Food - Five Atlantans dedicate their lives to becoming Master Sommeliers

There are 211 Master Sommeliers in the world. Eric Crane, Matt Bradford, Marie Ballard, Justin Amick, and Joon Lim are vying for spots on that exclusive list.

When a young Fred Dame flew to London to take the Master Sommelier exam in 1984, the prodigious taster from California had no idea what to expect.

"I didn't have any intrinsic fear going in. I didn't know any of the examiners. I didn't know anything about it," Dame says.

Mustering all the knowledge he'd either learned from winemakers or taught himself, Dame became the first American to pass all three parts of the exam in a single year.

He did so well, in fact, that he won the Krug Cup, the award reserved for someone who not only passes all three parts of the exam on the first try in a single year, but who also grabs the highest score. Dame went on to found the American Branch of the Court of Master Sommeliers in 1986.

Dame's experience is rare. Since the exam's inception in 1969, only 211 candidates worldwide have earned the title of Master Sommelier (MS). Only 16 have passed on the first try. Master Sommelier is the highest designation one can earn in the world of wine service, the fourth and final level of the Court of Master Sommeliers. There are currently 134 Master Sommeliers in North America. Of those, only one active MS, Michael McNeill, hails from Atlanta. At least for now.

Five of Atlanta's Advanced Sommeliers sat for the Master Sommelier Diploma Exam in 2013: Eric Crane, Matt Bradford, Marie Ballard, Justin Amick, and Joon Lim. None of them passed. Of the 133 candidates who attempted the feat nationwide, only five returned as Masters. Atlanta's five MS candidates remain undeterred. They've banded together for weekly tastings and have more or less put their lives on hold while they prepare for the 2014 exam next spring/summer.

"Atlanta has some of the best younger somms in the country. They've got the passion, they've got the dedication, they've got the talent," says Andrew McNamara, MS and Director of Fine Wine at Premier Beverage, a wine and spirits distributor in Florida.

McNamara passed the exam in 2007, and, like Dame, is one of the few candidates to pass on the first try. From Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., McNamara offers the Atlanta group advice and guidance whenever he can.

"Atlanta is one of those areas that when we look at the country, is a spot that's growing pretty dramatically," he says.

After remaining stagnant for years, the number of sommeliers in Atlanta has increased dramatically. Prior to 2010, Atlanta had one Advanced Sommelier. As of 2013, there are seven.

In the mid-aughts, a new generation of chefs began mounting a massive takeover of the Atlanta dining scene. In many cases, they were thirtysomethings cooking mostly to please themselves and their friends. There was a renewed obsession with sourcing — where the food came from and the stories behind it. Food Network was busy turning chefs into celebrities, including locals such as Richard Blais, and driving a nationwide obsession with restaurant culture. Atlanta's cocktail scene quickly followed.

Now, there's a new generation of sommeliers on the rise.

Like many Masters, McNamara isn't exactly sure how he passed, but he knows how hard he had to work to do it.

"It was nine months of every waking moment where I wasn't working, just studying. My wife and I would have one hour a week and that was it. ... It was like having two full-time jobs," McNamara says.

Somm, a documentary by director Jason Wise released earlier this year, offers an illuminating glimpse at what it takes to become an MS. The film follows the intense and geeky pursuits of four candidates three weeks before the exam. In the film, the aspiring somms submit themselves to an exhausting battery of study sessions and blind tastings. To the audience's delight, they sacrifice sleep, their health, and home life in order to prepare.

At the Master level, candidates have three years to pass each of the three sections. The average annual pass rate for the exam is less than 10 percent. For some, completing all parts can take years. Most never pass the final stage.

"I may have to face the fact that I might never become a Master Sommelier," says Lim, 32, currently a server at Kevin Rathbun Steak. Lim is the only server in the city of Atlanta who is also an Advanced Sommelier. He sat for the MS exam in Aspen, Colo., in May. "I don't know if I can accept that quite yet. For now I have to think that I can do it."

The Master Sommelier examination originated in the United Kingdom in an effort to create standards for professional wine service. The first exam was held in 1969, but the Court of Master Sommeliers wasn't established until nearly a decade later in 1977. Today, the Court is the premier authority on wine service. Armed with the expertise to create profitable beverage programs anywhere in the world, some Masters go on to consult for distributors, or work in the world's best restaurants. The MS diploma basically functions like a PhD, allowing graduates to become speakers and teachers. Depending on the gig, MS paychecks can crack six figures.

To get to the Master level, candidates must first pass three exams — Introductory, Certified, and Advanced — that each get exponentially harder. The MS exam is a daunting, three-day brain warp held twice a year. It is invitation-only and consists of three parts: service, theory, and blind tasting.

Candidates are tested on a massive body of knowledge, including being able to speak with authority on all of the wine-producing regions in the world, the accepted grape varieties in the regions, and how wines are produced and stored. They must be familiar with international wine laws, fortified wines, the distillation of spirits, as well as beer and cigar production. They must have impeccable wine service skills (expert pairing ability, never obscuring the label with the hand) and be able to describe and identify correctly six unmarked wines — the body and acidity, whether they're oaky on the palate, muddy on the nose, etc. — earning points for each right answer.

Geoff Kruth is an MS who passed in 2008. He lives in Petaluma, Calif., and serves as the chief operating officer for the Guild of Sommeliers, a membership organization of about 6,000 somms worldwide. He's also on the Board of Directors for the Court of Master Sommeliers.

"I think it definitely takes a certain amount of OCD. It's just an awful lot of knowledge retention. You have to be a little on the obsessive side, maybe to the point of being a little kooky," Kruth says.

At 9 a.m. every Tuesday, Bradford, Ballard, Amick, Crane, Lim, and a handful of lower level somms gather for a weekly tasting session. Sunshine sparkles off the Chattahoochee River and streams into the dining room of Canoe, where the group is seated at a round table covered with wine glasses, spit buckets, notebooks, and iPads.

Bradford, 37, founded the group in 2009 as a way to practice the art of deductive tasting. Bradford has worked in restaurants ever since his first job at McDonald's as a teen. He met his wife while they were both working at Goldfish at Perimeter Mall. For the last seven years, he's served as Canoe's wine director.

Each member takes turns as the group's proctor. It is Lim's turn this month, which means he's in charge of selecting a flight of six unmarked wines, three whites and three reds, for the rest of the group to swish and swirl and study. A mysterious, rose gold white wine sparks some heated debate.

"It's like an orangey color. It's fucking weird," Amick says.

Amick, 32, joined the tasting group in 2010 while preparing for a second attempt at the Advanced exam. Amick is currently general manager and wine director at the Spence. The Tulane grad, former Division I basketball player, and son of restaurant mogul Bob Amick says that failure is not an option.

"On the palate the wine is sound and clean," says Linda Torres, sommelier at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead.

"Really? Are you sure about that?" Crane asks.

Crane, 42, is also an Advanced Sommelier and the director of training and business development for Empire Distributors in Atlanta.

"It's sound. I'm not sure if this is clean," says Amick.

"I'm not sure this is wine," Crane says. "It's not Bonnaroo day three, but it's definitely got a medicinal funk goin' on."

They continue swishing and swirling and spitting into the tiny silver buckets.

"The acid is really high," Ballard says. The Newnan native is more timid than the rest, and when she does offer an opinion, it's with a soft, Southern twang. Ballard, 35, oversees the Southeast region for wine importing company Vias Imports. After working restaurant jobs for years, her love of wine led her to a job with a distributor where she mentored under Laura DePasquale, the 13th woman in the world to become an MS. Only 19 women currently hold the title.

"I think this wine's from the Old World. It's got hard edge, green tendency here, and it's neutral with high screaming acid. Elevated alcohol, which is gonna put me possibly from Austria. Grüner Veltliner," Amick says.

"Grüner would be that color?" Crane asks.

At the end of the tasting, Lim returns with the bottles. The wine in question was a 2005 Zind-Humbrecht pinot gris from Alsace. In utter disbelief, Amick examines the label himself. Lim reveals the remaining identities of the six mystery wines. There's some celebrating and plenty of groaning. There's also a lot more studying to do.

Bradford sailed through the first three levels of the Court in 15 months. The success fueled his obsession for becoming an MS.

"There's a sense of accomplishment that gets to be a little bit like a narcotic, maybe, where you like to succeed at things that are incredibly difficult," he says.

Bradford was wait-listed for the 2013 MS exam, and received his official invitation only five weeks prior to the test. To prepare, he studied 40-60 hours a week while working a full-time job.

"But it wasn't enough," Bradford says. He's uncertain of where he fell short because the exam's results are kept secret. For the next year, Bradford plans to study 10-15 hours a week. With two kids at home and a wife in nursing school, he says most of that will have to take place from 6-8:30 a.m.

"It almost has to be an obsession. If you're not obsessed with it, you're not gonna pass," Amick says. To him, passing the Advanced exam felt better than any 30-point game he'd ever had during his basketball career. Amick's son was born three days before he had to leave to go and take the Advanced Exam in 2011.

"I'm already at work all the time, and when I get home I have to help my wife with my son and whatnot, so it's hard to balance my study time with my work life and my family life," he says.

To prepare in 2013, Amick and Lim spent hours on the phone quizzing each other. They fired questions back and forth during the flight to Aspen. They tested each other in the hotel room all the way up to exam time.

Lim says he's made nearly 10,000 flashcards and taken enough wine notes to fill 15 spiral-bound notebooks. He got his start as a busboy at Carrabba's. In 2000, Lim picked up a copy of Wine for Dummies and unwittingly sealed his fate in the world of wine.

"I read some statistic. Back then there was something like 170 Master Sommeliers in the world. As soon as I read that, I was like, 'Wow, I want to become one of them,'" he says.

He passed the Advanced Sommelier exam in 2011. That same year, he won Taste of Atlanta's Best Sommelier competition and was asked to head up the wine and beverage program at Rathbun's.

"I try to study at least 20 hours a week, two-three hours a day. But while managing, I was barely reading two hours a week," Lim says.

With the Masters exam finally in his sights, he decided to take a step back from management and focus on preparing for the exam. The best way to do that was to return to waiting tables.

Crane studied whenever he had a free moment during the 10-month stretch leading up to the 2013 exam.

"Any time my nose is in a book and not directed elsewhere, that's a sacrifice. No one's asking me to do this. I'm telling myself to do it," Crane says.

Beyond day jobs, hours of independent study, and wine-related extracurriculars, the road to Master Somm-dom is a substantial monetary investment. Each month, tasting group members contribute $150 to cover the wines. That's more than $7,000 per person for those who've been attending since the group's inception in 2009. Fees for each of the four exams added up to $2,870 in 2013. Bradford estimates he and his employer have invested around $15,000 in his wine education. When Lim factors in the cost of travel and study materials, he says he's probably spent nearly $20,000 to become an MS.

McNeill has been an MS for 20 years. He became the first MS in Georgia when he passed the exam in 1993. He's now the director of education for Quality Wines and Spirits in Atlanta. He's administered 15 MS exams and never had the privilege of congratulating a candidate on passing.

If Atlanta's five candidates succeed, it would put Georgia on the heels of states such as California, Nevada, and Colorado that are home to the majority of the country's sommeliers.

"If we can make Atlanta synonymous with top-level wine service in the country, that would mean a lot to me," Crane says, "It's something I believe in. It's OK not to do it on your first or second or third try, but it is something that I will do. Nothing will stand in my way to pass the exam."

Where to Eat
Food Events