A Master Sommeliers Journey

The clock is running. You tip the first of six wine glasses towards your nose, and the first aroma hits you. All the years of study, all the mentorship, the exhausting tastings come into play. Ripe fruit, golden apples and white peaches mingle with baking spices, ginger and hints of vanilla. You take a sip. The wine is dry. Alcoholic. The palate is round, coating, and a bright acidic backbone keeps the creamy golden-hued wine in balance. A long finish, signature of a high-quality producer. Is this a Margaret River Chardonnay? Or a warm vintage wine from the Sonoma Coast? 

This is what sommeliers study for. At the highest levels, professionals around the world dedicate years to understand wine at its core, fair well in competitions and reach the most coveted professional degrees. But the world of wine is complex, extensive, and deep. 

“Wine has so many things to offer from history to geology, to geography, and the traveling part, the human part of it.” Says Elyse Lambert, the first Québécoise to earn the Master Sommelier title in 2015.  

Elyse Lambert - BIC

One of a many recommendations shared by the Master Sommelier in this podcast is finding a mentor. It’s key to success. Asking for help is not easy, it takes courage .

From the far, wine looks like a static, fixed topic that has been around for centuries, but it’s actually an ever-changing being. 20 years ago, no one talked about Greek wine or natural wines. Orange wine was unheard of, and you wouldn’t expect to find it in the aisles. You do now.

The French supremacy was challenged in the seventies, and young wine regions, as a rising rebellion, emerged from the most unexpected places. Markets also change as people’s taste evolves. Tendencies come and go like the tides, and sommeliers more than ever must stay on their toes.

Some things never change, “Taking care of people is taking care of people” remarks MS Lambert. Service is the ultimate goal. After twenty years in the wine industry, most of them in the restaurant environment, Elyse knows a thing or two about proper service. 

The Master Sommelier examination is based on three aspects: theory, service, and tasting. All focused on evaluating the ability to take care of customers at the highest level of hospitality. 

A sommelier then has to translate their knowledge into words customers can understand. They need to build their wine lists for the guests and not for themselves, explain why a glass of wine tastes this way, and pair well with that dish. “People are very curious; they want to know more, they want to learn, they want to taste” shares Elyse. To succeed at this, you have to be prepared. 

Like for most Master Sommeliers, Elyse’s path to success was as pebbled as a Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyard. “What will make the difference is discipline... Because the journey is long to get there” says Elyse looking back.

Elyse fell in love with wine in her first wine class in college. While studying and working restaurant shifts, she got interested in sommelier competitions, and by 2004 she won Best Sommelier in Quebec. Study, work, sleep, eat. You watch your family and friends go on holidays and get together while you’re hitting the books, but it all pays out in the end. Elyse has won any number of titles, one step at a time, getting better at what she does. “I didn’t climb the Everest on day one,” affirms Elyse, it took a year and a half of preparation for the Best in the World Competition. It’s like preparing for the Olympic games.

As sommeliers climb the ladder and reach for the highest accolades, they feel something unfamiliar: doubt, vulnerability, the need for help. On the floor, they are the go-to guys for wine knowledge. Guests, peers and management expect correct answers; for them to know it all. Having to dig deeper into wine regions, vintages and producers; it’s overwhelming.

You can’t do it alone. To succeed at this level, you’d better to be part of a supportive community with similar goals. Participating in study groups and tasting regularly with peers is essential. 

One of a many recommendations shared by the Master Sommelier in this podcast is finding a mentor. It’s key to success. Asking for help is not easy, it takes courage. And although Master Sommeliers are busy people with tight schedules, they are always open to help out new generations. The Court of Master Sommeliers wants you to pass, after all, every member got where they are thanks to the help of the ones before them.

Elyse recommends choosing your mentor carefully; you have to think -I would like to be this person one day-. Elyse contacted a few masters who coached her through her journey. A tight bond forms between mentors and students, and now she’s the one mentoring younger candidates.

The energetic Master Sommelier’s career is far from over. “After 18 years of competition I’m now ready to move forward,” she says, “Learning Spanish will be probably next in line,”. The imposing Master of Wine title is also in her plans. “You have to have a dream at some point,” she concludes with a smile. Just keep on moving forward. 

Listen to the whole interview as MS Elyse Lambert shares her journey

Author: Franco Salzillo, Certified Somm & Wine Writer