For many years now, whenever I see a particular gentleman who is one of the most respected and well-known Master Sommeliers in the country, he quickly gets around to asking me the same question: “What’s new?” Early on, I would always think, “Why is he asking me this? Is this a test to see how smart I am? How cool? How savvy?” Until one day, it hit me; “How cool, indeed!” I realized he was asking me—and probably many other sommeliers from coast to coast—to let him know what wines, trends, or subjects were currently on our minds. What have we tasted lately? Who’s moving where? What’s hard to get? What are people talking about, and what do I think of what they’re saying? It’s a very clever way for him to build a network of information from people in the field to confirm, add to, or inspire his own continuing awareness of our business.
This leads me to wonder if one can ever really be a “master” of a subject that is constantly changing, such as wine. And even if the letters that follow your name say that you are, what does one do to continue to keep that accomplishment in focus and relevant? My own practices include keeping up with periodicals such as the San Francisco Chronicle (both food and business sections); the Sommelier Journal; and Wine Spectator, of course; as well as tasting, tasting, tasting—alone and in groups, always with detailed notes. I also have a strong network of wine business and trade folks who help keep me connected to both my local wine community and the international scene.
Wanting to dig a little deeper and learn new techniques, I asked three of my friends what they do to keep their edge:
-Sally Mohr, Master Sommelier and former owner of the Boulder Wine Merchant and Colorado;
-Peter Marks, Master of Wine and vice president of education at Constellation Wines;
-David Stevens, who received his master's degree in enology from UC Davis and currently works as a winemaking consultant.
All three are still avid learners via professional classes, seminars, or meetings in their particular field of interest. Sally has taken Levels I and II of the Sake Professional Course, which included a trip to Japan. “It was important to me that I go to Japan to experience sake production firsthand to better understand the process,” she says. “For me, meeting the producers really helped connect the dots.” As a result of her continuing education, Sally is now a Level II Sake Specialist and a board member of the Sake Education Council.
David attends professional technical meetings like the American Society of Enology and Viticulture’s annual meeting, where peer-reviewed and academic work is presented. Peter will attend classes on wine education and marketing at his company’s expense, but pays out of his own pocket to explore wines and regions he wants to investigate further.
Tasting wines with others is a key part of the development of these experts. Sally often finds herself in blind tasting exercises with aspiring Master Sommeliers, while Peter organizes practice tasting sessions for Master of Wine students. “By leading these wine tastings,” he says, “I keep abreast of wines, regions, winemaking techniques, styles, quality, and maturity for wines from all over the world.” David, who admits he is of a technical bent, likes tasting with “folks who also understand the general principles of wine chemistry and production, not because their acuity is any higher, but because they already know the basic faults that can be found in wine and usually have at least some idea of what the wine we are tasting should be like. However, tasting with consumers—especially those just discovering some of the more ‘clandestine’ aspects of wine—can be very energizing and a whole lot of fun!”
The lists of resources each of my friends uses are themselves inspiring. Decanter.com and winebusiness.com are favorites of Sally, who says, “Reading these will send me on an investigative search if the topic is of particular interest.” Peter comments, “I think it’s so much easier to gather information and keep in touch today than when I passed the MW 15 years ago. I subscribe to the sites for the Benson Marketing Group, Wine & Spirits Daily, and Industry News Update, as well as a few outside the industry such as The New York Times and The Economist. I frequently research information on producer and regional trade sites and use Able-Grape.com as a wine search engine when I’m looking for a particular topic.” David quips, “I also try to hit the silly tasting note generator (http://static.gmon.com/tech/output.shtml) at least once a day.”
It’s exciting to hear that, rather than resting on their laurels, these leaders continue to be drawn to new subjects in wine. “The whole area of so-called ‘tannin management’ is of huge interest to me,” says David. “The process of extracting and, perhaps more important, retaining these pesky compounds is not well-understood. The chemistry of this type of compound is profoundly difficult and because of that, lots of black magic and stupidity has rushed in to fill the knowledge vacuum.” Peter is interested in the wines of South America. “Not only Chile and Argentina, but Uruguay and Brazil, too,” he says. “Partly because I’ve never been to these countries, but also because I’m fascinated by the high quality/price ratio that’s been achieved by South American wines with a minimal amount of investment.”
Not surprisingly, there is a maturity, perspective, and true sense of having fun with wine that comes from being so accomplished. “I enjoy wine on an almost daily basis and love finding new wines to learn about,” says Sally. Peter shares his secret: “To stay interested in wine, you need to have other interests. Wine can be overwhelming.” And David follows the advice of Bette Davis—“I will not retire while I’ve still got my legs and my makeup box.”
As Peter put it in the final words of our conversation, “The most important lesson I learned when I passed the Master of Wine exam is that wine can never truly be mastered.”
Traci Dutton is sommelier at the Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant on the CIA’s St. Helena, CA campus.
Sally Mohr, Master Sommelier and former owner of the Boulder Wine Merchant in Colorado;