How Seattle Became the Hub for Master Sommeliers

Examining what’s behind the recent surge of Master Sommeliers coming out of Seattle
Aragona’s Chris Tanghe passed the grueling Master Sommelier exam this year

Factor 2: Extrinsic Advantages
Time and again, wine professionals cite the community of sommeliers—role models, mentors, fellow students—as reasons why Seattle is turning into a hub for the court. The vibrancy of the current sommelier community is the result of a slow and steady building process that began with a few pioneers.

Rob Bigelow (a Master Sommelier since 2002), along with several other top sommeliers in town, led the whole movement 15 years ago when he passed his advanced qualification and proved to us it could be done in our ‘stranded’ market, Bjornholm says. In 2000, Bigelow and Bjornholm overlapped at Canlis for three months. (Bigelow, after an interlude in Las Vegas, has recently returned to Seattle to take an educational role with Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.)

The two helped to cement the importance of Canlis on the local and the national somm scene. Even today, the Canlis tasting group—an invitation-only group that meets weekly to practice the kind of rigorous blind tasting expected during the Master Sommelier exam—is widely regarded as the preeminent in the city, a launching pad for aspiring masters.

“The Canlis tasting group was a huge resource,” says Metropolitan Grill’s Price. “I couldn’t have [passed] without them.” Price then goes on to praise another, smaller study group that focused more on the theory portion of the exam: “We all kept pushing each other. Even when I didn’t feel like another 9 a.m. meeting or more map review, I knew that Tanghe, Lechs [James Lechner, Stoneburner] and Lukie [Luke Wohlers, Betony, NYC] were all grinding, so I had to also.”

Small study groups like these, made up of sommeliers and wine professionals, now dot the landscape of the city, clustered around our better restaurants and wine shops, and they collectively form a virtuous cycle: As more professionals in Seattle move up the Master Sommelier ranks, there are more teachers, more role models and more examples that cut a viable path for Seattleites.

Seattle somms, according to Tanghe, “have been willing to pay it forward to the up-and-comers. In turn, those up-and-comers have done the same, and now we have roughly three or four ‘generations’ that have come up through the ranks from intro to advanced to master.”

“Seattle has one of the great sommelier communities on earth,” Bjornholm says. “Our smaller market allows for more face time among sommeliers. New York, L.A., San Francisco and Chicago have great communities as well but they are all competing for big press and trends with smaller time windows of opportunity, whereas Seattle seems to lack that particular pressure. Also, it exemplifies the Court of Master Sommeliers’ ‘pay it forward’ ethic (without personal gain). Seattle is small enough that you can just be all for one, one for all.”