To Forge a Career in Wine, You Need a Mentor

wine bottles tasting
Photo by Tom Arena

Twenty-five minutes. Was a four-hour road trip worth a 25-minute tasting session?

It was the last day of a weeklong visit to my home state, California. By 5 pm the next day, I would be back in the Big Apple.

The idea of a train, two buses and an Uber once I arrived in Napa, all for a short wine tasting at someone’s house, was daunting. But a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers had helped me set up this meeting, so I went.

Andrea Robinson, MS, greeted me with huge, bubbly energy that was contagious. I peered behind her and noted an arch of six wines on her table.

After we rushed through introductions, Andrea asked what brought me here.

I paused. I felt I would be complaining if I said that many of my emails and phone calls to Master Sommeliers in New York City went unanswered. Access to a Master Sommelier, though, was imperative to ensure that I could assess wines at the level the Court required for Advanced and Master certifications.

How Anyone Can Become a Sommelier

I had participated in myriad tasting groups. Often times, though, there was great conflict: Is the acid medium plus or high? Is the body medium-plus or full? Is the fruit baked or jammy? Is the brighter fruit possibly an indication of vintage or climate?

The sum total of these subtle distinctions not only builds the profile of a wine, but helps me, as a sommelier working the floor, make a recommendation for a guest.

I put my thoughts aside and said, “I would really like to work on palate descriptors and my structure calls.”

“Great,” she said. “And it is great to see a woman of color, as well.”

We then recreated the conditions of the verbal portion of the exam. She recited the instructions, I hit record on my phone and I was off. Wine No. 1: We have a clear white wine of moderate concentration…

When she revealed what I had tasted, Andrea was deliberate and sensitive in her criticism. If I made an incorrect assertion, she pulled out a bottle of the variety I had called, and we compared the two. When my descriptors were vague, she rummaged around to find food equivalents, so I could flesh out my vocabulary. She offered such a safe space to explore, I savored every minute.

In that moment, I had gratitude. I realized every mentorship opportunity is worth seeking out.

As I was leaving, Andrea gave me a big hug and said, nonchalantly, “If you ever come out to Napa to do a harvest and need a place to stay, we have a guest house available. No charge.”

I looked at her skeptically, and she politely interrupted, “No, really, I mean it.”

Published on September 13, 2020
Topics: Last Drop