Ronan Sayburn

What was the level of the candidates this year?
We’ve had a few people for whom it was the first time that they’ve done it and we’ve got three levels of exams, we’ve got the intro course, then the advanced course and then the masters and everyone’s a big step up. For some of the people who came in for the masters this year for the first time you could tell they were a bit shell shocked. They didn’t really realise the level would be so high. But they go away, they decide they’re going to study for it, they work really hard and eventually they come back. There is definitely no luck involved in this exam. You can’t decide you’re going some areas of the world and not going to study other areas and maybe you’re going to get lucky and there’s not going to be any questions about certain regions – there are questions about everything. We need to know about everything. Everything from sake to spirits and beers, every wine region of the world, a lot about the viticulture, a lot about vinification. So there’s really no hiding this qualification, you just need to know everything, because everything, every single area, that you read 20 books – it will be one point. And you need a hundred points, so you need to read a lot of books.

Would you pass it?
If I had to do it again? No! I don’t think so. This is literally like training for the Olympics. You train to get a gold medal, you train and train and train and train and then you get the gold medal and after that you wouldn’t go to Usain Bolt and tell him to run a 100 meters in 9 seconds without a lot of training. So the thing is, as a master you’re expected to keep a certain level of knowledge, but a lot of us specialise in certain areas – my specialisation is in Bordeaux, other people specialise in Burgundy, different areas, so we maintain a certain level of knowledge, but like I said it’s like training for the Olympics, at the highest level. So Adam is right at the top of his game now. Now he’s got a big responsibility, we all take our positions as master sommeliers very seriously; we have a system in place where we mentor people. A lot the guys helped Adam to get to this position, they did tastings with him, did study workshops with him, went to see him, did blind tastings for him. We’re pretty much at the end of the phone if he has any questions, if he wants to e-mail us with things. We’re a small group, a small brotherhood and we want to bring people in, so we do mentor people, we look after them and now that’s Adam’s responsibility too. It’s definitely not over for him, he’s going to have people who look up to him, now that he’s reached this, looking up, respecting what he’s done. It’s now his responsibility to help train them and help bring them up to his level. This is definitely not a qualification that’s about becoming a superstar and then keeping on top of the mountain – it’s about reaching a level of knowledge and then spreading that knowledge around to as many people as you can.

So it’s not only the ultimate goal for a sommelier, but it’s also a responsibility – being a master sommelier.
Definitely. And it’s a role of passing it on, when I passed my master’s sommelier’s I would have people who would come and do tastings for me, help me with my theory, put me into the right direction – so when I became a master sommelier I started doing it. So the next role for Adam is that he’ll come to our intro level courses as an observer, he’ll watch the course being run, then after that he’ll come back and become a teacher on those courses and after that he’ll go to the advanced level as an observer and then to the advanced level as a teacher and eventually he’ll come around and observe a masters exam and a year after that he’ll become a master examiner, like we all are here today. It’s still a journey for him and in four or five years time he will be here examining people and he’ll be lucky enough to sit someone down and say “well done”.

How would you describe the people who are doing that? It’s crazy, I spent like one evening with them for tasting, like five hours, we tasted like 50-40, I don’t know how many wines – those people are mental. I’m sorry, you’re one of them.
Do you know what OCD is? It’s obsessive-compulsive disorder – and that’s what it is – it’s being obsessive about things. The level of detail you need to know. I’m sure as an outsider to it, you see a bunch of people who are really high level, talking about ana lactic fermentation and how much oak there is and when they picked and all this sort of stuff – you must think “wow, these guys are just weird”.

But what kind of talents do you need to become a master sommelier?
First of all you need to be very well skilled in the catering business. A lot of people come from a background where they cooked at some point in their career or were chefs or cook very well at home – you need to have a great knowledge, a great understanding about cooking, about ingredients, about balance – the same way a chef puts a dish together, the way they’d season a dish and all this stuff – you can apply all those principals to wine. To figure out whether the wine is balanced, whether the acid and sugar levels are there, whether there is enough oak or not enough oak, whether there’s balance and flavour. Master sommeliers have all worked in the catering industry on different levels, I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, I’ve been involved in the catering business for 20 years. You have got to really love food, love wine, love travelling, you’ve got to love studying – because there’s no other way, you’ve got to love reading. So you’ve got to have a whole different skill set. And then when you become a high up in the ranks sommelier you’ve got to be a manager, you’ve got to be able to manage a team of people, you’ve got to motivate people, you’ve got to be good with your accounts, figures, ordering, finances, all the mathematics of it, all the economics of it, running a successful business. You become a manager and a mentor and a businessperson and there’s no other way and really the thing about becoming a master sommelier is not that you go away for a year and you study and then you get the red badge and you say “ok, I’ve made it now” – it’s all about the journey getting there, it’s climbing a mountain – you climb it slowly over the years and the more struggle you put in and the more effort you put to work and to climb harder the higher you get. And then eventually you reach the peak and you’ve got your badge.

So everyone can be a sommelier then? I’m not talking about master sommelier, but just a sommelier.
Yes. I think so. There are certain things as a sommelier that, even as master sommeliers, that we promote, a few principals such as humility – you can’t always be right, all the time. We’ve all done blind tastings and many, many more times than we’ve ever gotten it right we got it wrong. You pick up a glass of wine, you think you know what it is and you’re wrong. So over the years you do thousands and thousands of tastings and maybe towards the end of the career you get more right than you get wrong, but it’s a process of learning. And also you should never be embarrassed to do it in front of your peers and you should never be embarrassed to do it wrong. So if you ever think you’re so good that you’re never going to make a mistake then you lack a lot of humility. And in a sommelier’s job, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much we study and how hard we study and how few of us we are and whatever level we reach – we’re all here to look after the customers. Some customers might want to learn a lot about wine, they might want to know a little bit about wine, but all those customers need to be treated the same. Sometimes sommeliers will get to the level when they don’t know an awful lot, and then they know a little bit, and then they get big heads, and then they realize “wow, this is a big subject, there’s a lot to learn on this subject” – and then they become humble again. And the only way to become humble is to just understand what a vast subject it is, an ever-changing subject, it changes every year, new vintages come out, new appellations come out, it’s a massive world that is constantly changing. You really do feel very humbled thinking about the amount of time and the amount of knowledge that have people getting to passing this qualification. So one of the most important things about being a master sommelier is humility, it’s about customer service; it’s about being a tremendous kind of mentor for your staff, being a figure head, being a role model for your staff, keeping a very small head, keeping down to earth.

What factors decided that you achieved what you achieved?
It’s really – the harder you work, you’ve just got to work, you’ve really got to focus, the amount of actual discipline that you have to have. And I always say that if you become a master sommelier you can never do it because you want to earn more money or you want a higher position or you want to be in a magazine. You do it because really deep inside you, in your heart you really want that qualification – it’s the only thing that will motivate you enough to do the amount of work that you need to do to achieve this qualification. So it’s something very much inside you. Some people just really have that fire inside them, and they just really, really want it, more than anything that they’ve wanted in their lives and if you have that kind of determination and if you have that passion – you will do it. Otherwise, if you think, “oh, I’ll become a master sommelier because I’ll earn a bit more money” – it’s not enough motivation, it’s really got to come from inside you.

What kind of advice would you have for young ambitious sommeliers?
I would definitely say anything’s possible; we’re not all born with the palate, it’s something we work at, everyone can be a sommelier, you’ve got to be prepared to be open-minded. Some customers will want to come in and want to try a fantastic wine an they’ll really want to talk to the sommelier, some people will come in and say, “I just want the house wine”. You’ve got to treat those people the same as you treat other people. Everyone is the same, everyone is a customer and at the end of the day it’s your job to serve the customer and look after the customer. Some customer’s won’t really care whether you’re a master sommelier, they won’t care about all your qualifications and all your hard work, but it’s still a customer and you have to look after them. So young sommeliers have got to realise that and not just think, “I’m only going to look after these tables, because they are interesting and I’m going to ignore these tables, because they’re not interesting.” You’ve got to look after everyone the same, you’ve got to realise that you’ve got to be a good businessman, but I think the most important thing to realise for a young sommelier is that everything is possible, achievable – we’re not all born with this, everyone can achieve it. Adam is a great example of that, he’s come from Poland, he’s worked his way up within a great restaurant, he’s worked his way up through some great levels of qualification, he’s done a few competitions now – I’m sure the next thing in the cards for Adam will probably be winning the UK Sommelier of the Year. Because now he’s on a bit of a roll, now he’s really at the top of his knowledge and his tasting and all this sort of stuff. Anyone that looks at Adam may think, “wow, I could never do that” – they’re wrong – anyone can do it. You just got to put the effort in, you got to be determined. It’s great inspiration.

People are chasing for master sommelier for years – once they achieve it – what’s next?
That’s when you become a tutor and a mentor and you get involved in teaching.

There’s nothing higher than master sommelier?

So the cemetery is the next step, or what?
A lot more to do, the teaching side of thing. But yes, some people say that’s the end of the journey and other people say it’s a beginning of a different journey, it’s a different context. If you’re an advanced student and you have a lot of people who are on your level and are tasting with you – once you become a master sommelier you immediately become rise your peer group, you immediately become slightly higher than they are, so they look up to you. So you have to make sure everything you do is correct, the way that you act on the floor, the way that you act with staff, it’s all got to be very professional. You just become a role model, a figure head and you’ve got to live up to that. It’s good we’re doing a course with Adam in the next couple of months, so he’ll be able to observe on that course and then the next time we hope he’ll be able to come and teach.

The interview was published in the Food Service Magazine (

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