Reflections of a New Master (The Journey is the Reward?)

I recall approaching the examination room for the first time several winters ago in Toronto, as an introductory candidate from the Midwest.  I had the opportunity for the first time in person to meet and to learn from a Master Sommelier.  I felt awe and reverence at that moment for these gentlemen with red pins on a scale normally reserved for gods and natural disasters; I recall praying throughout that first terrifying, eye-opening day of class that in their capriciousness they would call on me for something tangible: the visual assessment of a wine, perhaps, but nothing so nebulous as a conclusion!  I escaped mostly unscathed.  I earned a small pin and a measure of respect from my colleagues back home; yet my pride in this accomplishment was moderated by certainty in my own abilities:  I would never become a Master Sommelier.  The gulf was simply too wide.

That first frigid morning of class, an affable young gentleman from California mapped his trajectory from this introductory pin to his Master Sommelier Exam with precision: he beamed with broad confidence and proclaimed to all around that he would sit that most difficult of exams by the age of 30.  I remember, with the measure of distrust introverts reserve for those with a gift of gab, simultaneously envying his charm and imaging his conceit.  I took my seat near the back while he raced for the front of class, and didn’t bother to speak to him again.   Today, I have had the pleasure of knowing Ian Cauble for nearly two years, and I value his friendship and talent greatly.  As we shared a ride through Dallas this past Friday afternoon, awaiting the results of our second MS exam together, he offhandedly remarked about his intro class in Canada, and I suddenly remembered that long-haired kid from California.  What I mistook at that moment for conceit was a sense of ambition and scope and drive that I could not understand.  

For me, the path to an MS pin was a series of small struggles, small victories, small advances.  Unlike Ian, I could have not made it to this exam if I had envisioned it as a goal from the start.  I needed tiny achievements to mask a lack of confidence in myself.  I looked forward to the certified exam, but no further.  As successes multiply, however, your confidence slowly builds.  In every pin that you achieve, every exam that you do not pass, every personal goal that you realize, whether you can take the long view or whether you are simply putting one foot in front of the other: you are building and enriching yourself.  As I sat at dinner for the first time as a Master Sommelier, I looked at my new tie with incomprehension and felt as though I was sitting with giants.  But as I reflect, I realize that I, along with my fellow new Masters, earned this.  A wide-eyed introductory candidate will, before not too long, look at us as giants as well, not as human beings, incredulously waiting—in the paraphrased words of Master Sommelier Greg Harrington—for some monstrous clerical error to be revealed.

There is no secret chart or road map to success that downplays the struggle and difficulty involved in preparation for this exam.  You will sacrifice and put on hold every aspect of your life in order to achieve this.  You will need immense help: the understanding of your friends and family, the support of your fellow sommeliers, and the coaching of a mentor.  In the summer of 2008, I was working for my family’s restaurant, V. Mertz, in Omaha, NE.  I built the wine list and acted as General Manager, Sommelier, and Occasional Dishwasher/Waiter/Bartender/Jack of all Trades for our little establishment of 20-some tables, tucked away in the cellar of a 19th century fruit warehouse.  With the Advanced Exam on the horizon, I was directionless in my study.  There was no regular tasting group, no one to provide an example of the dedication required.  No template.  No circulated copies of old exams flooding my inbox.  No green pins for hundreds of miles in any direction.  Three months out from the big week, I received a phone call, out of the blue, from a Master Sommelier and native Nebraskan named Jesse Becker.  He would be visiting Omaha soon, he explained, and wanted to provide a flight of wines and speak about the upcoming exam.  In addition, he offered a short stagiere position at Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, CO, where he worked under Bobby Stuckey, MS.  In two dinner services at Frasca I learned more about the art of service than I had in 8 years of working on the floor in Omaha.  For this I am very much indebted to Bobby, Matthew Mathers, and my good friend Sur Lucero, whose support has been rock solid since the day we met.  Under Jesse’s guidance, I improved my theory and tasting dramatically in three short months, and passed the Advanced Exam with a Rudd Scholarship on my first attempt.  

Three months later I let my confidence sink again as I participated in the Rudd Round Table in Napa, CA.  Surrounded by 12 other Master’s Candidates and a dozen Master Sommeliers, I felt insignificant, crippled—a deer in headlights.  I was in the wrong room.  I went two for six in my blind tasting.  I called Gewürztraminer on a Pinot Gris in front of everyone.  I may have well been sitting at the Algonquin Round Table without a quip.  A bright young sommelier named Jason Heller nailed an aged Brunello; his tasting seemed imaginative, and effortless in comparison to mine.  I wanted a similar composure and ability more than anything; at that moment, I knew I had to leave the family business in Omaha, and come to California to learn.

I took a job under Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth at the Farmhouse Inn in Russian River Valley, packed up my belongings, and drove across the country with my girlfriend Kali for the prospect of lesser pay, a higher cost of living, and some vague recollection of the California Dream.  I abandoned my family’s business for uncertainty, leaving my parents devastated.  But I grew as a sommelier along avenues that simply were not available in Omaha.  My debt of gratitude for Geoff’s mentorship is incalculable.  I began studying with Jason Heller, Yoon Ha, Sur Lucero, and Dennis Kelly, my current boss at The French Laundry, whose faith in me has been selfless and intractable.  The support, example and dedication of Jason and Yoon, two of my closest friends, spurred me forward.  Under Geoff’s guidance, the three of us passed tasting on our first attempt, in February of 2010.

Failure to succeed at theory in the 2010 MS exam was a bitter pill for me to swallow at first.  Theory was easy for me; the struggle was always in service and tasting.  There was one theory pass at that exam, and afterward, while awaiting results, I was among the chorus of candidates who condemned the theory exam as “unfair”, and “brutal”.   Over the next couple of weeks, however, I reformed my approach.  If that was the bar, so be it.  It was set, and I spent the entirety of the next year preparing myself for that level of difficulty; whereas some simply hoped for an easier exam.  I competed in TOP SOMM, I spent hours and hours developing documents and guides for the Guild of Sommeliers, and I stopped reading Sotheby’s and started reading INAO.  (Invigorating stuff, right?)  But when I stood up from the theory examination table in 2011 with the absolute conviction that I had killed that test, well, it was one of the most rewarding moments of the entire process.  You have to go deep for theory, you have to be able to understand it from a fundamental level, and understand that things change all the time.  At some point, the subregions of blah blah blah in Portugal become as ingrained, as second nature as the Grand Crus of Chablis.  But you cannot simply sit idly by for nine or ten months out of the year.  Theory is not something that can be gained in a meaningful manner by cramming for two months before the exam.  This is the most basic but important shred of advice I can give.        

The euphoria one experiences in actually passing the exam is tempered by the knowledge that so many equally qualified and immensely talented friends and colleagues did not.  Passing the MS exam in the company of Brian McClintic, Dustin Wilson, Anthony Anselmi, Jennifer Huether, and especially Jason Heller gives me enormous satisfaction, and I want nothing more than to see good friends who have dedicated their lives to this pursuit share in this milestone.  Yoon, who sat with Jason and I for the second time, did not receive the news he wanted in Dallas.  Despite—or due to—the conflagration of emotions he was enduring, Yoon pulled Jason and I aside, and with a conviction that testifies to his character, assured us: “My happiness for the two of you and for your accomplishment far outweighs my own disappointment in myself.”  For Jason and I, the incredible sincerity and meaningfulness of this single, stunningly selfless act is something that we will carry forever; the friendships forged in the pursuit of this goal are as significant and rewarding as the pin itself.       

You hear the cliché time and again: in all things, the journey is the reward.  Embarking on a journey such as this is as much a measure of the faith and love of those closest to you as it is a testament to your own determination.  Without the support of Kali—now my fiancé—and her patience to see this through to the end, I would never have made it this far.  After countless flashcard sessions (Surely the most romantic way to spend a Friday night?) she may be able to recite the most southerly AOC in France quicker than I can.  Without the support of my parents, with whose blessing I was able to leave the family business and strike out for parts unknown, I would have never made it this far.  Without the support of many old friends who understood intuitively why I had to quit coming to band practices, I would have never made it this far.  This pin is the sum of a universe of influences: Master Fred Dame (or perhaps his vengeful and all-seeing specter) grumpily chiding me to get a tailor and a decent pair of shoes, David Eckler teaching me how not to sound like a jackass when pronouncing French, Master Wayne Belding offering a first letter of recommendation and an even more vital first vote of confidence.  Against a horizon of forking paths I achieved this only because so many had such great faith in me along the way.  I can only hope to offer this same support to others, as you embark on your own paths to the Court of Master Sommeliers.      


Sharing a wine with new Masters Jason Heller and Brian Mclintic, and Masters candidates Ian Cauble and Michael Engleman at the Guild BBQ,

  • Love your  inspirational  words. I live in small town in N. Idaho and would love to pursue my advanced but I don't know if I can do it on my own. Any advice regarding the possibility of success without a mentor or study groups would be much appreciated.

  • Truly encouraging and influential. The story of risk, friendships, humility, failures and triumphs, and hard work from one of the "giants"  is damn motivating, thank you Master Stamp.

  • Thank you, Matt, this piece is fantastic and has brought me to tears. All I think about, every day, is wanting to move to California from the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, to have better opportunity to learn.  A husband and 2 small boys makes this dream difficult to imagine most days. To have the opportunity to work under a master sommelier (or even advanced) is my dream. To learn every day while doing what I love. Cheers to you for being brave enough to make the best move of your life.  Thank you for writing this. Meeting you at the Napa Masterclass in DC this year was one of the greatest honors of my life.

  • After working the floor six days in a row...this is just what I needed to read/feel to get back up and keep moving!  Thank you for sharing! -Aloha