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

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.