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What about becoming a “Master Sommelier” or a “Master of Wine”

In some circles, I still have quite a reputation as a well seasoned “sommelier.” What I find funny is that nowadays I get asked quite often, especially by young people who are starting out in this business, what year I got “certified?” They’re kind of taken back when I tell them I didn't. They give me a more puzzled look as I tell them how in those days you trained on the floor with a mentor and then moved your way up in the industry. It's the same thing I did in the kitchen to become a chef. They still find it difficult to grasp because many have heard that in the past I worked not only as a sommelier but also an educator who taught classes to professionals. Don't you have to be certified to do that? I tell them I wrote my training guide on tasting, “What to Look For In Wine” while I was already a working sommelier. I didn't have to get certified to do that. I actually had to have the actual experience of working the tables in a dining room and by tasting wine day in and day out. You know, hands on experience? Actually selling and serving wine at a table? Some of them finally get it when I'd explain, look, Fred Dame (who they all seem to know of…) was a world class sommelier before he got tested by the English. The certification program just proved what many already knew, Fred knew his wines and he already proved he knew how to buy, serve and store them cause he did it. The same was true for me in my case. These same kids are really flabbergasted if I tell them I had the opportunity to get "certified" with all expenses paid by a previous employer but actually chose not to.

Before we go on, let me warn those who are considering such steps that both of these prestiges designations are extremely involved and end up being very expensive. They take years to train for and are in my opinion only for the most serious wine minded persons. I’ve heard from participants I do know, one of the most grueling and frightening parts of the testing for a “Master Sommelier” is being able to taste and distinguish every wine style in the world “blind” because you never know what they might give you on your final test. I also tell them to see the movie SOMM, cause it did a pretty good job of showing some of the challenges a Master Sommelier goes through to get certified. But I also caution them to the fact that it’s only a movie and can’t possibly show all it takes. For example, the movie doesn’t have the time to even begin to show the complexities and challenges of the table service side of the industry. This is something you can only learn by actually doing it live, with people!

Want to get certified?

I first heard about these designations in the late 70”s, during which time I was working at the Hobbit Restaurant in Orange. There, I got to study under Chef Mike Phillippi as his sous chef in the kitchen, and at the same time, got to learn wine service under then sommelier JB (John Balesky.) I left The Hobbit in May of 1982, and my wife and I did a self guided, six month food and wine study through nine countries in Europe, most all by bicycle. On this trip I immersed myself in the European wine world, and literally crawled on my hands and knees through many of the most prestiges vineyards and growing regions. I have to share, because of the incredible wine list the Hobbit was famous for, I had already gotten to meet some of the world’s greatest and well known wine makers in many parts of the world. For at the Hobbit, wine importers were proud to bring their best visiting winemakers and producers by the restaurant, many of which Mike and JB were only to happy to entertain with hours long multi course lunches. So in Europe there were actually times I’d be in the middle of some small town in some great wine region and someone would call my name. It was of course one of these I had met and had lunch with at The Hobbit. Because of this great experience at the Hobbit, we got to see the whole operation, plus taste and discuss wine with some of the then most famous winemakers and producers in their respective areas. When out to dinner, I also curiously watched many world class sommeliers as they worked. I was especially taken by the sommeliers in France and Italy who not only worked the wine, but the specialty carts with the evenings offerings of Armagnacs and Cognacs, few of which we saw back home.

Upon our return to California, I got recommended by then Chateau & Estate rep Tom Harrison to work as the sommelier at Alfredo’s Ristorante in The South Coast Plaza Hotel. From day one, the Food and Beverage director saw I had taken the time to develop my palate and was kind of taken by my abilities, when asked, to call wines “blind.” Soon, it became a game and he would have some bottle in his office in a bag and ask me what it was. In many cases, I was able to tell him the grapes used, the area the grapes came from, the probable vintage, and each case he always had me explain why I thought it was what I said it was. But what really got him were the times when I was able to name the exact wine itself and tell him flat out, “that’s the 1980 Nuits “Muergers” from Henri Jayer. This was easy for me, especially if it happened to be one the hundreds I had on my wine list because I was very familiar with them. I was kind of surprised when one day he called me into his office and said he wanted to send me through one of these programs to get certified. The hotel was willing to put up what I thought was a ridiculous amount of money to go to England and start the process. My question was why did they want to spend that kind of money for me to get a certificate in something I was already doing? Well, it turns out they saw the opportunities for some really good press as they were hoping I would be one of the few Americans at that time to pass. They also thought I had great potential to be a corporate, career sommelier. Hummm, nice but I had to turn it down as I informed them my goal was to have my own small restaurant, not to be a career sommelier.

In time, some of the people I knew, or knew of, passed and got certified. By hearing about their experiences I think perhaps in the late 70’s and early 80’s if I really wanted to, I probably had a good chance of also getting certified. In fact, shortly after my offer from the hotel, someone from California did get quite a bit of press (my F&B was correct) by getting certified. But understand, back then most of it was wine and wine based products. As time goes on the testing continues to get more involved and it’s my understanding it involves beer and spirits to a much greater degree. I could drink beer with the best but other than a little Armagnac and Cognac, I had little interest in the spirits. Even with as much experience as I have in the industry for almost 40 years, there’s no possible way I would attempt to try to get certified in either of these programs today. Even just the wine regions themselves have in some ways grown ten fold since my day.

What is a “Master Sommelier” ?

The term or designation of “Master Sommelier” is owned and controlled by The Court of Master Sommeliers in the UK and now The US. I’m confused on the exact numbers but it seems just a little over 200 people have passed since it started about 40 years ago. It recently got a large interest in the press when the movie SOMM revealed the rigorous testing involved.

From their own web site they tell us;

“The Court of Master Sommeliers was established to encourage improved standards of beverage knowledge and service in hotels and restaurants. Education was then, and remains today, the Court's charter. The first successful Master Sommelier examination was held in the United Kingdom in 1969. By April 1977, the Court of Master Sommeliers was established as the premier international examining body. There are 230 professionals worldwide who have earned the title Master Sommelier. Of those 198 are men and 32 are women.”

The Court of Masters Sommeliers

This Forbes article is interesting;

Below are some of the Master Sommeliers I’ve have either; known, worked with or know of through the industry. The year listed is the year the web site says they became a Master Sommelier.

Fred or “Frederick” Dame (1984) Let’s just say Fred is one of the larger than life personalities in the wine industry. I didn’t know Fred personally, but I met him and saw him at some of the wine tastings (most likely the Heublein tastings) that were happening at the time. Fred had quite a reputation even way back in the early 80’s when he worked as the Cellar Master of The Sardine Factory in Monterey, California. Fred was the first American to pass all three levels becoming a Master Sommelier in just one year. I spent many a good tasting hours with numerous wine makers and winery owners from all over who “knew” Fred and I think the one thing they’d all agree on is that Fred was also quite good at putting his degree in communications to work…I jest of course but in all seriousness it was Fred who opened The Court of Master Sommeliers in the US. If he hadn’t, I don’t know who else would have?

Emmanuel Kemiji (1989) I knew and enjoyed “Manny” from his days as a “cellar rat” at Hi-Time Cellars in Costa Mesa. I chased him down in 1986 to take my position as sommelier at Alfredo’s in the South Coast Plaza Hotel because I saw great potential in him. He was a little reluctant at first but he finally embraced it and it seems he’s done quite well having now enjoyed many different aspects of the wine industry. I believe he made quite a name for himself as sommelier at the The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco, before he started (I think in about 1999?) his own winery, Miura Vineyards.

Peter Neptune (2005) I got to know a little bit as an associate in the both the wine business and through the Society of Wine Educators. He was unique in the fact that although he was a “wine salesman” in the field, he spent a lot of time and effort on education and sharing his knowledge. I always had great respect for Peter because let’e face it, this can be a pretty snooty business. Peter always came across to me as not only one of the more humble ones, he was generous to share his great wealth of knowledge. He now runs the Neptune School of Wine in the Costa Mesa SOCO district. Every once in a while I’ll run into a young person in Orange County who’s studying to become a sommelier and I’ll ask them if they know Peter. I have to laugh when I get an almost rock star type admiration reaction from them as they tell me he’s like “the wine god…” Good job Peter!

Michael Jordan (2007) I only knew of through others (mostly his staff members) when he was at Napa Rose in Anaheim. What I can say I do know about him is his staff certainly respected both him and his willingness to also want to share his knowledge.

Eric Entrikin (2010) I only knew of at the Regency Club in Westwood, Calif., but had see him work when he went to Patina restaurant. There, I think he was both a maître ’D and either a part time sommelier or an assistant to the sommelier.

Brian McClintic (2011) I don’t know Brian just of him through his time at Marche Moderne, a favorite restaurant my wife and I frequent in Costa Mesa. Last I heard he co-founded Les Marchands Wine Bar and Merchant in Santa Barbara. Brian was featured as one of the of four people attempting to become a Master Sommelier in the movie SOMM.

What is a “Master of Wine” ?

From the Institute of Masters of Wine

From their web page;

“Master of Wine (MW) is the most prestigious title in the world of wine. What started more than sixty years ago as a qualification for the UK wine trade is now held by a global family of 338 Masters of Wine. The Membership encompasses winemakers, buyers, shippers, business owners, retailers, academics, sommeliers, wine educators, writers, journalists and more.”

Another respectable certification you can get in the UK but participants tell me it has more to with all aspects of the wine industry rather than focusing on actually being a sommelier. Last I looked there were about 340 Masters of Wine, in 24 countries.

Below are the few Masters of Wine I’ve have known, worked with or know of thru the industry. The year listed is the year the web site says they became a Master of Wine.

Michael Broadbent (1960) I only knew of Michael through the Hueblein Auctions and from high end trade tastings. He was the most amazing auctioneer I’ve ever seen. I was at the 1980 event in San Francisco when he got the highest price ever paid for one bottle of wine, $31,000 for a bottle of 1822 Chateau Lafite. I loved listening to him at tastings where he was present and would place myself close to where he was so I could hear him. It was Michael who open my eyes (and probably the world) to Tokay “Eszenzia.” I later met Michael’s son Bartholomew at our restaurant, as he was developing his own import business. I would call both Michael and Hugh Johnson (“The World Atlas of Wine”) two of my most influential long distance mentors.

Olivier Humbrecht (1989) of the Zind-Humbrecht family of wine producers in Alsace, one of my personal favorite wine regions in the world. Diana and I even looked at houses and properties in Alsace when we were bicycling through Europe in1982. I met Olivier when he came to California, but I can’t remember if it was at my restaurant, or if it was at Pascal’s. It was probably both I carried the wines of Zind-Humbrecht on my wine list. If memory serves me, there was only a couple wine makers in all the world that had taken the time to become a Master of Wine.

Geoff Labitzke (2006) was another “cellar rat” at Hi-Time Cellars in Costa Mesa where I taught at the wine bar from 1986 to 1989. I really enjoyed Geoff and he really embraced wine in many of the same ways I did. There was a time for both seriousness and certainly a time to just shut up and enjoy whatever was in front of you. Last I heard, Geoff was at Kistler Vineyards.

As you can see from the above, all the participants in these certified programs very are serious wine people who have benefited by remaining steadfast in the industry. Bottom line, don’t even think about it unless you’re truly serious about the wine business as a lifetime career