Sipping with Class // Short Cellar

What does it take to become a master sommelier?

By Matthew Sullivan

On Wednesday October 24th, 2012


“Do you believe we get paid to do this sort of thing? There was no sommelier table at the job fair in high school,” says John Szabo, MS. The MS stands for master sommelier. As it happens, there are only three master sommeliers in Canada, and all three are gathered tonight in Aria, a natty restaurant in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. They’re here to compete in the Lifford Wine Agency’s Master Sommelier Challenge, a competition that feels like Iron Chef mashed into a poetry slam. Each sommelier will try to present the crowd with the best pairings for our five course meal. To make it interesting, every dish contains duck and every wine is a Pinot. It’s wine nerd heaven.

Watching John and his two peers cheerfully insult each other’s selections, it’s clear that being a well-educated sommelier is a blast. They parse every sensation that a wine offers and translate it into a story about its home vineyard, the weather condition of its vintage or the quirks of its winemaker. It’s easy to think that if one is to pursue a post-graduate degree, forget the LL.M. — it would be a lot more fun to pursue an MS.

That may be so, but doing an LL.M. would be a lot easier. Since the Court of Master Sommeliers was founded in England in 1977, it has recognized only 186 master sommeliers. By way of contrast, Osgoode Professional Development handed out 97 LL.M. degrees in 2012 alone. The MS requires years of study, a theory examination, a blind tasting and a test of proficiency at table service. Most importantly, according to the Court of Master Sommeliers, the candidate must demonstrate “the courtesy and charm of a master sommelier.” When I read that, I fell into a reverie. No wonder there are so few of them. How many other professions require a test of courtesy and charm?

Into the Short Cellar

Flat Rock 2010 Pinot Noir
$19.95, Twenty Mile Bench, Ontario Vintages #1545
Pinot Noir is a difficult, expensive grape to grow, but year after year, Flat Rock produces a superb Pinot for $20 — for sheer value, it’s hard to beat this bottle. The 2010 vintage is supple, complex and delicious. A perfect pairing for the earthy flavours in seared duck breast or a duck ragout. 89/100

Rosemount Estate 2010 Diamond label Shiraz Cabernet
$12.95, Australia, LCBO #214270
This bottle is much tastier than it has any right to be. It has a bit too much oak and a bit too little acidity. And yet. Delicious. It blares with a full chord of ripe berry flavours that taper into a finish of cedar and cocoa. Dangerously drinkable for a weekday wine. 86/100


Your class schedule

Besides striving for recognition as a master sommelier, there are a number
of other ways to bone up on your wine knowledge:

  • Wine Appreciation: Charging $100 and up, the LCBO offers several introductory courses on wine basics. After taking one of these courses, you will not be allowed to append any initials to your signature.
  • College: George Brown College in Toronto has a broad menu of courses on
    everything from “Grape Comparison” to “Beer Appreciation,” each approximately $400. Eight courses will earn you a Wine Specialist Certificate.
  • Master of Wine: The only thing that is more hard core than an MS is a master of wine. Qualifying for an MW requires you to write a dissertation and undergo a gauntlet of blind tastings with a failure rate rivalling Verdun.

Matthew Sullivan is a civil litigator in Toronto. Email

Photo: Kourosh Keshiri