Accent’s Gregory Stokes Heads West for the Master Sommelier Exam

Will Columbus finally have a Master Sommelier among its ranks? We’ll soon find out.

Erin Edwards
Columbus Monthly
Gregory Stokes at Accent by Veritas in Downtown Columbus

What did you have for breakfast this morning?

Lately, Gregory Stokes has started his day with about six pours of, say, an Albariño, maybe a Malbec, a Brunello and, well, whatever else his wife pours for him. This is all before coffee.

As Stokes, owner of Accent by Veritas wine shop and a past Columbus Monthly Tastemaker, nears the final two hurdles he must pass in pursuit of becoming a Master Sommelier, wine for breakfast has been his routine for a while, he says. And, yes, he spits out the wine.

“No one wants to be hungover at work or coming off a buzz at work,” he says, laughing.

I interviewed Stokes at his Downtown wine shop before he heads to Portland, Oregon, this week to sit for the practical wine service and blind tasting portions of the Court of Master Sommeliers’ Master Sommelier Diploma Examination. The test takes place Aug. 29-30, with the results announced Aug. 31.

Regarded as the toughest wine certification exam in the world, the Master Sommelier test is broken into three parts. The theory portion, which has about a 10 percent pass rate, is an hourlong oral assessment that covers the entire world of wine, with questions ranging from the production laws on the island of Madeira to soil types in Tasmania. For Stokes, no problem. In 2019, he passed the theory exam and was awarded the Rudd Scholarship, given to the top scorer.

This month, Stokes faces the service and tasting portions of the exam. Since the examination’s inception in 1969, fewer than 300 candidates worldwide have earned the Master Sommelier diploma. Ohio has one Master Sommelier currently living in the state, Larry O'Brien of Brecksville, Ohio.

You would think that Stokes is feeling a lot of pressure.

“I feel like I've grown through the entire process professionally. Getting the Master is kind of like a really nice feather in my cap and would be obviously nice for marketing,” he says. “I think at this point, I've already gone through that growth process. So, pass or fail, I'm kind of at peace with it. I'm just happy to go and sit and hopefully get it done.”

The service portion of the exam falls into two parts. The first is business-focused—whether a candidate knows how to build a profitable beverage program—but also whether a candidate can identify different spirits and other key hospitality skills.

“Then, the second part of that is they put you in a room and do a mock service, where they basically create the restaurant from hell that's on fire and see how much dignity and grace you have,” he says.

For the blind tasting assessment—widely considered the most challenging piece for MS candidates—Stokes will walk into a hotel room, and a couple of CMS examiners will place six glasses of wine in front of him, typically three whites and three reds.

“You have 25 minutes to accurately describe [the wines] from start to finish, and then identify each wine, the grape, the country of origin, the region within the country, the quality level and the vintage it was made,” he says. “It's about four minutes 20 seconds per wine to fully describe it and figure out what it is.”

If Stokes has a weakness in blind tasting, he says, it’s identifying characteristics of Cabernet and Merlot. “Because I don’t drink them,” he says with a smile. “[I’m] really good at Riesling.”