Earning the title of Master Sommelier is no easy feat. The exam is notoriously difficult and only those who truly live and breathe in the world of wine have any chance of making it, as Matt Stamp MS explains...

What does it take to become a Master Sommelier?

As a fellow – and more veteran – Master Sommelier once said to me, ‘An MS should be able to say something sensible about any wine, from anywhere in the world.’ From Banfi’s Brunello to Renardat-Fâche’s Bugey-Cerdon, success hinges on the ability to accurately yet concisely categorise a wine’s contents, make the sales pitch, competently pair it with food, get it on the table before the course arrives and manage all of the above with no shortage of tact and aplomb.

The best of us are more likely interpreters of our guests’ tastes than advocates for our own. We hang on a low rung in the service industry, far from the rarefied air consumed by top critics and yet – as I am reminded as I watch scenes from my own MS exam unfold in the documentary film SOMM – the best sommeliers live and breathe only in the world of drink.

While many great sommeliers may find their own, self-taught, path to the top, the MS Diploma is the most valuable certificate one might achieve in the service and sale of wine. But it doesn’t come easy: just seven of the 60 hopeful candidates at a recent exam cleared the hurdle, and the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) admits only a handful of new members to its ranks each year. Since 1969, when the exam was first held in London, only 197 people worldwide have achieved this distinction.

master sommelier

The pins for certified sommeliers. Credit: Court of Master Sommeliers

Today, the CMS has European and American chapters, with members in the UK, US, Canada, and Chile. The Court’s members head wine programmes in some of the world’s best restaurants (New York’s Eleven Madison Park, England’s Fat Duck, California’s The French Laundry) as well as more casual wine destinations (New York’s Corkbuzz, London’s 28-50, Colorado’s Frasca Food and Wine), and they are an increasing force in the marketing and making of wine.


Nightmare food and wine matches – from the sommeliers


The exams 

So what does it take to become a Master Sommelier? The simple answer is that you pass a test composed of three sections – tasting, practical service and theory – buttressed by years of preparation. Retire the lofty image of a ‘super taster’, likely French, baptised in wine and by some divine lottery versed in the nuances of Margaux and Yquem by puberty. For me, the route was less glamorous.