Like Comic-Con but for wine professionals and enthusiasts. That’s how some describe SommCon®. Last week, everyone from wine lovers to educators to Master Sommeliers fileed into the Westin Georgetown for the inaugural Washington DC version of this four-day educational conference, an expansion of SommCon original recipe in San Diego necessitated by the event’s popularity.
You can draw a direct link from the popularity of SommCon to that of sommelier careers overall, which is, in large part, a product of SOMM’s influence. The well-regarded 2012 documentary followed four would-be Master Sommeliers leading up to the certification exam and launched a sequel as well as a third film currently in production, with a potential release date in late 2018. “Enrollment in sommelier courses hit record numbers after the film, with wait lists all over the country,” said Ian Cauble, one of the original four and a “key figure” in all three films, as Forbes called him—not to mention the winner of the Best Young Sommelier in the World Under 35 Years Old and TOP|SOMM in the US in 2011, as well as the keynote speaker for SommCon in 2016.
Since 2011, registration for the Court of Master Sommeliers’ introductory course has jumped 71 percent, and registration for the certified exam is up 95 percent—this despite how notoriously difficult it is to earn the court’s highest achievement. There are still under 250 Master Sommeliers in the world, and candidates can expect up to a decade or more of intense training in advance of the grueling three-part test that, on average, takes three tries to pass; Cauble’s battle was captured in the original film, providing one of its most fascinating plot points.
He famously passed, and went on to become the U.S. brand ambassador for Krug Champagne before launching SommSelect, an ecommerce wine business focusing on twice-daily wine offers that he hand selects. On the eve of SommCon 2018, Coldwell Banker Global Luxury® had the opportunity to sit down with the entrepreneur and leading wine authority about what it really takes to become a Master Sommelier, the impact of the film, and how SommSelect is helping to mold new wine lovers.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury How did SOMM impact you personally and why did your particular story resonate with people?
Ian Cauble Ultimately, they see the struggle I went through to pass the exam, and anyone striving to reach higher levels in any industry can identify with that. SOMM made for a very compelling, entertaining movie, and it definitely was one of the driving forces behind our company’s launch. I meet people all the time that have pivoted into a wine career after seeing the SOMM documentary.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Why do you think there are so few Master Sommeliers?
Ian Cauble It’s an incredibly difficult examination only offered a few times a year around the world. During a recent test, only one out of 60 participants passed. Most people who finally pass are on their third or fourth attempt (and you can only take it once per year). I personally know people who have spent over a decade trying to pass. You put 100% of your life into training and tasting, but passing is far from guaranteed—the pass rate is usually 5-7%.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury What made you want to be a Master Sommelier?
Ian Cauble It started with a passion for food. I grew up loving the flavors of different foods my dad or mom would cook. We lived next to a Lebanese family, and I remember the pine nuts, the slow-roasted lamb with rice and wrapped in grape leaves—all these exotic flavors. Once I started working in college, I would go to the store and get the ingredients I saw Emeril or Bobby Flay cooking on TV, buy wine, read the label, and really smell it. I started to develop the ability to talk about what was in the glass. Then, I got into the wine program at Sonoma State University and, after graduation, spent a couple years travelling around Europe, North Africa, and India in order to further my understanding of food, wine, and culture. Upon returning, I took a job with The Wine Merchant of Beverly Hills and quickly learned about The Court of Master Sommeliers and took the Introductory Exam; the rest is history.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Can anybody be trained to be a Master Sommelier?
Ian Cauble Yes, if you have the drive and patience with the right mentorship. Everybody can develop their ability to describe a wine by smell and nose with repetitive training. The more you taste and smell, the more opportunity you have to identify the different fruit. Over time, you start to utilize taste memory. But, bear in mind, tasting is only one unique portion of the exam!
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Beyond a (presumed) love of wine, what are the must-haves to pursue—and complete—Master Sommelier training?
Ian Cauble You need to be tasting and studying the wines of the word constantly. It takes time. The study involves the theory of wine regions, soil types, winemaking, grape varieties, and modern vs. traditional-style wines. Every region can make completely different styles of wine depending on when they pick the fruit, how they farm, when they harvest, and what type of yeast, oak, or winemaking techniques they use; there are so many variables. The trick is to start at the bottom and work your way up. Get a job at a good wine store or wine-focused restaurant, and: Pay attention, listen as much as you can, taste as much as you can, and work with people who know more than you at every stage. I passed the Master Sommelier exam because I had a lot of people around me who wanted to share their knowledge. For example, my passion for wine started in 2002 and I passed the final exam in 2012 with about five years of concentrated studies.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury What is SommSelect in a nutshell?
Ian Cauble SommSelect is a daily-offer e-commerce wine company that focuses on artisanal wines from around the world. Every email includes a comprehensive write-up about the wine’s history, geography, tasting notes, and serving instructions; everything you would ever need to know. We send out two emails per day, one that’s value-driven in the morning, and another in the afternoon that typically offers rarer, harder-to-find wines. Regardless of price, all of our wines always exceed their price to quality—that’s our motto. It is also free to sign up.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury It might be easy to assume given your level of wine education that the average price of your wine would be on the high side.
Ian Cauble Quality exists at all price points. On average, our price point is $35 a bottle, but we have sold everything from $15 to $750. I taste hundreds of wines a week and select only a small percentage of these. I just spent three months in Europe, traveling to both mom-and-pop domains and world-class estates, searching for new gems for our customers. My job, whether tasting at my desk or across the world, is an endless search to find the greatest wines. Customers know they won’t have to kiss any frogs when they buy wines from SommSelect.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Why is it important for wine sommeliers and wine leaders to attend events like SommCon?
Ian Cauble It’s a great place for leaders and sommeliers to come together in order to taste and learn with like minds. These events are so crucial to expanding wine education and finding connections that can open new doors in your life. Prime example: Two years ago, I was the keynote speaker at SommCon and ended up hiring someone there who still works with me today. Later that same night, I took him to a seven-course tasting menu with a lineup of some of the rarest bottles in the world totaling over $30,000. He tried wines that night that took me over a decade to experience. What I’m trying to say is that you never know when one of these events will change your life!