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Six from California pass advanced sommelier exam, including Chad Zeigler of Gordon Ramsay at the London West Hollywood

November 25, 2009 |  6:00 am

The Court of Master Sommeliers, the accrediting body for the nation’s sommeliers, announced that 11 students had passed their advanced exams, conducted at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. Of the 11, six are from California: Yohannah Burmeister and Ian Burrows of Oakland, Garth Hodgdon of Sacramento, Jennifer Knowles of San Francisco, Rachael Lowe of Yountville and local talent Chad Zeigler, who serves on the floor at Gordon Ramsay in Hollywood. Lowe, sommelier at Bouchon in the Napa Valley, was awarded the prestigious Rudd Scholarship for her scores.

The five-day adIMG_0026vanced test is the penultimate hurdle on the road to achieving master sommelier status, and the last test before the diploma exam. With its emphasis on theory, service and blind tasting, many rate the advanced test the more difficult of the two, not only for its length but also because candidates are responsible for a much broader spectrum of knowledge, which is to say everything there is to know about wine, spirits and wine service. Advanced candidates are required to pass with a score of 60% correct or higher; for diploma candidates, the bar is raised to 75%. It is almost unheard of for any candidate to pass on a first attempt.

Zeigler says he started hitting the books about three months before the test began. He plastered the rooms of his apartment with wine region maps, read histories of whiskeys, tomes on Burgundy (an important wine region in France), on brew kettle contents (for beer and/or sake) and Botrytis (the fruit fungus responsible for ethereal dessert wines). His colleagues drilled him on how to open Champagne bottles and decant older Bordeaux. In off hours, he’d field pop quizzes by way of text messages from friends and colleagues ("Quick! Name the sub-regions of Barolo") until he felt proficient. “You’ve got to work at it in layers,” he says, “spend a week or two in every country, until it’s like breathing.”

As for the tasting itself ...

six wines are presented, which candidates are required to identify by variety (or varieties), region and approximate vintage. Candidates employ a strict empirical method that narrows down the possibilities for the wine in the glass; it’s less important to correctly guess the wine as it is to demonstrate one’s skills of deduction. “People falter on tasting,” says Jennifer Knowles, “because they really want to nail the wine. But once you start thinking about it too much, and convincing yourself what it is, you forget to notice the details.” In any event, guessing the wine correctly is a moot point: In what seems like a cruel omission, the actual wines tasted are never revealed.

Candidates will now have a year to study further; they will be eligible to sit for the diploma exam in 2011.

– Patrick Comiskey

Photo courtesy of the Court of Master Sommeliers