Let’s Start at The Very Beginning, A Very Good Place to Start

I passed the theory portion the Court of Master Sommeliers diploma in 2014 on my first attempt. My second year, I passed service. Last year, in May, I reset all my sections back to zero after I failed to pass tasting. I’ll be coming into my fourth attempt without any active sections. While I don’t have an exact date for my next theory exam, I’ve got about 5-6 months, as it will either be at the end of February or the beginning of March.

For the benefit of the CMS community, and to track my own progress, I thought it might be of interest to blog this theory attempt, to compare differences in studying for my first attempt, versus now (three years later), and what I might have gained (or lost) between my exams. Measuring the ease of the study (or lack thereof) as a marking post, I can learn what really worked to build retention for me.

Yesterday, on a muggy September Sunday in New York, I dipped my feet back in the pool of concerted study for the first time in almost 2.5 years. The water was not refreshing, but two pieces of wisdom guided my start. Richard Betts told me that slow and steady was the key to his success. He simply studied one to two hours a day every day, and, well, I had to start somewhere.

The second is a process tool that I learned from Andy McNamara; he would just take yellow legal pads and write down everything he didn’t know stone-cold as he would read, writing page after page of notes. He did this not necessarily to review the notes at some point, but to get them into his body. I later read that writing something generates the memory equivalent of looking at it seven times, and Andy’s strategy certainly reinforced that for me.

Lastly, I took a page from my original play book, by starting with a manageable, simple topic. In this case, I started on South America, and specifically Chile. It’s likely that there will be somewhere between 4 and 8 questions on South America on my Master’s exam this year, but there are probably only about 1000 total questions the examiners could ask that are fair game at Master’s level on South American countries.

Compare this with France, or Italy where you might have 5000 to 10,000 (if not more) potential questions. I’ll surely have more than four questions on France on my exam, but relative to potential questions, the ratio is much worse, so crushing New World regions has always been part of my meta-game for giving myself a best shot at success for the Masters.

As I took my hour-long journey through the South American study guide yesterday, I was simultaneously reminded of how much and how little I know, and it certainly brought up many queasy-happy feelings regarding why I do this work. The abstract, fact-based nature of theory study has always been most difficult for me, so figuring out how to make information “come alive” has been key to my success in the past. How do I bring the microscopic nature of the facts I learn into the more macroscopic nature of my day-to-day work on the floor, and to the level of why wine is metaphysically important me?

I agree with a lot of the criticism about the CMS being too trivia-focused, or rather, about how people who are studying for the CMS are too trivia-focused. I’m trying to simultaneously embrace the truth of the deep level of knowledge required to pass Master’s theory, while focusing on building my understanding of wine, not my bank of trivia-type knowledge.

In considering the path forward, I’m most reminded of something Noma’s Rene Redzepi once said:

“We work as intensely and as profoundly as possible. That’s the only real shield we have against failure.”

Now, of course, how you define failure in this whole ordeal is where things start to get interesting…and so, I begin.

About Morgan

Liquid enthusiast. Sommelier and wine communicator living and working in New York City.
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