Wine

How 6 New Master Sommeliers Made the Cut

Fresh from the exam, several MS’s share their stories and advice

Photo courtesy of the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Last week the Court of Master Sommeliers welcomed eight new members to its Master Sommelier ranks, bringing the total to 157 in the Americas and 247 worldwide. SevenFifty Daily caught up with six of the new MS’s to hear their stories and get their best advice for the next crop of candidates.

James Bube, MS, central regional manager, Frederick Wildman and Sons, Chicago

Once you get that MS pin, you can catch up on podcasts while drinking Champagne. At least, that’s how James Bube, MS, spent his train trip home to Chicago from St. Louis last week. In addition to acting as the liaison to wholesalers in three states for the importer Frederick Wildman and Sons, Bube—Chicago’s sixth MS—will continue to serve on the board of the industry group Second City Sommeliers.

Attempts to pass:

Theory: 1; Service: 3; Tasting: 3

What was the hardest thing about the MS?

Service was my albatross. I’d been off the floor for more than 12 years when I took the exam. Dan Pilkey, Advanced, at Maple and Ash, and Rachel Driver Speckan, Advanced, at City Winery—both in Chicago—were generous in putting me through the paces and allowing me to stage and practice in their establishments. I couldn’t have passed without them. 

What’s the one thing you wish you’d known going in?

It’s addictive. You tell yourself, “I’ll go to xyz level,” and then you wake up one day awash in topographic lieu-dit maps because you don’t want to be the guy in the group who doesn’t know where or what something is.

What advice would you give an MS candidate?

For theory, Google the memory palace technique, or method of loci, and work with it. Get the best maps you can, and write your theory on top of them: Visual learning is easier for recall than other forms. Also, be honest with yourself: If you’re ignoring a region you don’t like or are uninterested in, that’s where you should be studying. For tasting, put in the reps and learn to identify chemical compounds and winemaking protocols for finished wines.

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink?

By popping some 2002 Pol Roger Brut with friends in Chicago.

Rebecca Fineman, MS, sommelier, High Treason, San Francisco

Rebecca Fineman always had an interest in food and wine but never thought it would go beyond dinners with friends. But after studying music and anthropology, spending a Fulbright year in South Korea, and attending graduate school for ethnomusicology, she moved to New York City, where she worked in publishing by day and eked out her rent by working at a restaurant. Soon she abandoned literary pursuits for food and wine. When a mentor suggested she get her sommelier certification, she relied on her academic background to propel her and, in a mere five months, passed the Advanced exam. Five years later she became the world’s 25th female Master Sommelier.

In addition to being a sommelier at San Francisco’s High Treason, Fineman, along with her husband, Chris Gaither (who is also working on his MS), plans to open a wine-centric restaurant and retail space, called Ungrafted, in San Francisco in 2018.

Attempts to pass:

Theory: 1; Service: 3; Tasting: 2

What was the hardest thing about the MS?

I was lucky because my husband is also an MS candidate—in fact, we met at the Advanced exam in 2012. As a result, he very much understands the amount of time that needs to go into studying.

I had a baby late last year; she was not as understanding. With her, I had to find time to study in the cracks of the day that might otherwise have gone toward sitting in an armchair and relaxing.  

What advice would you give an MS candidate?

First, make sure you aren’t doing this alone. Everyone is quick to join a tasting group, but you need a strong base of theory to be successful at this level. Everyone brings different information and different interpretations of the information to the table. It’s extremely valuable to hear questions asked in ways that you might not have asked them. Second, remember that your life is more important than the exam. Don’t hole yourself up and block out everyone else. Spend time with your family, spend time on yourself, and allow yourself to enjoy things outside the world of wine. Your world is bigger than this exam. When you remember that, it’s a whole lot less stressful.

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink?

I had my baby in one arm, a glass of Krug Champagne in the other, and my husband by my side. It was perfect. 

Aaron Patrick, MS, beverage director, The Club at Wingtip, San Francisco

In the hours after he passed, Aaron Patrick’s phone began blowing up and has not stopped. He received more than 200 texts. “I didn’t even know that was possible,” says Patrick, who grew up in Arizona but moved to San Francisco, from Scottsdale, after MS Ian Coble told him he’d have to live in a bigger city. When he took the job as beverage director for the members-only club Wingtip, he told the owner he was going to be a Master Sommelier some day, by hook or by crook, and built a clause into his contract to provide him financial incentives to stay when that happened.

Attempts to pass:

Theory: 2; Service: 3; Tasting: 2

Why did you decide to do the MS?

At 19, I got into wine because 1, I’m Irish and I like alcohol, and 2, I thought it would be a good career path. At 21, I got my Introductory sommelier certification and that’s when I really fell in love. I got into it for the wrong reasons, but in the end wine is my life and I truly love it. 

What was the hardest thing about the MS?

There is not an easy part. The amount of time you have to commit to it, the amount of time you have to be away from family… It’s really difficult to do this without a very supportive spouse. I think my wife is happy that she can have her dining room back. For the last six years it’s been plastered with vintage charts, maps, pictures of labels … you name it, I’ve had it on the wall.

What advice would you give an MS candidate?

Don’t stop. People go through cycles where they take breaks—they take six months off. At this level, you cannot do that; you can’t not do wine. It’s okay to take a couple of weeks off, but if you’re passionate, you need to keep going. And I think one of the most important things for candidates is to put themselves around people who are better than they are. 

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink?

It still hasn’t sunk in. A friend opened a bottle of 1850 Madeira for me last night, and it still hasn’t sunk in.

I don’t think we’re allowed to tell you what we drank at the new Masters’ lunch, but I was drinking a lot of Krug at the Krug reception, and I also had a shot of Fernet-Branca. I think this year is going to be more celebrating. 

I’m very excited now to be able to spend time with my wife and son. We’re taking a vacation to England, Scotland, and Ireland. We’ll be drinking a lot of beer and whisky.

Jackson Rohrbaugh, MS, assistant wine director, Canlis, Seattle

Over the past few years, Rohrbaugh served as a leader of sorts among the candidate circle on the West Coast. He organized tastings that brought in MS’s from the area—including Joseph Linder, Greg Harrington, Thomas Price, and Shayn Bjornholm—and asked them to help candidates learn to taste better. At one point, several candidates from San Francisco even flew to Seattle to attend a meeting of Rohrbaugh’s group.

Becoming Washington State’s eighth Master Sommelier might have been reward enough, but Rohrbaugh’s employer, Canlis, doubled down: “There’s this amazing tradition at Canlis—they let you pick any wine off the list that you want to drink,” says Rohrbaugh, who chose a DRC. “It’s really nice of them.”

Attempts to pass:

Theory: 2; Service: 1; Tasting: 2

Why did you decide to do the MS?

Part of it for me is that there’s a standard of excellence out there, and I want to push myself until I reach that standard. There’s a lot to be said for setting standards high for yourself and being challenged and growing in that. I’m not going to be stagnant. I want to find ways to grow and learn.

What was the hardest thing about the MS?

The preparation. Yes, if you set the time aside, you can do it. But you have to sacrifice. You have to take time away from your family, from hobbies, from hanging out with friends. You have to prioritize it above everything. Friendships sometimes go out the window, at least for a while.

On the exam itself, managing nerves. For me, it was figuring out how I could breathe to help me manage stress in the moment. (Hint: Circular breathing.)

What’s the one thing you wish you’d known going in?

I knew what I was getting into because you don’t start Intro and think, “I’m studying for MS.” I wasn’t thinking MS until I passed Certified. You have to kind of shoot for MS in order to pass the Advanced exam well. You have to push yourself harder than what the exam might be. 

Jonathan Ross, MS, head sommelier, The Lucas Group, Melbourne, Australia

Just eight months after moving to Australia, Jonathan Ross returned stateside to earn his MS. Before that, Ross lived in New York City but felt an urge to be closer to a thriving wine production area. Now he’s 45 minutes from a top region. What’s next for Ross, who serves as the head somm for The Lucas Group, which has six restaurants in Melbourne? Some harvest work and some hands-on experience, Ross says. With everything he’s learned and been exposed to while studying for his MS, Ross says he has an itch to get his hands dirty.

Attempts to pass:

Theory: 4; Service: 2; Tasting: 3

What was the hardest thing about the MS?

Myself. My own mental blocks. Self-doubt. Anxiety. Then, probably really understanding what direction to go in with preparation; what’s essential and what’s ancillary. The mental state is the hardest thing to overcome, and I think that’s true for a lot of people. For me, trusting in tasting and myself was very difficult. 

What advice would you give an MS candidate?

Embrace the support groups, the families, and the people around you. Those will get you over the hill, not the extra hour of theory practice but the amount of love you give and receive.

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink?

First, with a lot of great wine that the Court of Master Sommeliers and Guild Somm brought to the lunch, and by meeting a new extended family. I haven’t drunk “the thing” I’ve planned to celebrate with yet. I don’t know what that is, but I’ll know what it is when it happens. 

David Yoshida, MS, MDiv, Partner and Wine Buyer, Pollux Wine; California Department of Corrections; Berkeley

This may cause a double take—a chaplain becomes a Master Sommelier—but last week David Yoshida became the first MS to also hold a Master of Divinity degree. Yoshida’s interest in wine was piqued during graduate school, when he worked at the student bar. While there, he also taught wine classes, which helped subsidize his own studies: He stayed one week ahead of his students and didn’t have to pay for wine samples since he was ordering them for class anyway.

Today, Yoshida promotes online branding for small California wineries via Pollux Wine and serves as a chaplain at a high-security prison within the California correctional system.

Attempts to pass:

Theory: 2; Service: 2; Tasting: 3

What was the hardest thing about the MS?

Managing a life around the exam was the thing that required the most sacrifice. That’s as much about budget as your relationships outside the exam.

Service was a struggle, although there are a lot of carryover skills between different professions, and service and hospitality extends to many different professions. Definitely being a hospital chaplain in a prior role helped with service. As a chaplain, you walk into a hospital room and have to figure out very quickly who is there—family, patient, doctors—and what their needs are. Then you have a very small amount of time to help them make meaning out of the situation. It’s not too different at a table. 

What advice would you give an MS candidate?

I’d encourage people to think carefully about how much they are willing to put aside for this exam. It determines where you can live, how much you can pay for rent—because you’re spending so much money on wine. It means you’ll be living in a major market, to have other people to study with. If your home is in a great little midwestern city, well I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to move. That’s really hard. 

How did you celebrate, and what did you drink?

There was a short luncheon. The Masters were very generous. The way they warmly welcomed us really drove home why they are the top of the hospitality business.

Then I had a couple of Buds in the airport—it’s St. Louis, after all—with some other candidates. I hadn’t had a beer in a year; it’s not on the exam.

When she’s not writing about beverage, travel, or weird science, Julie H. Case can be found deep in America’s forests, foraging for mushrooms.

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