O ne of the signature achievements in the wine industry is to become a sommelier. It requires a thorough knowledge of wine service and pairing of food and wine. Often it takes years to reach that level.
But for a select few there is a higher level, called the Master Sommelier. To achieve that status you must pass a rigorous test that only 230 people have passed worldwide in 40 years.
Starting this week on the Esquire Network you can watch as six candidates prepare for and take the Master Sommelier exam. The show, called “Uncorked,” started Tuesday (November 10 at 10 EST) and will last six weeks. It is available on channel 118 on Comcast, channel 235 on Directv and on demand with many other services. The show also can be seen online at tv.esquire.com.
To find out why someone would go to all the trouble of taking this test I talked to Yannick Benjamin, one of the six candidates profiled on the show. He is a sommelier at New York’s University Club who got interested in wine during a visit to Bordeaux when he was 13.
In 2003, a car accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. Now he outfits his wheelchair with a table that allows him to perform his duties.
“For me, my situation is a little different than everyone else,” said Benjamin. “Having had a spinal cord injury, I want to lead by example. Some people in my situation are afraid to try something. They get pigeon-holed.
“With me being on the show we have someone being seen, and it will raise awareness.
“The hospitality industry is very image conscious. And there aren’t many disabled people in the industry. I will definitely be breaking down some barriers.”
Some people think a sommelier is just a way for snobby people to show off, so they avoid them. Others are afraid they will embarrass themselves by saying the wrong thing. Benjamin said that shouldn’t be a concern. The sommelier can be your biggest ally in choosing a wine.
“The most important thing for people to know is that wine is not only for an elite group,” he said. “It can be enjoyed by anyone. If you’re out at a restaurant, don’t be afraid to ask questions. When you think it’s the dumbest question in the world, it’s not.
“The sommelier can help you find the right wine.”
When I go to a restaurant I often ask the sommelier or waiter for help because he or she will know a great deal more about the wine than I do, and can do a better job of suggesting the best wine and food pairing.
As more people enjoy wine with dinner, the role of sommelier becomes ever more important. To become a Master Sommelier shows the person has dedicated himself to becoming an expert in the field.
To pass the test, you must have extensive knowledge of wine theory, the skills to perfectly present and serve wine to the most discerning palates, and from taste alone be able to determine the year, grape variety and region of a wine (down to the exact, tiny village where the grapes were grown).
Each candidate must spend a great deal of time in study and then be able to handle withering criticism that comes from the Masters who give the exam. The sommeliers must pass all three parts (theory, service and blind tasting) in three years or they will have to start from square one.
Benjamin is on his final attempt to pass the test. When I talked to him he wouldn’t say if he had passed the test
“The test is very difficult but it is very fair,” he said. “They are not looking to trip you up.
“Did I study hard? It’s all a matter of who you are. You can be on a treadmill for two hours, and if you’re only walking, you only get so much. But if you run hard for an hour you can get much more.
“It’s all about how intense you study. There was a lot of time sacrificed.”
Benjamin said he didn’t have a specific goal beyond becoming a Master Sommelier, although that title would open many doors for him.
“This is for myself, not to brag or anything like that,” he said, repeating a phrase I’ve often heard from Olympic athletes, who talk about bringing out the best in themselves.
He said he had to stretch to find the time to prepare for the exam.
“Life itself is busy, so this was just a little more,” he said. “I just bought an apartment and I’m getting married.”
We will find out soon if he can add another title to his resumé.
Featuring tasting events from around the world, each hour-long episode of “Uncorked” will feature sommeliers swirling, smelling and tasting a variety of wines. They also will enter competitions overseen by Master Sommeliers. In the final episode the six candidates face the final exam to find out if they can achieve their dreams.
Besides Benjamin the candidates are:
Jack Mason, a native of College Station, Texas, and wine director of Marta, a New York City restaurant.
Jane Lopes, a University of Chicago graduate who has worked at New York restaurants, including her current post at Eleven Madison Park.
Dana Gaiser, who has served as a sommelier on both coasts and is now Key Accounts Director for Lauber Imports.
Josh Nadel, a native New Yorker and Executive Beverage Director of Andrew Carmellini’s restaurants in New York.
Morgan Harris, sommelier at the Michelin-starred Aureole restaurant in New York’s Times Square.
“Wine is loved by people all over the world, but only a handful can say they’ve actually ‘mastered’ it,” said Matt Hanna, head of original programming, Esquire Network. “We’re excited to take viewers inside this highly competitive world and showcase the stories of these young wine experts as they sacrifice everything to tackle a test that has defeated thousands of candidates since it started 40 years ago.”
Will There Be A New Master Sommelier? Watch Uncorked On Esquire
Author Dennis Sodomka