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Written by Neil Charles


To be anointed with the title Master Sommelier (MS) is to be recognized as a wine professional occupying a position in the very highest echelon of the trade. Of the hundreds who aspire to the qualification every year, fewer than five percent eventually acquire the honor, an epic achievement that can take many years of dedicated study to realize.

Although the idea of becoming a sommelier and drinking great wine every day sounds romantic and wildly appealing, the fact is that the sommelier’s job is essentially to sell wine while providing a uniquely positive experience for the client at the same time. Wine is about pleasure, or at least it should be, and a sommelier’s primary objective is to lead a guest to a rarefied realm of pleasure while making a profit for his or her employer.

At a busy upscale restaurant, sommeliers may get to spend just a few minutes with a guest, during which time they need to take stock of the person’s preferences and find their comfort zone before guiding them towards two or three compelling options that will appeal on every level. “Just because we know a lot about wine doesn’t mean we have the same tastes as somebody else,” says Master Sommelier Ian Cauble. “People drink what gives them pleasure, and our job as wine professionals is to bring things that make people happier.”

All this requires a host of skills, some of which are inherited, some of which are acquired. Of the former, elevated intelligence, patience, and an ability to read minds are useful traits; a comprehensive knowledge of the subject ranging from vintages, grapes and regions, to winemaking, pairings, and trends, accounts for much of the rest. Although crucial to the process, the most visible aspect of being a sommelier -- that is, the service itself -- represents only the tip of the iceberg.

For Cauble, the stressful process of becoming a member (one of only 269 in the world) of the ultra-exclusive Court of Master Sommeliers was complicated by the fact that he was one of a handful of candidates followed for almost a year by film cameras that unflinchingly recorded the extraordinary pressure that such an undertaking can inflict. The entire process can be witnessed in the excellent award-winning 2012 documentary “SOMM”, which has become a Netflix hit. In spite of the added anxiety of a hovering film crew, “it was an honor to share my story with the world,” says Cauble. “Although at times, it added a lot of pressure to know that at the end of the movie people would find out if I had either failed or succeeded.” The outcome has been well-known for years now, but the documentary still makes for thrilling viewing.

Growing up in Huntington Beach and studying at Sonoma State University, Cauble caught the food and wine bug early on. After a lengthy period of travel around North Africa and Europe, culminating in a lengthy stay in Portugal, he landed a job at a well-known wine merchant in Beverly Hills. The next stop was Las Vegas, home to the highest concentration of Master Sommeliers anywhere. It was here that he began his studies in earnest and, having been crowned Best Young Sommelier in the World in 2011, went on to pass the MS the following year.

Five years ago, Cauble and his business partners created a new direct-to-consumer wine retail company, SommSelect, geared towards hunting down unique, often small-production wines seldom, if ever, seen in even high-end wine stores. Operating from a warehouse in Napa, SommSelect offers two new wines a day and three different membership levels that encourage wine lovers to expand their horizons. “A lot of people come home on a Friday night, and open the same wine they’ve been drinking for months,” he says. “We offer them the opportunity to try something different, and provide them with the expert and informed opinion of a Master Sommelier.” To that end, each email offering comes with a comprehensive account of the wine’s origins, its story and taste profile, as well as a detailed recipe for a compatible dish, providing customers all the facts they need to make a well-informed purchase. The memberships, which include a blind tasting option, allow aspiring oenophiles to engage in the tasting and analytical processes key to becoming a master.

With so many retail outlets going the corporate route, pushing more or less identical lineups of predictable, mass-produced wines, SommSelect forges a refreshingly independent path: selections are based entirely on Cauble’s and his team’s personal assessments of a wine’s quality, and there are many surprises. With an eye on consumers at all levels, SommSelect keeps its prices fair by importing directly and offers extremely attractive shipping and storage options. While SommSelect doesn’t promise to make you an instant wine expert, it is as close as we have come to having a personal sommelier. We can thoroughly recommend dipping into some of their offerings for a taste of what the pros are drinking. You just might find some new Friday night favorites.


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