Washington, a major wine destination? Get used to the idea. The local wine scene is about to pop like a champagne cork.
The city’s reputation as a top-tier wine mecca and the heart of a booming mid-Atlantic wine region took a leap forward May 21, when Andy Myers and Jarad Slipp became master sommeliers. It’s the pinnacle of their profession, attained by only 219 people worldwide, 140 of them in the Americas. More astronauts have flown in space than sommeliers have earned the red lapel pin bestowed by the Court of Master Sommeliers. That pin is akin to a general’s star or a Jedi’s light saber, depending on your generation.
Myers, 42, has directed the wine program at CityZen restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel for the past eight years. Slipp, 38, was CityZen’s restaurant director for five years before leaving late in 2013 to become estate director at RdV Vineyards in Delaplane, Va. As a master sommelier, he will be able to boost Virginia’s already booming wine reputation among the world’s elite restaurants.
There are now five master sommeliers working in this region’s wine industry. Kathryn Morgan became Washington’s first home-grown master sommelier four years ago. She works the wine program at Bryan Voltaggio’s Range and Aggio, along with Keith Goldston, a California native who earned his diploma in 2001. Fran Kysela, an Ohioan who runs a wine import company in Winchester, Va., became a master sommelier in 1989.
We should brace for more. Myers and Slipp might be the initial wave of a sommelier tsunami. Washington’s increasingly professional restaurant scene has spawned a coterie of dedicated somms who are working their way through the four-level program. Along with the area’s thriving craft breweries and celebrity mixologists, these sommeliers are shaking up the nation’s capital’s restaurant scene.
What’s in a title? In this case, years of hard work, study, and tasting a lot of the world’s finest wines, spirits, beers and cigars. Yeah, that sounds glamorous, but it is an expensive and grueling endeavor. The master sommelier program has been called one of the most difficult in the world, focusing on wine knowledge, tasting acumen and service flair in a regimen that takes years to complete, with candidates typically attempting the final stage several times before succeeding — if they succeed at all. Myers, who worked at the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va., and Restaurant Nora before CityZen, took seven years to finish the program, enduring the master sommelier exam five times to pass all three components. He estimates that he spent $30,000 on books, dues, travel for the exams and wine tastings.
Slipp completed the program in nine years, studying while managing Nectar restaurant in Foggy Bottom, then working with Gordon Ramsay in London and Fabio Trabocchi in New York before returning to work at CityZen.
Myers credits the late Mike Tilch, a co-owner of Silesia Liquors in Fort Washington, Md., for inspiring him to work for the master sommelier diploma.
“I had just passed [the second level] and wasn’t sure I wanted to continue, but Mike in no uncertain terms told me I owed it to myself and my customers to become the best sommelier I could be,” Myers recalls. “And when Mike Tilch tells you to do something, you do it. When I tried the first time and failed, I said, ‘Game on. This is a challenge.’ I wouldn’t call it fun, but it’s a very invigorating challenge.”
If you have the image of a sommelier as an Old World snob, consider that Myers is known around town almost as much for his love of heavy metal music and for his body art. At the Virginia Wine Summit in Richmond last October, he introduced himself to a panel audience by saying, “My goal is to become the world’s most-tattooed master sommelier.”
“Done and done!” he said last week.
The master sommelier program has come under criticism in recent years because so few new masters are crowned. Only five of the 65 candidates who took the test this time in Aspen succeeded. In addition to Slipp and Myers, they were Alexander LaPratt and Pascaline Lepeltier of New York and Lindsey Whipple of Las Vegas. The stress and strain of the exams were depicted in last year’s feature film “Somm,” and, in October, the court, which is based in London, announced procedural changes aimed at easing some of the pressure on the advanced and master candidates.
Local master candidates who have achieved the third level and sport the green lapel pin of an advanced sommelier include Elli Benchimol of Range; Jennifer Knowles of Fiola Mare (recently of the Inn at Little Washington); David Denton of Charlie Palmer Steak; CityZen bar manager David Kurka; Winn Roberton of Bourbon Steak; Erik Segelbaum of Le Diplomate, Matthew Carroll of Brabo in Alexandria, Julie Dalton of Wit & Wisdom in Baltimore; and John Filkins of Potomac Selections, a wine importer. Several more have earned the purple pin of certified sommelier, the second level.
Others have moved on from Washington after pursuing their wine studies here. Carlton McCoy apprenticed under Myers at CityZen before taking the top sommelier position at the Little Nell in Aspen. He became a master sommelier last year. Jill Zimorski, formerly at Cafe Atlantico and Volt, now at the Little Nell, and Michael Scaffidi, formerly of Plume at the Jefferson Hotel and now with Union Square Restaurant Group in New York, are advanced sommeliers. Chef-turned-somm John Wabeck, now with Pittsburgh’s Spoon restaurant, is also advanced.
The extensive local interest in the program prompted the court to hold its introductory-, certified- and advanced-level examinations in Washington for the first time in 2012.
Morgan remembers that when she passed the advanced level in 2003, “no one around here knew what that was.” That was the year Goldston moved to Washington to head the wine program at Charlie Palmer Steak, where Bryan Voltaggio was the chef. He began mentoring Morgan, Wabeck and a few other interested somms. After Goldston moved back to California in late 2004 (he returned to help open Range in 2012), Morgan and Wabeck continued the practice sessions, which soon included Slipp and Myers. Each week they mimicked the tasting part of the exam. (Candidates must analyze six wines in 25 minutes, divining the grape varieties, place of origin and vintage and analyzing characteristics such as structure, acidity and body. No detail is too small — even noting the wine’s color is worth a point.)
Morgan expanded the effort for three years after earning her red pin, with twice-weekly sessions and more than 30 people participating at various times. Today Myers is the main tutor, an effort he intends to continue. He estimated that he and Slipp practiced about 600 blind tastings to prepare for the 25-minute tasting exam.
Mentoring comes naturally to Myers, says Eric Ziebold, CityZen’s executive chef. “Probably half of my serving staff have taken at least the introductory level” of the sommelier program, he says. “My sous-chef has done Level Two, and our bar manager Level Three. They all enjoy quizzing Andy on the wines.”
Myers calls wine “a most beautiful conversation between the heavens and the earth facilitated by the hands of man.” Sommeliers “are merely thoughtful and attentive witnesses and scribes,” interpreters of that conversation for diners who “just want to have a good time, forget about their inevitable mortality and drink something tasty.”
Many master sommeliers quit full-time restaurant work and become consultants. Myers says he envisions five or 10 more years of working the floor at CityZen. By the time he surrenders the keys to the wine cellar, there may be several master sommeliers applying for his job.
“Frankly, these young kids coming up behind me are terrifying, because their theory is strong, their tasting is strong and they’ve got the drive,” Myers says of his students. “They really want to take their craft to another level. I’m seeing an amazing amount of talent in D.C. right now.”
A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of Winn Roberton of Bourbon Steak and the first name of Fabio Trabocchi.