Becoming a Master Sommelier is torturous, entailing a rash of intensive study, a little humiliation and gobs of cash. The wine examination and certification process is about as onerous as the California Bar. Hell, it's a lot tougher. Consider this: There are only 120 Master Sommeliers in the world, 72 of whom reside in North America (Guy Stout of Glazer's Distributors is Texas' only Master Sommelier). The recommended textbooks alone can set you back $5,000, and the range of wines one must become familiar with through repeated tastings costs thousands more. To pass the exams, one must have an unassailable grasp of the global maze of winegrowing parcels, command a memory bank of scents, flavors and visual cues and perform a perfect wine service exercise while simultaneously being quizzed and insulted by test examiners.
But a Dallas bartender is determined to take some of the mental and financial sting out of MS test prep. Every Monday night, Phil Natale, a bartender at Sense nightclub and a wine consultant, gathers a group of Dallas sommeliers to his house to pepper them with questions like, "Who is the first person to cultivate the vine in South Africa?" (answer: Jan van Riebeeck) and intensive tastings to see if participants like D'Lynn Proctor of Draelion and Jonathon Nicholson of Kirby's Steakhouse can peg a wine blind in less than four minutes. These folks can be cruel, stumping each other with oddball drinks such as a Cathedral Cellar Pinotage from Paarl-South Africa. Pinotage, made from a hybrid Pinot Noir-Cinsault grape, generated comments like, "Wasn't South Africa kind of like Australia--weren't they shipping all of their criminals down there or something?" Wine is so snooty.