Entering the Court: Studying Wine

One wine-lover’s experience with her pursuit of knowledge.

Wine in Row
By Michelle Marcus

After attending so many wine tastings and events around the St. Louis area over the last six years, wine has become a hobby and newfound passion. I learned how to swirl, sniff, and sip from the STLwinegirl, also known as Angela Ortmann.

The STLwinegirl taught me the basics about wine, the art of pairing, and introduced me to new wines that I never would have tried on my own. At this point, wine classes were just a fun time and an excuse to socialize.

When I heard that some of my favorite local wine industry friends were starting up a school of wine, my hobby-sized interest level suddenly got much more serious.

I took a ten-week PreSomm course from the Mid-American School of Wine. The course covered a lot of fundamentals you need to know for any sommelier or wine certification. We reviewed all the countries that produce wine, important wine regions, and service standards and practice tastings. Who doesn’t love to practice tasting wine?

Another area covered in the class was serving wine.  Since I had only worked as a busser back in high school, my service skills were quite rusty; I was relieved to learn proper instruction in how wine service should be done. I found this to be helpful from a patron’s point of view as well, and have used my new expertise when opening bottles at home. For example, I didn’t realize that wine and sparkling wine bottles should not pop upon opening… just a slight whisper.

Of course, the real challenge in the class was learning about all the many wine regions around the world and their well-known grape varietals. Starting with France, which had to be spread across two sessions, we studied a new country or area each week.

Copying from the movie Somm, I diligently wrote study notes on white note cards and would flip through them each week for the quiz at the start of the next class. Those same note cards came in handy when studying again a few months later.

It had been a long time since I had to sit down and study on a regular basis so it was hard to stay disciplined each week, especially now that I had the distractions of the Internet and a full work day. Luckily, I had the support of my friends and family, who gave me the time to study (one time at a bar with a friend’s band playing) and helping me study throughout the week.

While I felt accomplished after completing the PreSomm course, I felt like it gave me the foundation to take the next step.

Introduction to the Court of Master Sommeliers
With the PreSomm course under my belt, I decided to take the Introductory Sommelier Course & Exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers. The goal of the class and test is ultimately to help prepare you for the Certified Sommelier Exam. You need to have significant background knowledge about the world’s wine regions before you set foot in the class.  Most people have to self-study in order to get this information, so I was very fortunate to have gotten the chance to learn in a formal classroom setting during the PreSomm course.

Signing up for the Introductory course was very easy online, and immediately you are sent PDF documents outlining what you need to know for the class, along with a list of reference materials. Some of the information I was familiar with from my PreSomm class, which was a huge relief.

The class took place in a different city, and I chose to fly there.  I was so nervous about something happening to my luggage that I wore a business casual outfit on the plane, just in case. While the instructors want you dressed professionally during the class, I did see more casual attire as well. This is a big difference between the Introductory Sommelier Class & Exam verses the Certified Sommelier Exam, where you must be dressed in your formal attire. It was still a good mental test in preparedness for the Certified test, and I would recommend going a day early to have time to iron your clothes.  Feeling prepared, even if it’s just with what you’re wearing, will help you feel more confident.

When I arrived at the class, I was handed a large workbook, which was actually the same as the giant PDF they sent out when I signed up.  I used this book to help me study, but there are very few details in the book, and you’re expected to take notes in it during the class. These notes won’t help you too much for purposes of cramming, especially on the second day, since you have to take the test in the late afternoon. Yet, there were many times throughout the two days when the Master-level instructors stopped and made sure you wrote down specific information as a giant hint.

The other main focus for the class is blind tastings, which are typically one of the more difficult aspects of the next level. Even though there are no blind tastings during the Introductory Sommelier Exam, the instructors made sure you knew the proper deductive steps to determine which wine you were tasting. The first day there were 14 tastings, with 8 more on the second, and it was an excellent way to learn out loud with the entire class.

The very last topic covered before the exam was service. We entered another room to see a demonstration by one of the Master Sommeliers.  Again, it isn’t tested at the Introductory level, but there was a question about service on the exam.  In order to take the Certified Sommelier Exam the service element is an area you will need to practice on your own, which is why there is a requirement to work in the service industry.

Overall, the 70 question multiple choice test was hard.  There were quite a few questions that I really didn’t know, specifically questions asking details about a region that I hadn’t studied in great depth. I went through and answered all the questions that I knew for sure, and then used the extra time at the end to think through the questions where I had doubts and present my best guess.  It really showed me that even with months of studying, there is much more I still need to learn. I can now fully appreciate what it takes to become a Certified Sommelier… and beyond!

At the very end of the class, after all the tests have been graded, everyone was served a complimentary glass of sparkling wine to celebrate the past two days. It tasted even better when they called my name to receive my certificate and pin, and I found out I passed the Introductory Sommelier Exam!

About the Author
Michelle Marcus is a web developer by day, but an avid foodie by night. After her father married into a wine-loving family, Michelle soon began to take wine and cheese classes from the STLwinegirl, Angela Ortmann, to see what all the fuss was about. Michelle plans on continuing her wine education through the St. Louis School of Wine. You can follow Michelle’s “food adventures” on http://www.STLcheesegirl.com.



  1. Doug,

    Thank you for all your kind words!

    Unfortunately, I do not have any industry experience so I think I will instead pursue the CSW instead. The St. Louis school of wine offers a 4 month program to help students pass so I will be saving up for that.

    In the meantime, I will continue taking classes from Angie as she offers “Wine Girl Wednesday” tastings and pairing classes at a local cooking school.



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