The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is an unlikely place to find a Master of Wine. After all, most MWs work in more glamorous environments, whether they head up beverage programs at world-class restaurants, oversee operations at wineries, or consult in private cellars. On March 2, 2018, the TTB got its first MW: Caroline Hermann, the bureau’s import-export program manager for wine, beer, and spirits, earned the prestigious Master of Wine title, along with three other people, from the Institute of Masters of Wine.
Hermann, who is also a lawyer, describes how broadening her knowledge of wine has contributed to her critical analysis at work. “What I really like,” she says, “is thinking through issues that come across my desk from a more expansive perspective yet within the boundaries of our regulations and policy.”
Hermann’s exposure to wine culture began at home. Her father was in the army, and while he was serving as defense attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki, Finland, Hermann’s parents “got a lot of really good wine through diplomatic channels.” She says they also talked about wine extensively with their British and French counterparts and would host elaborate pairing dinners.
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights. Sign up for our award-winning Daily Dispatch newsletter—delivered to your inbox every week.
After graduating from Mount Holyoke in 1992, Hermann landed a teaching fellowship in Greece, then worked as a banking equity analyst in Prague. That’s when her interest in wine began to take shape. “It was really in those years when I understood the close connection between regional food and regional wine pairings,” she says. “Being in those countries, you get it—and you understand why certain foods go really well with certain wines. It was a revelation for me.”
When she returned to the U.S. and began applying to law schools, her interest in wine continued to grow. She was living in San Francisco at the time, and her housemates were chefs and others who worked in the restaurant industry. She says there were many late-night conversations over “mystery” bottles, and she loved participating. But it wasn’t long before her lack of knowledge felt like an impediment.
“These chefs and restaurant workers would get home at two or three in the morning, and we’d sit around and drink wine and talk,” she says. “I never knew what I was drinking, honestly. And I never knew what to order in a restaurant; I never knew what to buy in a grocery store. I just liked it. I liked what people put in front of me. But I had no idea what I was doing. That’s when the frustration grew and I was like, ‘I gotta figure this out.’”
Hermann began to dabble, taking introductory courses in wine, then seeking out more academic programs—along the way, in 2000, she earned her law degree. Soon she was practicing environmental law, but her interest in wine didn’t wane. In 2005 she moved to Washington, D.C., to begin work as an enforcement attorney with the Environmental Protection Agency. By day, she brought cases against companies that had breached the nation’s environmental laws; by night, she studied vintages and grape varieties—and made connections between environmental concerns and viticulture and winemaking.
“There was just so much overlap between what I was doing as an environmental lawyer and what I was learning through my wine studies,” says Hermann. “I was already thinking, I want to mesh my background in law, environment, and wine.”
Finding that intersection would take time. After earning her WSET Advanced Certificate with distinction in 2005, Hermann began teaching at Capital Wine School. She went on to earn her WSET Diploma in 2009 and embark on her MW. It was during those studies, while working on an MW paper on wine regulations, that she stumbled on the TTB site. (Until it was split off in January 2003 by the Homeland Security Act, the TTB had been part of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.) Hermann knew about Old World wine regulations but didn’t realize the U.S. had its own bureau that regulated the wine trade. For a lawyer and wine lover, it was tantalizing stuff.
Before long, Hermann was closing in on her MW. She passed the theory portion of the exam in 2014, but it took two more tries to pass the practical section—tasting—which she finally was able to do in 2016. That was the year she joined the TTB, first as the director of labeling, a role in which she helped ensure that wines were properly labeled according to U.S. regulations governing everything from alcohol content and appellation of origin to the declaration of such additions as sulfites. Within the year, she was moved to the agency’s regulations and ruling team, where she still works today on regulations and policy for the nation’s import and export program.
During her MW studies, Hermann developed an expansive technical understanding of wine, as well as a deep knowledge of global wine regions, international policy on wine, and the U.S. three-tier system—all of which she’s brought to her job at the TTB. Beyond that, she doesn’t expect that the MW title will change her career path much.
“What am I going to do with it?” asks Hermann. “I’m going to get up and go to work.”
The newly minted MW, however, says she is planning to drink some amazing wine to celebrate. Shortly after she received the call announcing her MW, she opened a Champagne Chartogne-Taillet with her dad. That has since been followed by Champagne Billecart-Salmon and an English sparkling wine from Nyetimber.
Sign up for our award-winning newsletter
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights—delivered to your inbox every week.
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.