Somm Or Scam? You Tell Me…

trio verticalThe buzz-phrase ‘bucket list’ gets a lot of press these days; in post-modern America, it means a roster of those things you’ve always dreamed of doing, but have somehow not gotten around to doing.

The phrase is a truncated version of ‘Things I’d Like to Do Before I Kick the Bucket.’ 

Typical bucket list items might include climbing Mount Everest barefoot, translating the Koran into Elvish, singing ‘Hello, Dolly’ to the Dalai Lama, memorizing pi to the twenty thousandth digit and becoming a Master Sommelier.

I bring this up not only because all of items on the list require an inordinate amount of time and/or money without offering much of a return-on-investment beyond bragging rights and potentially, frostbite, but because the Master Sommelier Diploma Exam (held in July of this year) produced some interesting results, if few Master Sommeliers.

Of seventy candidates tested, some of whom had tried before, guess how many passed?


And for the privilege of failing, the other sixty-nine candidates paid a combined total of $70, 725 merely in exam fees: To reach the level where they would be ‘invited’ to participate, they were required pass three other sommelier levels, for which they paid a total of $1,845 each.  This does not even take into consideration the endless hours of wine sampling and associated costs necessary to reach the awesome heights of sensory skill needed to delude yourself into thinking that you could actually succeed the first—or third time in.

'Blind Tasting'? Breakfast of Champions...

‘Blind Tasting’? Breakfast of Champions…

‘But, hang on,’ you say.  ‘Doesn’t someone with a Master Sommelier ‘degree’ subsequently make a boatload of cash from endorsements, rich people tips and face-recognition once they appear on the Wheaties box?’

Maybe, but I tend to doubt it; you’d have to show me the stats.  If you pass the bar exam, for example, which has a national pass rate of 69%, you can be relatively confident of securing a six figure salary within a few years if you want to; those statistics are readily available, because there are more hungry law schools than hungry wine schools.  Now, you cannot practice law without a law degree, but can a Master Sommelier  haul down lawyerish scoot because they are Master Sommeliers?  Or, among those that manage it, is it more likely because they have the sort of personalities that were able to pass the test:  In other words, a compulsion for detail, a congenial people-focused attitude and innate ability to up-sell a product they believe in?  And thus win those jobs based more on individual merit than on a couple of consonants they paid to have tacked onto their names?

There are indeed lucrative careers in the wine industry, but how many are held by Master Sommeliers? I do not know.  But not many, considering that there are only a couple hundred Master Sommeliers alive on the entire planet.

It’s a remarkable and obviously near-impossible achievement, no question about it.  I am not purposely belittling it, nor am I anti-sommelier by any means—especially considering that I spent ten years I will never get back working as one.  And, since you’ll ask, I am certified; nothing more.   I never made it past ‘First Class’ in Boy Scouts either.

somm posterBut at its cold heart and avaricious soul, is the quest for Master Sommelier street cred less an honor and more a scam designed to lure in folks with money or sponsorship who have no real chance of passing the test?  Especially since the film Somm has inspired a number of folks to add it to their bucket  list?  I have a few MS friends who I love and respect, so I will do no more than touch the side of my nose at this point.

But I will tell you that if you decide to climb Everest, with or without boots, your chance of success are about 1 in 6; considerably higher than your likelihood of becoming an MS—although your chance of dying is a bit higher at 1 in 28.

ms_logoCost?  About $35 k to climb the world’s tallest mountain.

At this point, I’ll leave it to the Court of Master Sommeliers to suggest a realistic tally for the sum total expenses required to finally wear ‘MS’ after your name.  Or not.

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12 Responses to Somm Or Scam? You Tell Me…

  1. Ted Hall says:

    I know someone who is a master somm AND who climbed Mt. Everest. What are the odds?

  2. Rew says:

    First off – it cost a whole lot more to climb Everest. Said and Done. The 2nd is – there should be other tests for wine enthusiasts. I studied and passed the first 2 MS tests but did not take the last one (when there were 3) because I did not know enough about cigars and cognac at the time. Years later I get someone’s biz card and it says Sommelier on it – even though they have never worked in a restaurant. Why? for clout. I know a guy that works one night at a wine bar and calls himself a Sommelier – talk about misrepresentation. All of the MS’s that I known and are aware of make good money – and some of them JR – I usually disagree with. They write any garbage that comes to their mind with no validity of knowledge.

    • intoxreport says:

      Among the major Everest guide companies, 2013 fees from Summit Climb, Adventure Peaks and Asian Trekking were between $27 k and $37 k per team member.

      I do tend to Google shit before I post it. But thanks; I agree at the ludicrousness of calling yourself a sommelier, which is a restaurant position, when you don’t work in a restaurant. It’s like calling yourself a sous chef because you like to cook for the kids.

  3. Sal says:

    I liked your article, however, I am disappointed at the comments content or lack of.
    I am a wine maker and a design engineer of medical devices, so I very seriously appreciate the amount of testing and content knowledge the MS’s have to go through, although, I believe some of it is completely irrelevant to the end product or service they perform. The majority of the customers I come a cross (and they are mostly engineers, scientists, doctors, financial gurus) have very basic knowledge of viticulture and/or oenology, and are very happy to talk at that level. When the conversation gets too technical, they do not feel as comfortable, and many tend to dislike snobbery, especially by wine geeks.

    • rew says:

      I don’t understand why you would write “When the conversation gets too technical, they do not feel as comfortable, and many tend to dislike snobbery, especially by wine geeks” – what does that have to do with a MS exam? And you are talking about a bunch of techno-nerds that speak overly tech all of the time to layman – and they don’t like tech speak from another profession?? where does the snobbery come from – well you say it comes from wine geeks. Working in a restaurant 80 hours a week as a Sommelier does not make me a wine geek, if anything you are a wine geek, wine geeks talk about crap that no one cares about. Sommeliers pair your food to a wine that will make your experience more memorable (or closer to perfect). I’m not going to talk to a table about micro-oxing or how much new oak the wine saw. I leave it to the east bay winemakers to do that.

  4. Anonymous says:

    just wanted to point out: the screenshot of the certificate at the bottom of the article is for the MW, not for the MS. Very different things.

  5. Anonymous says:

    It’s a pyramid sheme wrapped in a secret society they say they are non profit where does all the money go and there’s a lot of it.

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