Kathryn Morgan shows she can master wine

Kathryn Morgan of Citronelle earned a master sommelier diploma.
Kathryn Morgan of Citronelle earned a master sommelier diploma. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
By Dave McIntyre
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 14, 2010; 3:46 PM

She might giggle if you called her "master," but Kathryn Morgan is a newly minted master sommelier, joining the elite ranks of her profession, not just here in Washington but around the world.

After years of study and practice (much more grueling than simply tasting a lot of wines), Morgan successfully completed the three-stage Master Sommelier Diploma Exam last month in Irving, Tex. She is the first master sommelier in the Washington area's increasingly professional and talented corps of sommeliers. She became the 106th master sommelier in North America. Only 16 of those, including Morgan, are women. Worldwide, the U.K.-based Court of Master Sommeliers has conferred its top title on a mere 171 professionals.

Morgan, 40, chief sommelier at Michel Richard Citronelle, is a familiar face on the area's dining scene. Before taking over the cellar at Citronelle last year, she headed the wine programs at 2941 in Falls Church and Ristorante Tosca and the Occidental in the District. Now, in addition to her tastevin, she sports the red lapel pin of a master sommelier.

Still fresh from her achievement, Morgan spoke of her training and studies as if they were a religious experience in which she finally attained enlightenment when she passed the final trial.

"I'm the same sommelier I was a month ago, but I'm a much different sommelier than I was five years ago," she said. "It's the journey that makes you better, not the pin."

That journey, or at least the final stage, began in 2003 when she passed the court's advanced-level written exam, qualifying her to attempt the final stage. To earn the diploma, a candidate must pass an oral exam, in which a panel of master sommeliers fires questions about wine laws, grape names, major regions or producers, classic vintages: anything to do with wine. Then there is a tasting exam, requiring instant analysis of six wines. The final component is service, in which the candidates wait on a roomful of "customers," all of whom are wearing those red lapel pins. Candidates who do not successfully complete the trifecta within three years must start over.

The master sommelier certification differs from the perhaps better-known master of wine in its emphasis on service and restaurant management. (The Washington area boasts one master of wine, wine educator Jay Youmans.)

That training helps sommeliers gauge a customer's preferences in wine and enables them to pair wines with various dishes on the menu according to the wines' attributes.

"People say wine tasting is all subjective, but it really isn't," Morgan said. "Sure, you might taste raspberries while I sense strawberries, but certain things such as acidity, tannins, alcohol and body can be measured. Certain wines are high in acidity, others are low, so you have to use that. Once you've calibrated your palate, you can assess a wine by its structure and put it in perspective against other wines and food."

To prepare for her tests, Morgan spent vacations traveling to taste wines with master sommeliers and to work unpaid shifts in their restaurants. "No one can pass this exam alone," she said. "Mentorship is very important in this organization, and masters are always very generous. I am already receiving e-mails from candidates in other markets, and I look forward to helping them on their journeys."

Back home, Morgan benefited from a support group of her colleagues, many of whom meet regularly on their days off to taste wines and grill one another on minutiae that they might one day need to recall quickly during an MS exam.

"We have about 20 area sommeliers at all levels of the program, and six who are eligible to take the exam next year," Morgan said. "I do not expect to be the only MS in D.C. for long."

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