Wine Time

Five Houstonians Head to Dallas for Master Sommelier Exams

Roughly 600 wine professionals from across the United States applied last year to the Court of Master Sommeliers, said Master Sommelier Jay Fletcher who sits on the court's board. Five years ago, he noted, that number was closer to 100.

The allure of the court, with its coveted pin and the professional cachet that it confers upon the wearer, has become so strong that it simply cannot accommodate the overwhelming number of aspiring Master Sommeliers.

That's only made the competition more intense.

After they have been selected by the Court, candidates must successfully complete three exams before they become Master Sommeliers: Theory (often considered the most difficult), service, and blind tasting.

Recently, the court moved to make the theory exam the first, ostensibly to weed out candidates that don't have the right stuff.

The process is so grueling that it was the subject of a popular 2012 documentary, Somm, directed by Jason Wise.

On Monday, five Houstonians will be seated for their theory exam at the Four Seasons resort in Irving (Dallas): David Keck (Camerata), Travis Hinkle (Down House), James Watkins (Américas), Bill Elsey (Pappas Bros. Steakhouse), and Chris McFall (Pappas Bros. Steakhouse).

Once they pass the first exam, the candidates "are on the clock," as they say in the parlance of court. This means that they can proceed with the two remaining exams, which, this year, will be held in May (read a complete description of the process on the court's website here). According to the court's site, "the pass rate for the Master Sommelier theory examination is approximately 10%."

The tension was palpable when four of Houston's Master Sommelier candidates (including Keck, Hinkle, and Watkins) gathered at Camerata last week to taste with Master Sommelier Jesse Becker who led a guided tasting of Austrian wines (Becker became a Master Sommelier in 2008).

In total, there are seven candidates currently working in Houston. Steven McDonald (Pappas Bros. Steakhouse) and Ben Roberts (formerly of Masraff's and now working as a sales rep for a national distributor) have already successfully completed their theory exam.

Whatever the outcome on Monday, there's no doubt that the caliber of wine service in Houston continues to grow at a rapid pace. And that's good news for all of us.

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Jeremy Parzen writes about wine for the Houston Press. A wine trade marketing consultant by day, he is also an adjunct professor at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont, Italy. He spends his free time writing and recording music with his daughters and wife in Houston.
Contact: Jeremy Parzen