The graduating class of the Court of Master Sommeliers, 2018
September is almost over, and for me, it seems like it had just begun! Apologies for my late post, but this month has been quite busy. Trade show season is now under way and I attended a couple of Master Sommelier events as well. The Master Sommelier Symposium was just this past weekend in Louisville, Kentucky with over 95 Master Sommeliers from around the world in attendance to discuss our organization and its future direction as well as enjoy each other’s company. The other was the Master Sommelier Examination in St Louis, Missouri. For those that don’t pay much attention to the exam schedule, we had an historic pass rate of 24 new Master Sommeliers-the largest in the history of the Court of Master Sommeliers. As remarkable a feat as this passing class was, hearing some of the stories from the candidates were just as inspiring.
James Lechner is the Wine Director at Bastille in Seattle, Washington. A veteran of the sommelier exams, I first met James in 2009-the year he passed his Advanced Exam. Years passed and some of the Master Sommeliers began to reference James as a repeat offender-someone that was taking an inordinate amount of time to get through the final level. There were even some MS’s that began the level four exam after James started and were now proctoring his exams. A difficult role to be in for sure, but his dream never wavered and the smile that was perpetually on is face never dimmed. I cannot begin to fathom the hours and money spent preparing year after year. Finally after 8 years and 2 re-sets, he can now call himself a Master Sommelier. Now he can spend more time with his wife and 2 young children, as well as the fantastic wine program at Bastille.
Robert Ord was a wine educator for Treasury Wine Estates. A fantastically intelligent man, Robert, until recently, was a candidate for BOTH the Master Sommelier and Master of Wine Exams. Opinionated and easy to coax into a debate (whatever the subject), few people would question his knowledge of wine, but few would be willing to join him for dinner, or even a glass of wine. Many would characterize him as eccentric-a few even going as far as to describe his personality as caustic. He asked me to take him on as a student several years ago. He said he was not progressing with some of his present mentors and offered several thinly veiled criticisms about their teaching methods. While pleasantly amused at his pitch to bring him on as a mentee, I’m a sucker for a challenge, but made it clear I would not put up with his antics. In what seemed like reluctant acceptance, we set about our preparation. While I am willing to accept a tiny bit of the credit for his passing, most of it has to go to him. I believe he finally realized in order to pass this exam, he needed to completely change his prospective and his approach. Through hard work and determination, he passed the Master Exam on his 9th attempt. I have never seen a more grateful, and humble man in my life. I also believe he learned a little more about himself and his interactions with others.
Christopher Ramelb is an aspiring sommelier living on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Better known as a popular tourist destination, few know that on Oahu there is a thriving sommelier community as well. I met Christopher earlier this year at the theory examination in Portland, Oregon. A soft spoken and deferential personality, he shuns the spotlight preferring to sit contently in the background while others bask in the spotlight. As his proctor for both the theory and tasting portions of his exam, his skill and professionalism really stood out for me and I was proud to be the one to present the good news of his passing. Upon hearing the news, it was not surprising to see him get very emotional, but it was for a different reason-he revealed to me that he lost his father on Christmas Eve last year and for over 9 months, he bottled up his emotions so he could give this exam a serious go. With the revelation that the test was now behind him, he began to cry uncontrollably, crumpling to his knees and sobbing, “I miss my dad so much”. Having lost my father years ago, the raw emotion surfaced once again. The power behind a son’s love for his dad never goes away.
Admittedly, it is easy to celebrate with those who pass. Of the 24 passing candidates, 4 were students of mine. Now, instead of having conversations as student/mentor, it can be about things a bit more mundane like, “you wanna play golf?” It is exponentially more difficult consoling those who failed. I had far more of the failures than successes, and I know some of them will be reading this blog. I mean, what do you say to them? Are they not as skilled and knowledgeable as those who passed? Two of them have to re-set, where they have to take theory, tasting and the practical all over again. A monumental challenge to face and a challenge I am unsure they will decide to take, but as my mentor Fred Dame once told me, “anything that is worth anything in this life is going to be hard”. He’s right…it’s damn hard…