The path to become a Master Sommelier is not for the weak of will or unprepared of palate. The certification exam literally goes on for days and includes portions on theory, practical knowledge and tasting. Those taking the exam must be able to taste wine at random and be able to name the grape, the place it's from, and the year it was made. Restaurateur Alpana Singh -- owner of Chicago restaurants The Boarding House, Seven Lions, and Terra & Vine -- made a name for herself in the wine world when, in her mid-20s, she became the youngest woman to ever pass the final level of the Master Sommelier exam. She talked with contributor Shauna Sever about what drove her to dedicate her life to passing the exam. Learn more about Alpana Singh and her restaurants at her website.
Shauna Sever: What was your first restaurant job?
Alpana Singh: Officially, my first restaurant job was a hostess at Bakers Square.
SS: The last time I checked Bakers Square does not have much of a wine program.
AS: [laughing] No.
Photo: Jeff Schear
SS: How did you become interested in wine? What led to take the Master Sommelier exam?
AS: It was out of necessity. My parents had a business when I was growing up. But it didn’t do too well due to the effects of the recession. When it came time for me to go to college, there wasn’t any money. It’s just what it was. I looked at the price of college and I looked at my bank account. I looked at my poor parents and said, “What am I going to do?” I ended up taking a job at this restaurant called Montrio Monterey. They originally turned me down for the job because I didn’t know anything about wine. And I said, “Please, I need this job.” I am very stubborn and I don’t take no for an answer. I bought a couple books, memorized them, came back, and begged for the job. I was 18.
I did the math and realized that if I passed this exam, then I could write my own ticket. I found out about the exam because one of the managers at this restaurant was studying to become a Master Sommelier. I went to him one night and said I was thinking about taking the test. He knew from tastings that I had a natural palate because I was able to pick out wines and remember them once I tasted them. Turns out I would be spot-on in blind tastings. So, I started studying for the Master Sommelier exam and passed the advanced exam when I was 21.
I knew that I would have to go work at a nice restaurant to further my education. That’s how I landed in Chicago. But truth be told, what originally got me interested in the exam was that I knew college was not a possibility for me because of financial reasons, and I didn’t want to put myself in debt. I saw my parents struggle with debt; it’s crippling and horrifying. It still haunts me to this to this day. I wanted to go to Berkeley to get a degree in political science. And I couldn’t because the money just wasn’t there. But there was this opportunity to take this exam. I knew if I applied myself, tried hard, and made the best use of my gifts, that perhaps I could write my own ticket. And I have been able to do that.
SS: For people who aren’t familiar with the Master Sommelier exam, it’s quite an undertaking. It’s a monster of an exam and it takes a special kind of personality to even want to pursue it. Can you walk us through it?
AS: There was a documentary that was done recently called Somm; it’s available on Netflix. It’s an extraordinary and accurate look at what it takes to pass the test. There’s a line in the documentary that says the exam doesn’t make you crazy, but you have to be a little crazy to attempt it. And it’s true.
SS: I believe there are now 149 master sommeliers in the world?
AS: Yes. I’ve been in the program since 1997 and 1998. It’s incredible that it used to be this thing that few people knew about. Now when people find out that I am a Master Sommelier, it’s really amazing. I used to have to explain it to people, and now people know about it; it’s come a long way. It also shows the curiosity and how much our culture as a whole has embraced wine and the proper service of wine. That’s encouraging.
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Shauna Sever is the author of the cookbooks, Marshmallow Madness!, Pure Vanilla and Real Sweet. Her latest book is Midwest Made. She is also the voice behind the baking blog Piece of Cake. She's appeared on The Today Show, Food Network, Home and Family, Serious Eats, Chow and Ulive.com. Her writing and recipes have been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, Food and Wine, Bon Appetit, Fine Cooking, Family Circle and USA Weekend.