My Journey to becoming a Certified Sommelier
By Ashley Ullrich
What is a sommelier? How do you even pronounce it? Do you just drink wine all day for a living?
These are questions I am often asked throughout the course of my day (Especially the pronunciation bit, but if you’re reading this and wondering: “SOM MELL EE YAY” is the best I can do!)
In basic terms, a sommelier is a wine steward, a trained wine professional who undergoes years of blind tasting, theory, and service studies. My journey to “Sommelierhood” began in the “back of the house”, a term used for the kitchen staff. I graduated from the SF California Culinary Academy in 2011, and wine and food have always been, to put it simply, magical to me.
As much as I loved being a chef, after 8 or so years of cooking professionally in wine dominated settings, I started to feel like I was missing the party. Something wasn’t whole for me. I was jealous of the bar staff, Somms, and servers who all knew so much more about wine than I did.
There are quite a few organizations for wine studies and certifications, but perhaps the most well-known is the Court of Master Sommeliers. There are four levels in the Court: Introductory, Certified Sommelier, Advanced Sommelier, and Master Sommelier. The latter being widely known as one of the hardest exams to pass in the world.
So, I started studying for my Introductory Sommelier exam, and for over a year all I dove in head first. Flashcards, notebooks, wine tastings, everything and anything I could get my hands on. I took the 100-question exam in June of 2017 and passed feeling proud, never thinking I would go any further than that.
………And then I moved to New Zealand. Yep. Quit my chef job and moved by myself to a small country that no one can seem to find on a map.
I challenged myself to get a job that did not involve cooking. One year of my life where I did something wine-centric instead. And boy did I ever. I found a job at this tiny (when I say tiny, I mean like 6 tables tiny) restaurant called Gatherings, in Christchurch New Zealand that has the equivalent of a Michelin star. I had the time of my life!
I made wine in Waipara , ate abalone straight from the ocean, and met people who truly changed my life. To this date, the most meaningful experience I have ever had was being a part of that team. Gatherings gave me a home and afforded me every opportunity to learn about food & wine. I found out what I was made of that year.
When I moved to Sacramento to move in with my partner, I was struggling with the idea of going back into a kitchen. I applied for tasting room jobs, and Sous Chef positions in the area and decided to see what played out. I interviewed at Due Vigne in July of 2019, but ultimately, I accepted a job as a Sous Chef. I was torn between wanting to use my degree in Culinary Arts that I had worked so hard for, or starting all over again at the bottom to get into the wine industry. I told Due Vigne, I had taken another position.
I worked my Sous Chef job for 10 days and I hated it. I came home every day saying “I wish I would have taken that job at Due Vigne. ” My partner, Blanche said to me ” Just email them and tell them you messed up, what’s the worst that can happen?” And I did! Obviously if you are reading this on the Due Vigne website you are aware that it worked out well for me in the end.
I met the amazing and talented Beth Merrill-Belval, without whom I would not be a Certified Sommelier. She pushed and challenged me to go to tastings that I was terrified of. We studied at her house at all hours, blind tasting wines at 9 in the morning, making (and learning) thousands of flashcards, and when she passed her Certified Sommelier exam in December of 2019, she literally made me sign up for mine. I am beyond grateful for her belief in me, and my capabilities. She’s the best friend, mentor, and Somm that I know!
You have three years from the time you pass your introductory exam to take the Certified exam, or else you have to re-take the intro exam. In order to pass the Certified Sommelier exam, there are three parts. The exam consists of a four-wine blind tasting, a 45-question theory exam, and a 16-minute mock service exam proctored by a Master Sommelier. In order to pass, you must pass each section individually. The exam takes an entire day from start to finish, and it is the most nerve-wracking day I have ever experienced in my life!
At the end of the day, you sit back down with all of your fellow hopefuls, and the Master Sommeliers read off the names of those who passed, they get up, shake hands and sit back down. Names are being read, hands are being shaken and I have yet to hear my name called. Minutes feel like hours! I am watching the stack of certificates in their hands dwindle down to nothing. I hadn’t passed. There were no certificates left.
I was just making peace with the fact that I would need to re-take the exam when the Master Sommelier announced that in every exam, there is an award given to the newest Certified Sommelier who receives the highest score, called the Walter Clore Award. Guess who the lucky girl was?
She read my name! I got the highest score in my exam! A very happy dance ensued. And lots of Champagne.
I am now a Certified Sommelier, and all of my years of hard work have paid off! I love what I do and being able to share my knowledge and passion for wine with everyone I meet! So, I decided what better way to do that than launch a program at Due Vigne called ” Ask the Somm”. This program opens up a window into my world of wine. Want to know what a certain wine label means at the store? What a tannin is? When to drink that bottle you got for your anniversary? Need a recommendation for what to pair with dinner? I am here to help you with those questions, 7 days a week. It’s what I love to do! ” Ask the Somm” is now live, and you can check it out anytime by going to our new “Somm Series” tab on the website.
Thank you all for all of your continued support of our winery & our team. I can’t wait to see you in the tasting room!