Early in the documentary Somm, which screened to an enthusiastic wine-loving crowd at the Seattle International Film Festival this summer, there is an astonishing scene. The film tracks three American sommeliers—wine stewards usually employed by restaurants to manage wine buying, food and wine pairing, and education—as they prepare for the exquisitely difficult Master Sommelier examination. A young exam candidate from California named Ian Cauble swirls a glass.
“Wine 1 is a white wine, clear star bright…. Aromas coming out are like this lime candy, lime zest, crushed apples, underripe green mango, underripe melon, melon skin, green pineapple. And the palate: Wine is bone dry, really this, like, crushed slate, and crushed chalky note, like crushed hillside. There’s white florals almost like a fresh-cut flower, white flowers, white lilies, no evidence of oak. There’s a kind of a fresh—like a freshly opened can of tennis balls, and a fresh new rubber hose.”
Mr. Cauble continues:
“Initial conclusion: This wine is from the new world, from a temperate climate. Possible grapes are Riesling. Possible countries are Australia. Age range is 1 to 3 years. Evidence can only be one thing: This wine is from Australia. This wine is from South Australia. This wine is from Clare Valley, 2009 Riesling, high-quality producer.” His partner responds: “Wine 1 is Clare Valley Riesling.” And our jaws drop.
The wine trade generally employs two types in its restaurants and retail shops: those who prefer to wow with wisdom, and those who prefer to baffle with, well, something unprintable here. The Court of Master Sommeliers, established in Great Britain in 1977, with an American chapter following in 1986, stands firmly at the vanguard of the former camp. Its examinations are notoriously exacting, with a series of increasingly difficult tests covering theory, service and tasting. The tasting portion garners the greatest attention, with master candidates expected to identify the varietal, region, age, quality and level, among other factors.
Over the four decades since the Court of Master Sommeliers’ first exam was held, a mere 134 professionals in North America have passed, with only five currently listing Seattle as home. For many of those years, you can count on a single hand the number of passing North American candidates. And yet, in both 2012 (Thomas Price [pictured below] of Metropolitan Grill) and 2013 (Chris Tanghe of Aragona, which recently opened downtown), Seattleites earned the honor. Furthermore, there are at least a dozen Seattleites who have earned the Advanced Sommelier qualification (one step down from the master), many of whom seem poised to break through to the master level in upcoming years. Both the chair of the court’s board of directors (Greg Harrington, who lives on Queen Anne and runs Walla Walla–based Gramercy Cellars) and the examination director (Shayn Bjornholm, former wine director at Canlis and current resident of Bainbridge Island) live in the area.
Why is our city, isolated as it is in the upper-left hinterlands, becoming a major hub for the Court of Master Sommeliers? Two clear themes begin to emerge.
Factor 1: Intrinsic Advantages
Seattle is unusually well situated as a city with access to two distinct world-class wine regions in eastern Washington and the Willamette Valley, and to incredible food from our local farms, fields and waters.
“There’s that natural pride and comprehension of the world of wine when you’re right there,” notes Bjornholm, who achieved his Master Sommelier qualification in 2005. “The best sommeliers weren’t just reading a book—‘OK, I read about the 12 months of a wine cycle’—no, they were actually out in the vineyards, watching it happen. And so they had this comprehension that they were bringing to the table.”
Of course, being adjacent to wine country isn’t enough. “Wine doesn’t exist without food,” Bjornholm adds, “and the natural bounty here is insane, as we all know.” Christopher Miller agrees. Miller, a Master Sommelier as of 2012, runs the wine program at Spago in Beverly Hills, the flagship restaurant of Wolfgang Puck’s culinary empire. “The chefs are so into the outstanding produce Washington grows, so there’s a lot of local pride and subsequent high quality,” Miller says. “People don’t stumble into the industry there. They have found their calling.” Great natural products attract great chefs, and Seattle’s increasingly dynamic gastronomic scene is attracting more and more dedicated wine professionals.
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.”