It's 11 a.m. on a chilly Wednesday morning in May and 63 Master Sommelier candidates fill the lobby of the storied Little Nell hotel in Aspen, Colorado. Each of them is "suited up" in her or his finest business attire, as if they were about to perform their duties on the floor of one of the world's top restaurants. The number of dimples in the double- and triple-Windsors is practically impossible to gauge.
Each of them is waiting to hear the results of the exams they have taken the previous day.
For some, passing just one of the exams means that they will be one step closer to the coveted pin that can be worn only by members of the Court of Master Sommeliers, one of the wine profession's most exclusive guilds. For others, this is a make-or-break moment: If they pass, some either get to go home with the title or at least stay in the running. For others, failure means they will have to reboot the process. Years of study and substantial expense will be lost.
One by one, Master Sommeliers appear in the lobby and summon each candidate to a private area where the results will be revealed.
One after another, each returns to the gaggle of aspiring Masters. Only a few get high-fived after sharing the outcome with their peers. By the time 62 of the candidates have been informed of their fate, only two new Master Sommeliers have been minted.
The sixty-third and final candidate is David Keck, owner and wine director of Camerata, one of Houston's most popular wine bars.
He has come to Aspen to "sit" his final exam: the dreaded "blind" tasting, in which candidates have to identify the grape, region, sub-region and appellation of six wines, three white and three red, without viewing the bottle or label.
David passed "theory," the first and perhaps most grueling of the three exams, in early 2015. Later that year, he passed his "service" exam as well.
His correct assessment of those six glasses of wine is now what stands between him and the pin.
As the other 62 wine professionals watch him leave the lobby, the tension is palpable.
So, how did it end? To the delight of David, his family and the Houston wine and restaurant community, he came back to Texas with that pin proudly fastened to his lapel. He is now one of 237 Master Sommeliers worldwide and one of eight who reside in Texas.
"There were so many great sommeliers in this group," said David at his wine bar last week. "It was tough to see so many go home disappointed."
What's next for David?
"I'm glad to have room in my brain to allocate to other things," he told us.
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As a new Master Sommelier, he has swiftly stepped into his new role as an official mentor and educator for the court. Two of his staff members are currently studying for their advanced sommelier degrees and he's working closely with both.
And he'll also be taking part in Texsom, the annual sommelier conference held in August in Dallas. It's now one of the most important dates on the wine trade's tasting and education calendar and attracts hundreds of wine professionals from all over the world.
He's also shifting his attention back to Houston and the Loire wine festival he's coordinating for July. The month-long event will include roughly 20 venues, mostly in Houston although a few Austin establishments are participating as well. Each will pour at least three Loire Valley wines by-the-glass for the entire month.
Asked to comment on a recent tweet by Houston Chronicle food editor Alison Cook in which she implored him not to abandon Houston, David said he has no plans to leave — at least for the time being.