To advance to the top of the Court of Master Sommeliers, a wine professional needs to pass four levels of challenging examinations. The pinnacle achievement is to become a Master Sommelier, a title held by only 135 people in North America.
And some locals are taking steps to join their ranks — someday.
Becoming a master "is like getting your BA, your MA, and [then] your Ph.D.," says Sarah Thomas of Bar Marco, who just passed the Level One "Introductory" examination. And she hopes to advance to the next level as quickly as she can. "When you have this body of knowledge, it means you can make your customers' experiences that much better," she says.
The same day Thomas took her test in Baltimore, Alyssa McGrath of Dish Osteria was working her way through the Level Two exam in Laguna Beach, Calif. Those who pass Level Two are awarded the distinction "Certified Sommelier," of which there were only six in Pittsburgh. McGrath had to pass three tests to advance: tasting, theory and service. "The theory part was the most daunting to me," she says. But she passed — theory and all — and is now looking toward Level Three next year.
Both women agree that the role of a wine director is becoming increasingly important at Pittsburgh restaurants. "It's part of the forward momentum we have with the restaurant world in our city," says McGrath.
The knowledge and skill required to advance grows significantly with each level. In fact, it's a common practice for budding sommeliers to carry a stack of flashcards around with them.
For Thomas, though, it's all par for the course: She has an academic background and takes a scholarly approach to the process — often studying at a university library. And with this field of study, there's a little bonus at the end of the day: "The nice thing now is I get to come home and study with a glass of wine ... and I don't feel bad about that."