I had reason to be scared of writing the Level 1 exam leading to the 4th level and pinnacle level of Master Sommelier qualification with the Court of Master Sommeliers. The two days of review before the exam were grueling: 8 to 6pm of one power point after another, one country after another, flipping from old world to new world, districts, zones, individual vineyards, varietals international and indigenous, wine controls, labeling, geography, soil and blind taste tests all followed by studying until 11pm and up at 3am for more review. If I hadn’t prepared for 3 weeks prior to this, I don’t think I would have stuck it out past day one. But I passed the first exam, and with a grade over 70%, I was invited to attempt the second level test. I knew in my heart of hearts that I was not prepared but buoyed by my initial success, I went for it and did not pass the second level exam.
Although I am a Certified sommelier in Italy, I wanted to know more about International wines. I couldn’t have picked a more rigorous course of study: the Court of Master Sommelier based in Torquay, England. It seems that since the Brits don’t have a wine culture of their own, they have taken it upon themselves to maintain an encyclopedic knowledge of everybody else’s wines. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was in a different league.
When you step out of your comfort zone, you learn a lot about yourself. This experience ended up being a bit of a revelation for me. My first epiphany was that I learned that I do not want to work as a restaurant sommelier. I realized that they go to work at about the time that I start looking longingly at my pajamas and continue ‘til the wee hours of the morning. I know that I would not be able to maintain that schedule for very long. But, that does not imply that I don’t want to continue with my studies. I am as determined as ever to continue with my studies and master this thing called wine, albeit hopefully by a different route.
People were curious as to why I was there. One person told me I looked too scholarly to be in the “sommelier business”. Perhaps they were just being kind and “scholarly” was their euphemism for “old”. I did feel a little out of place, but enjoyed listening to these young people banter about their work, and it caused me to answer a really important question. Why am I doing what I am doing? It wasn’t easy to answer that right off, and I think I’m still working my way through it. In order to come up with an answer to that question I had to go back to how I got here.
Seven years ago, I was a new vice-principal living in Halifax, Nova Scotia with 3 sons and a husband. We had lived in Halifax for 10 years. My husband had been in the military and we were used to moving, but it was nice to finally start putting down some roots. For Christmas 2003 I bought my husband a book called “The Voyage of the Northern Magic: A Family Odyssey”
This is the true story of a family from Ottawa, Canada with 3 boys about the same age as our boys were at the time, who sold their home, bought a sailboat, left their jobs behind and sailed around the world with their family for 4 years : 65,000 kilometers in 1,145 days. The book chronicles all that they did to prepare for the voyage (they were not sailors), their reasons, and the details of the trip. I longed for that sort of sustained time with my family. Up until then, being together as a family seemed to come in small spurts of time, interrupted by phone calls, sports, lessons, school, work and friends. Family vacations had allowed us a short period of time together floating in our bubble, undisturbed by our everyday routines. To make a 7 year story short, we got what we wished for: our adventure brought us to Japan at the foot of Mount Fuji for 2 years and then to Naples, Italy at the foot of Vesuvius. We managed to give our family the adventure we were looking for, and then suddenly, our 3 sons were walking out the door seeking fortunes and adventures of their own. You’ve heard this part of the story before: our entire married life had revolved around our children and suddenly they were gone.Tired of feeling sad and lonely, my husband and I were not satisfied to let the adventure end and we decided to do something useful with the extra hours in the day that you find yourself with in an empty nest. We had to find comfort in our lives. We had to find something other than the television at the end of the day. We were not in crisis mode for long before we came up with a plan. We spelled out how we wanted to live an active life, how we would do it, and what we were going to do to achieve it. We were faced over and over with the thought of failure, of family and friends laughing at our “mid-life decisions”. The decisions that we made have taken us in a direction that we would never have imagined 7 years ago. We thought and we planned out how we wanted to live for the next part of our life. We were faced with all kinds of fears, but we did exactly that, we faced them and we got busy. My husband signed up for a certificate course in winemaking and viticulture with UC Davis, and I signed up to be a sommelier and we bought a vineyard, the unfolding of which is all chronicled right here on this blog. So to answer the question “why”? What started out as an escape has become a passion. When you begin to learn something in part 2 of your life, you learn it with zeal. I am prepared to master it one hour at a time even if it takes me 10,000 hours.
I have, after 4 years of study become confident enough to say the following: I am a grape grower and my grapes tell a story and I know how to read that story of weather and soil, of sun and rain. I can foretell harvest dates. I know how to winter prune, and green prune and I know why and when to do it. I know about bugs. I tend my vines and care for them with the attention that I afforded my children and my students. I am a sommelier and I not only know what makes good wine, I am able to taste it and describe it to you using all of my senses. I may have started out unsure, but I know what I know, and I know how to teach you what I know. I know where I’m going and I know why: because I want to.