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Sommelier Secrets: Stories from a Master

Back when I scored my first sommelier job, it was hardly the “cool” gig it seems to be these days. I was book-smart about wine, could speak foreign languages and, most importantly, didn’t blink at working 14-hour days – in high heels at that. I am grateful that Karen King, a wonderful mentor at New York’s Union Square Café, took a chance on me to help as one of her assistants, because it opened up a whole world of career possibility that I hadn’t even considered. Until then, restaurants and wine for me were a hobby (at worst) that paid the bills (at best) while I tried to figure out how to earn a “real” living as a poet, actress or teacher.

A lot has changed since my early sommelier days. Most excitingly, the U.S. is finally catching up to Europe, where wine expertise has always had mercantile value. Increasingly, America’s fine-dining scene has expanded to include “real” sommeliers which raises the question, how do you become one? I have been lucky to get to know a lot of wonderful “Master Sommeliers” in the course of my career, in addition to “Masters of Wine.” Two credentials, the Master Sommelier (MS) and the Master of Wine (MW), remain the most coveted and the most distinguishing; they require intensive study and sincere dedication. For anyone interested in getting into the wine business, the U.S. arm of the Court of Master Sommeliers remains a universally respected route.

I caught up with one of my favorite Masters of Wine, Shayn Bjornholm, to learn a bit about his own journey into the world of wine. A longtime Seattle sommelier, Shayn now runs the educational curriculum for the Court of Master Sommeliers here in the States. In addition to his thorough knowledge of wine, Shayn teaches his students with an enthusiasm for wine that just might have you considering a career change.

What did you want to be when you grew up, and how did you get into the wine biz?

My very logical path of getting an architecture degree from the University of Virginia, followed by middling efforts at being an actor in New York City, followed by even more middling efforts at being a landscape architect in Seattle, followed (finally) by my wine director position at Canlis Restaurant in Seattle points to a crystal-clear vision all along. In short, I didn’t have a whiff of a clue. However, like the porridge that finally tasted just right for Goldilocks, the wine biz stuck.

What’s the most essential skill for a sommelier?

Empa-humili-invisi-passion. Ancient Latin for “the ability to sit in your guest’s emotional shoes while speaking to them without any pretense about the absolute thrill that is food and beverage pairing … and if they remember you for doing any of it and not their own pleasure, you failed.”

What do you wish you’d known when you first started your wine career? 

I wish I had been more global in my vision – of wine, fellow sommeliers, winemakers, vineyards, chefs and foods. The earth was flat enough back then to have learned so much more; I am so jazzed by the amazing talent this industry blasts forth every day. I would have liked to be part of the blast more and sooner. I’m happy to be catching up now, though.

Everyone thinks being a sommelier means sitting around sipping pricey wine and getting paid to do it. What are the real downsides to the profession?

If your body can take hefting 30 pound cases in tight quarters then walking 10 miles a day (or night, as it were), and your family can take eating Christmas Eve dinner every year without you, and your guests can forgive the odd times you spill Petite Sirah on their beige silk Louis Vuitton suit, and you can accept that some Chefs simply don’t really give a high holy what wine program you spent five years building when inspiration strikes them to do an all-artichoke-with-pickled-Spanish-mackerel degustation menu, and you don’t stay awake nights worrying about every missed umlaut and accent in your primarily French-German wine list, there are no downsides.

Tell us about your current gig. 

I am the examination director at the Court of Master Sommeliers-Americas, which makes me the most hated Master Sommelier in the United States by 95 percent of those with designs to earn the MS pin (because only 5 percent who sit for it pass, eventually, after years of sacrifice and stress). Kidding, I think. My job entails the writing of all examination levels for the CMS-A and working with our board of directors on determining learning outcomes, educational efforts and world-class standards of beverage service. I have the distinct joy of working alongside many of my idols and fellow Master Sommeliers to raise the bar as best as we can … and witnessing the incredible talent our nation’s sommelier industry has to offer. I think we have the overall highest level of beverage service standards in the world, from which I learn as much as I teach, whether their practitioners are involved in our programs or not. Most importantly, the Court of Master Sommeliers has a very exciting future ahead of it, one of positive change and growth; I look forward to being part of that.