The wine business is a funny game. As a career, it has its rewards. Dining in fine restaurants, travel, meeting interesting people from all walks of life. And daily challenges, like deadlines, pressure to get to the top and to stay there. Some of the young up-and-comers have decided they want to take the express elevator to the summit.
How‘s that? It’s called the Master Game. Cram, study, taste. Taste, study, cram. Network. And pray. And pass. There you go, you’re a master.
Everybody wants to go to heaven; everybody wants to be recognized for something. So, in the wine business, the fast-track, rise to the top is seen as a way to get fame, a better paycheck and a degree of autonomy, a degree of separation from the masses. The masters that have risen to the top, be they master sommeliers or masters of wine (and yes, there are those enlightened ones who have achieved both) have worked hard, very hard, to get there. So, this is in no way aimed to mock or belittle their achievement.
Two recent observations in my local region have punctuated just how important those on the outside think these achievements are. A local sommelier conference lists some of their recent presentations. They then list some of the folks who were presenters. All of the presenters were master sommeliers or masters of wine, with one exception.
Another local wine gala hawks its upcoming awards ceremony, the best steak chef, the best martini maker, the best wine guru. Oops, another master, in fact a double-master. That'll fill the seats. And the pattern goes on and on.
It’s like these events are using these masters to hype their events, that without a master why would anyone care to attend? I mean, if Neal Rosenthal or Kermit Lynch showed up, wouldn’t someone care to hear about their experiences on the wine trail? Surely they would. But they are kind of famous. Yes, fame is important. Look at the superstar chef game that’s playing itself out to a fizzle or a black hole. OK, so how about if we dig deeper, let’s say in the hills of Piemonte, and bring out of the caves Luciano Degiacomi? Or how about traipsing to the island of Salina, near Sicily, and pulling someone like a Carlo Hauner out of his infinite ecstasy to wax on about the birds and the bees and the honeyed wines of his island?
Who are these people?
Well, these people are the stuff of legends. With these people, I would choose to sit at a simple table in an unadorned room, eating fresh and uncomplicated foods and drinking wholesome and delicious wines, listening to them talk about the history, the future, the life of the vine.
And probably many of the modern-day young masters would appreciate that too.
But what is the message that’s being sent by these event planners and seminar promoters? To me it sounds a lot like, “Come to our show, see our masters. They walk on water, they swallow fire, and they will set your free. They are famous, and if you hang around with them long enough, you will feel good about yourself, because you are in their circle, and this will make you feel more important. And if you can climb their mountain, get to the top, you too can have all this: fame, fortune, autonomy, a slim waistline and never-graying hair.” Or maybe, just hair, period.
I have dear friends who are masters, but their lives are not perfect, folks. Be not tempted by the message that if you only do this, only get these letters after your name, your life will be better, everything is going to be OK.
That’s an illusion; it will make your head spin, until all you are is dizzy and disenchanted.
Did you hear the story about the master of wine who took the stairs down into his cellar for a bottle of wine? He tripped, fell and broke his neck.
He was found, days later, alone and passed, in his cellar, with his bottles and his broken neck. Alone.
Young aspirants, listen to the ancient ones. Work your craft, study your vintage charts, find your bliss. But don’t look outside of yourself, for the ultimate affirmation of your being. A couple of letters after your name won’t guarantee you friends or family or happiness. Or freedom from suffering.