obscure the aim of the proctor.

You’d walk up to your proctor before the exam, they check your tools, they check to make sure your fingernails have been trimmed, then they hand you a small black case. “In case you’re exposed to VX gas over the course of this service exam, you’ll need to inject this antidote directly into your heart.” They demonstrate by depressing a button, which causes a 5-inch wide-gauge needle to shoot out like a switchblade. “You’ll have about ten seconds after exposure before irreversible nerve damage sets in and you’ll be paralyzed- so don’t hesitate to inject yourself if the event that the maître d’ alerts you to gas. After that, you’ll need to assist any other surviving candidates.” You walk into the room and all the proctors are wearing gasmasks. Little green ampoules of VX are scattered all over the floor. Do you have any questions before we begin?

Chef says my writing reads like a Michael Bay movie.

Or perhaps we could do a scenario where you sign up for your exam to happen over a six-month period. You won’t know when it’s going to happen until a black bag is thrown over your head and you’re dragged out of the local wine bar into a black van. You come to in a cargo plane with several other candidates flying over the South China Sea. Once at the drop zone, three of you will be kicked out the back of the plane to chase two parachutes that your proctor has tossed out. Get the heavier of the two candidates into the parachutes and then get the third one to wrap their arms through the straps. Your job is to land on the Eleonora Mærsk, an E-class cargo ship. Once (if) you’ve landed, you need to seek out a container that houses three pallets of wine. You will have to determine which pallet would have the highest resale value at auction, and protect said pallet from the pirates that are currently raiding the ship. Ideally, have the candidate who violently dislocated their arms from clinging to a parachute improperly do the work in the container while the other two provide cover fire- if you’ve been detected. Moving quickly and quietly are the keys to passing here. Once you’ve chosen the pallet, secure the skyhook to it and activate the beacon. This will turn the plane around to extract you and the wine. If you are unable to hitch a ride on the pallet as its lifted off the ship, you will have one small additional task: slaughter all the pirates and pilot the ship to dry land.

Please manually disgorge this bottle of Movia Puro sparkling wine into this bucket of water. The only catch is that the bucket is full of nitroglycerin, not water. Also don’t get too close to the windows: because there are snipers. Snipers turn on laser sights at this stage in the exam, so you at least have some sort of idea if you’re about to get shot. In the real world it’s worth noting you will have no warning.

Remember gang, silencers must be used for all gun battles on the floor- the second the guest experience is compromised by the sound of gunfire, the fourth wall is broken and the careful performance of great service evaporates. It’s not an automatic fail to discharge a weapon without a suppressor during a service exam, but it’s a pretty hard gaffe to recover from, point-wise. But remember: “work in recovery”. Make sure to catch your hot brass as it ejects- you lose a point if it hits the ground or a table. In certain situations swords can provide a quiet, more elegant form of deadly force during service. TEXSOM could use double-action only, cowboy-style revolvers during service exams to add a distinctive Texan flair to the already challenging competition they hold at the Las Colinas Four Seasons. Is it so hard to imagine the Master Somms wearing Colt Peacemakers in addition to boots and beltbuckles?

It doesn’t feel that far-fetched to me. I’m all about elite, shadowy organizations with specialized skillsets. I adore the idea of getting a bunch of Navy SEALS and SAS folks together with MSs and MWs to create this truly horrific exam. Surely there’s something both groups have to learn from each other. You know what would make the MS outfit look even cooler? Kevlar and NVGs. 

I'm basically suggesting we turn Bravo's Uncorked into a sommelier version of The Running Man. Look me in the eyes and tell me you don't want to see that. You can't. 

And I'm sorry if all of this is disturbing to you but these visions, these flights of fancy enter my brain whether I want them to or not. I don’t know how much control other people have over their imaginations, but mine is an HD television that I can never turn off. If you catch me staring off in the distance on a particular Saturday evening at the bar, know that I am in a helicopter trying to cut myself out of my seatbelt as the cabin fills with freezing seawater and burning engine fuel. Using my legs to try and kick the glass out of the sliding door, Joe Spellman is over the speakers, asking what wine style uses the Clavelin bottle, what it’s capacity is, and why. Maybe if I’m having a particularly juicy day my imagination will throw in an ex-girlfriend or two (still buckled in, silently watching me with hard eyes, even as freezing water goes over her head). I’m constantly escaping downed helicopters. I have never flown in one in real life, and its going to scare the shit out of me whenever I do. Vin Jaune and Chateau Chalon go in Clavelins. My mind at least does me the favor of imaging Joe Spellman is the guy walking me through a deadly service exam because he is a very nice guy and I immediately feel comfortable around him.

That’s actually one of the ultimate fucked-up service exams right there- your most emotionally charged exes as your proctors for the exam, with their new mates, who are more attractive and successful than you. While you’re decanting 97 La Pergola Torte, they’re playing grab-ass and smooching each other, arguing about which gelato stand was the best during their vacation in Rome. They’re taking selfies. If you look up from decanting to wish (out loud) that they would just fuck off for five seconds, you will lose a ton of points. Don’t look up.

There’s a moral somewhere in here somewhere, a lesson to be gleaned from all this nonsense and I’m getting to it. Picture yours truly narrating the service component walkthrough. I’d be digging around in an open chest wound and a bloody white tee. This is where I would look at the camera and say,

“The court teaches us to always work in recovery. You’re inevitably going to make mistakes and experience setbacks on the floor. How one responds to a mistake is what sets the pros apart from the amateurs. Can you recover with grace and poise, or will you let it rattle you, and reverberate throughout the rest of your service?”

I’m jabbing a pair of forceps into my chest, fishing for a bullet.

“Decanters full of irreplaceable wine will break open and spill on irreplaceable clothing. TCA will infect the last bottle of birth-year wine your most important regular was pining for. Your chef will change the dish you have to pair with right after you receive ten cases of wine that was perfect with the dish before they covered it with red molé.  And you will incur flesh wounds in your personal life that will make you want to snap in your professional life, and kill the next person who asks you ‘if you have any real absinthe, bro’.”

I tug on the forceps and remove a black talon hollow point that has bloomed into a star pattern, and I cough up a little bit of blood.

“Just remember to remain calm in the face of being knocked off balance, and set to work correcting it immediately. Throw linen over the spill, and get a fresh bottle. Offer to pay for the dry cleaning. Divert that wine you can’t pair into your by-the-glass program. Surround yourself with positive influences and try not to do anything terribly stupid in response to external stressors. Do not let it affect your work. But actually kill that dude who won’t shut up about real absinthe, he sucks.”

I drop the bullet into a little pan and it goes tink.

Realistically though, the MS exam is already one of the hardest tests in the world, it doesn’t need live-fire exercises or nerve gas added into it. However I do wish they used more dramatic service prompts. Let’s take it out with one that’s been in my head for a while:

Alright (candidate name), I’m not going to sugarcoat this for you- an ancient truce has been broken. There is a war being waged in the shadows, and it pains me greatly to say that my team and I have failed. We were unable to stop our enemies at the Arcand occult society from activating the device buried deep beneath the earth’s crust and frankly we’re just trying to enjoy the time we have left on this world.

*look at your watch and sigh*

Which, by my calculations is one hour. Money is of no object to us, because currency is about to become literally useless in a world where monsters roam the streets feeding on the starving, terrified survivors of the impending apocalypse. Anyway, which of the following champagnes is the most expensive on your list?

-Pierre Peters “Les Chetillons” Blanc de Blancs 1999      

-Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises Blanc de Noirs 1999   

-Krug Rose MV

-Salon “Cuvee S” Blanc de Blanc 1999  

Ideally at this point something would start trying to break down the door, making guttural screeching and howling noises. “Hurry up. We’re thirsty and we’re all about to die”.

Thank your lucky stars I will never get to design an exam.