Mea Maxima Culpa: On occasion, I pick on Master Sommeliers. That happens to be cold-ass reality; I’m in the wine game for the lolz, not for the respect or the badges or the profits.
And my issue—if you can legitimately call it that, which you probably can’t—is that the whole mysterious aura of wine supremacy surrounding the Court of the Master Sommeliers funnels down to what Navin ‘The Jerk’ Johnson discovers in his eureka moment: It’s ‘a profit game’.
Not only that, but the entire mystique is largely self-generated and self-perpetuating anyway, and the Masterhood—the top honor the Court bestows upon the wine world’s equivalent of gamer nerds seeking the ultimate level in Super Mario Maker (currently held by someone named Bananasaurus Rex; ‘nuff said?)—is generally billed among wannabes as ‘the consummation devoutly to be wished’.
Truth is, that bill that winds up being staggeringly high, and a lot of the payout—although by no means all of it—lands in the pocket of the Court and their derivative businesses. The rest is the small fortune you will need to spend on wine tasting to have even a snowball’s chance of passing the MS exam.
Putting The $ Back in Chri$tma$
I bring this up in the season of pacem mittere in terram et in hominibus bonae voluntatis because over the last few days, my inbox has been bombarded with emails from the Napa Valley Wine Academy giving me the hard-sell on an opportunity to attend SommDay School.
SommDay School. How cute is that?
What my (or yours, if that’s what you’re giving me for X-Mo) three hundred dollars buys is a chance to learn the following tricks-of-the-trade, which the ad is careful to assure me ‘are not as clear-cut as you’d think’:
- The attitude, demeanor and professional behavior of the Sommelier
- Communication skills: speaking and listening with confidence
- Service basics: mise en place and more
- Champagne service
- Decanting red wine
- Food and wine pairing basics
- Wine list construction basics
- Dealing with customer service challenges
What another few hundred bucks buys me is the plane ticket to Napa I’ll need to attend the January 13 class, where Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser presides over seven what-I-am-guessing-will-be excruciatingly dull hours.
The advertisement refers to Gaiser as ‘formidable’.
Formidable? Oh, for Christ’s sake.
Wake Me When It’s Over…
Forget for a moment that I will happily teach you all of these things for free if you are willing to hitchhike to Detroit and don’t mind the smell of dried, illegal herbery on my breath. Your other alternative is to spend at least as much as SommDay School costs on a computer, whereupon you can look all this stuff up gratis.
Of course, that presumes you don’t already have a computer and really find value-add in standing in the rarefied presence of a real live Ph.D. (a dorktorate, according to the Sommelier Glossary).
In which case, vaya con Dios, suckers.
The SommScouts of America
Now I am going to make an analogy which will only be grokked by those among you who were Boy Scouts in the day when it was actually cool to be one, which would be the mid 1970s in Michigan, anyway. I joined the Boy Scouts because I loved being outdoors, loved camping, loved shooting rifles and bows, loved a chance to get away from my parents and sleep outside over long, delicious weekends.
It was a little like the Army, only you could quit whenever you wanted without going to jail or getting executed, and they didn’t encourage you to kill kids from other Scout troops.
As I recall, rules were few, and you didn’t need to attend $300 Scoutday School to learn them—they were, in fact, as clear-cut as you’d think. What I do recall was the sheer unbridled joy behind the concept: The physical exertion, the comradery and above all, the freedom to unleash a little pent-up boydom in a relatively adult-free environment.
Like the Court of Master Sommeliers, there were various strata of Scoutery. If you were so inclined, you advanced from Tenderfoot to Second Class, to First Class, to Heart, to Life, and then—if you were the sort of anal individual who likes to set ridiculously lofty goals—Eagle Scout.
The problem you encountered along the way was pretty close to that involving Master Sommeliership, and that’s why the analogy works:
As you ‘advanced’ in the Boy Scout hierarchy, the fun diminished in lock-step with the laurels. The focus was on progressively more difficult achievements and more arcane rote, such as going on idiotically long hikes and learning ludicrously useless knot-tying skills which might have served you if your career goals including being a pirate on the Jolly Roger, but in real-time life, were of no worth whatsoever. The quest suddenly became less about boyish liberty and more about the opposite: Rigid and controlled knowledge acquisition—some esoteric, some practical—but mostly the same level of bullshit they were meanwhile drilling into our heads in school, which you could not quit anytime you wanted.
The Eagle Scouts of that world, on their feverish and endless dragon-chase for merit badges, were the Master Sommeliers of this one: People who take inordinate satisfaction in memorizing a shitload of idiotic minutiae simply to pin a badge on themselves.
And somewhere along the way, the undisciplined fun and purity of the scenario, be it wine or wilderness, is replaced by academics.
I have no doubt that it sneaks up on you too—one merit badge is too many and a hundred is not enough.
Some of my best friends are Master Sommeliers, and everybody finds their own path to excellence based on personal standards. No argument here. But I can say without fear of contradiction that for me, in the Court of Master Sommeliers I am much more comfortable in the role of court jester.
Ite, missa est.