I woke up at 2:00am in my hotel room just 6 minutes from the Laguna Montage where the exam would be held that day. I looked at my phone to check the time and it was in the middle of Apple update! I was so nervous it would clear my alarms so I waited until it was done and reset my alarms for 4:00am, 4:15 am and 4:30am. Finally I hopped out of bed at 4:30 am to get ready, get a cram study sesh in and swish my mouth with some Sauvignon Blanc before heading to the Montage.
One by one, men and women dressed in black blazers with introductory sommelier pins entered the hotel. The tension was high. After what felt like a lifetime, it was finally time to check in. I’m first to enter the room and in true Casleah fashion, I grab my usual seat in the front row. Wines are all poured, two reds and two whites. It’s almost time to begin. The Master Sommeliers introduce themselves and explain the format of the exam.
First up, blind tasting. We have 30 minutes to blind taste these 4 wines. Through the deductive tasting method, we should be able to not only describe the wine but tell what type of grape it is and which country it comes from. I taste the first wine and it is fresh, crisp with citrus fruit notes with ripping acid. I call New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. The next wine has the beautiful familiar and aromatic smell of terpenes and lychee! Oh happy day!! Hello Gerwurztraminer from Alsace!! Now for reds- the 3rd wine was fruit driven on the nose with red fruit notes of strawberry, cherry and cranberry. Moderate tannins and moderate acid, however there was a slight earthiness to it. Because to me the alcohol seemed slightly elevated and a hint of residual sugar I called Pinot Noir from the USA. I still wonder if it was from Burgundy though. And the last wine has familiar aromas of blackberry and black currant. Then it hit me, pyrazines!!! Thank God! I called the last wine a Napa Cabernet and I’m still pleased with that call, but I will never know if I called right!! I finished just in time as the Master Sommelier called out “time”.
Next up, is the theory part of the exam. It’s a packet of 4 pieces of paper, front and back. 45 questions of multiple choice, matching, fill in the blank, short answer and math questions. We have 35 minutes to finish the exam. Some of the questions I knew without a doubt, other questions I had no clue what they were talking about. After I completed, I added it up and there were 19 questions I wasn’t 100% confident in. I could miss 18 to pass. I was fairly confident that I did it, but there was still a thought of not passing theory. I sat there in the front row, knowing I did the best I could do and smiling. The Master Sommelier whispered to me, “are you finished?” I nodded. He said “you can go”. So I got up and that was that. I looked at the sheet in the back of the room for my service time- 1:00pm.
I had 3 hours in between theory and service! That is a long time to think about how the Sauvignon Blanc could have been from Sancerre instead and maybe I misread the 2nd wine, maybe it was a Riesling!! But I tried to remain positive and confident. I mean as much as you can in this crazy situation!
It was almost time for service! There were 4 of us for the 1:00 time slot. The beverage director of the Montage asked to check our pockets. He needed to see that we had a pen, a notepad, a corkscrew and a lighter (for decanting). I also brought my ah-so because ya know it doesn’t hurt!
We went inside and he says we are at “Hear the Sear” steakhouse and we all have tables of 6 guests. Full glasses are poured by 6oz and half glass poured by 3oz. Every guest is welcomed with a glass of Prosecco.
I approach my giraudon table and there’s a very full tray of Prosecco glasses already poured. Here. We. Go. I welcome the Master Sommelier to “Hear the Sear” and present the Prosecco. She says it’s corked!! I apologize and remove the Prosecco. She orders 2 still glasses of “Dönhoff Riesling” for her “sisters”. I bring those and she asks a ton of questions on beer and cocktails. Next, she proceeds to order a bottle of 2006 Cuvée de something something. I had never heard of this tête de cuvée!!! (Later found out that it’s from Henriot) I confirmed the wine and vintage with her but she knew that I knew I didn’t recognize the cuvée, so I decided to have a little fun with it. I brought the flutes and coasters and repeated. “I’m so sorry I want to make sure I have the right champagne. It was the 2006 which one?” She smiled and repeated it again. I returned to my giraudon and pulled the “champagne” from the ice bucket. And you bet I wiped that baby super super dry!! I present the wine and she confirms. I proceed to open.
As I am in the middle of a life and death situation with this cork, she orders a rabbit with thyme and white wine reduction sauce, something else that was super complicated and salmon with something else. Then she asked which wine I would pair with all 3 dishes. Then magic to my ears: the tiniest little hiss you ever did hear!! The. Best. Feeling. I poured her a taste while I suggested a burgundy Pinot Noir to go with all the crazy dishes. She liked my suggestion. I realized I forgot to present the cork!! I pulled it out of pocket and stated, “I am so so sorry ma’am I forgot to give you the cork of that champagne,” She said she didn’t want it. She asked more questions to which a lot of them I didn’t have solid answers for, but I was floating because that cork came out perfectly and was my best friend today. We finished and she asked me to stand facing the wall until time. 30 seconds later-“time”.
2.5 hours later…
part 4: the awards ceremony.
The Masters stand at the front of the room holding the pins and certificates as we sip on Laurent Pierre Champagne. He says, “ we want you to know, that only 56% of you have passed so do not feel bad if you didn’t pass this time. This is a really hard exam.” Then another Master asks those who are taking it for the second or third time to raise their hands, and at least 8 raised their hands. There is approximately 30 of us anxiously awaiting the news. He shuffles the certificates and says “these are in no particular order” and begins to call them out one by one. The pile is dwindling. I’m getting nervous. He is down to one certificate left. He says “ and now for the top scorer and recipient of the $500 Walter Clore Scholarship for continued wine education…..” I look at my colleague and friend in sadness. I didn’t do it. “Casleah Herwaldt” HE CALLED MY NAME!!!!!! I couldn’t believe it and I’m still so shook!! What an absolutely unbelievable accomplishment!!! So so much hard work has paid off!!!
now: I am Casleah Herwaldt, Certified Sommelier. Look out world I have some big things coming your way!!!!
Huge thank you to the countless people who sent me study guides, study tips, advice, met with me to practice service, joined my blind tasting group and tasted with me. And to my amazing husband who so patiently lived with me while flashcards, notebooks, wine bottles and champagne flutes took over our apartment. I couldn’t be more humbled or more grateful for all of the support I received!! Thank you!!!