Alex Fox on the Master Sommelier Exam

Alex Fox works as the Wine Director for Myth Restaurant in San Francisco. As unlikely as it may sound from the piece below, he plans on sitting for the Master of Wine degree in 2009.

Alex Fox on the Master Sommelier Exam

A few weeks back, wine professionals of all stripes descended upon San Francisco to sit for one of the most prestigious wine accreditations in the world, the Master Sommelier exam. The title of Master Sommelier, offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers, along with the Master of Wine degree offered by the Institute of Masters of Wine, are the highest peaks reachable in the wine world. Each involves several levels of testing that get exponentially more difficult until finally, after years of study, you achieve the right to torture yourself through several days of intense testing to see if you can join the rarified air of the privileged few who pass the highest level.

God forbid, during the blind tasting section of the exam, you make a left turn at Albuquerque, and due to the homogenous nature of most wines these days, fail that section. Then it is back to the drawing board. See you next year.

Or, maybe during the service section of the exam, while trying to add some levity to a tense situation, you recommend a cool, crisp Pabst Blue Ribbon to go along with those dozen oysters and you fail that section too. Off with your head. If I sound somewhat cynical, well, then good, it is intentional.

Institutions dedicated to promoting general standards and the continual pursuit of greater levels of knowledge in a given profession are a good thing. The problem, highlighted by the poor dejected souls who dined at Myth fresh off of learning they had failed one or more sections of the exam, demonstrates the danger of putting too much weight on a title, a point score, or the opinion of someone else to determine one’s own worth.

These four talented young wine professionals are employed at several of the most prestigious restaurants in the country. They have reached their current positions through hard work and a daily demonstration of the requisite skills needed to successfully execute their jobs. So, why do they need a degree to reinforce what they are already doing?

The answer is they don’t. In fact, haven’t we lost sight of what, in my opinion should be the raison d’etre for embarking on a course of study for either of these titles, the process itself, and the subsequent enhancement of skills, to be able to better serve the consumer? (Wow, that was a mouthful.) Sure, we should throw career enhancement in there as well. But, what seems to happen instead is the pursuit of a degree to be able to enter a semi merit-based selective club that excludes most people. Ultimately there isn’t much value in that.

The world of surfing offers a useful example. Surfing has become a big dollar sport with competitions being used by surfers as the best way to snag lucrative endorsement contracts. There is a point system at each of these contests that eventually leads to one surfer being crowned the top surfer of the year. It promotes what is referred to as contest surfing and many surfers have become quite wealthy surfing to win tournaments.

A few years back a surfer named Tom Curren hit the scene and won several world titles. He learned the contest rules and surfed in the particular contests needed to rack up points. However, within the rules, he still surfed each wave with the pure intentions of furthering his personal connection with the energy of the ocean and each particular wave. In surfing lingo he is considered a soul surfer. Surfing is his passion and the contests offered a platform and the means for him to grow as a surfer.

We can learn a lot from the example of Tom Curren. If pursuing the title of Master of Wine or Master Sommelier enhances your passion for wine and furthers your personal wine growth, then go for it. Just remember, the value is in the journey rather than the destination.