In August this year, Pierre Brunelli MS, operations manager across Simon Rogan’s Cartmel restaurants in the Lake District, became a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers. Lucy Britner caught up with him to talk blind tasting, studying outside of London and how to mentally prepare for the MS programme
Becoming a Master Sommelier is a big deal. Since the programme launched in 1969, fewer than 300 candidates have earned the MS title and, according to the Court of Master Sommeliers CEO Ronan Sayburn MS, it can take between six and ten years to complete the course.
For Pierre Brunelli, that journey indeed began almost ten years ago, when he learned about the programme as a junior somm at Hotel du Vin in Henley-on-Thames (where Sayburn was, at the time, group director of wines and spirits) .
Over the years, Brunelli has scaled the MS mountain while working at various well-known restaurants, and in late-2015 he took his first head sommelier position at L’Enclume, hoping the top restaurant’s quiet location would afford him more time to read and learn.
‘My boss, Simon Rogan would let me organise my day-to-day schedule around my commitments,’ he says. ‘My team was always there to help out in any possible way, including covering me when I needed to take time off.’
Making studying part of a routine, says Brunelli, is key for any somm thinking about undertaking the MS exams.
‘Even if you can only fit in 20 minutes a day before you go to bed, over a longer period of time this will have a big impact,’ he says. ‘I read for around two hours a day, alongside memory flashcards and frequent blind and comparative wine tasting sessions.’
Attending as many trade tastings possible also helps to build confidence with the classics before moving to more ‘obscure’ wines, asserts Brunelli, but he also admits this can be tough outside the London bubble.
‘Sometimes travelling to London... is a bit draining but it is always worth it,’ he says. ‘I visit London every couple of weeks to meet with fellow sommeliers to blind taste with them. However, this year I have been tasting more with northern-based sommeliers and that is easier for me as it avoids a four-hour train journey each way.’
There are three parts to the MS exam: theory, practical and tasting. Brunelli has described the tasting as his 'bete noire' after failing early attempts to pass.
‘I found it the most difficult as you have to be in the best shape on the day of tasting,’ he says. ‘It all comes down to how you feel mentally, how well you have slept, as these factors all affect your performance on the day. There is a lot of pressure.’
Fortunately, Brunelli picked up some tips from a pro when he worked under Isa Bal MS during a stint at The Fat Duck in 2014-2015.
‘Isa really stressed the point that knowledge is not always everything, you also need to be on top of your stress and to stay mindful, especially before an exam,’ Brunelli explains. ‘A book that Isa recommended to me and that I now recommend to everyone, is Mindfulness by Gill Hasson.’
MS or MW?
Exams aside, we were also keen to know what Brunelli sees as the main differences between the MS and MW programmes. He tells us the Master Sommelier is the highest distinction a professional can obtain in beverage knowledge and service.
‘The oral and practical exams include blind wine tasting and in-depth theory, food pairing and formal dining room service for wines of the world,’ he explains. ‘The Master of Wine programme requires a more academic and theoretical approach. Blind tasting is also required, however the exams are written and focus on wine analysis, international wine business and winemaking philosophy.’
MW exams, on the other hand, do not include service, dining room management, cigars, or other beverages.
As our chat draws to a close, it feels like no Master Sommelier interview would be complete without finding out what Brunelli likes to drink on a night off. The answer is not so straightforward, since he insists that ‘life is too short to taste the same wine again and again’.
Instead, he picks up ‘vintage wines’, suggestions from friends or colleagues, or looks for something new from an ‘up-and-coming producer’.
‘Some favourites include skin maceration white wine and lighter reds such Sicilians from Etna, made of Nerello Mascalese,’ he says.
The Master Sommelier even opts for wines from blind tastings, so he can continue to learn about a product, after he has tasted it.
After all, even with his MS under his belt, Brunelli insists that there is ‘always more to learn’.