It's no shocker that L.A. has long been short on its share of Master Sommeliers, but lately, we've got a solid crew of several who are one pivotal — and impressive — step closer.
The Court of Master Sommeliers announced the eleven sommeliers who successfully passed the 5-day Advanced Sommelier exam last week in Cincinnati (essentially the masters degree before the wine service industry equivalent of a Ph.D.). Drago's Director of Wine and Spirits (both Drago Centro and the original Santa Monica restaurant) Michael Shearin was the sole L.A. candidate who passed (typically 40+ hopefuls sit for each exam). We spoke with the 36-year-old shortly after he heard of his passing grade.
Squid Ink: So was the exam just a real bitch?
Michael Shearin: Yeah, it's pretty brutal. My theory exam was pretty tight, and over the last two days, the service exam. But in the blind tasting, for 25 minutes it's just you and three Master Sommeliers staring at you and writing down notes as you taste. You have no idea what they are thinking — no idea. The spirits section of eight spirits, four brown, four white, that was much easier.
SI: Why did you decide to do it now?
MS: I procrastinated taking it for three years. I've been in L.A. for two years now, I had a little bit of a tumultuous time right before I moved here, working at Trump [in Las Vegas] before I moved out here. I signed up three times [for the exam] and canceled. Studying wise, my [day] job is basically preparing for it, so I just decided I had to do it.
SI: Was studying for the MS exam difficult in L.A.?
MS: When I was in Vegas, there were thirteen or fourteen Masters. Out here there are two…. It takes a while to find wine people here, but they're here. I did my blind tastings with some prominent wine guys in L.A. — Jared Heber [Wine Director at Gordon Ramsay at the London], Chris Levine from XIV, Chris Miller from Spago. There's a good core here, and some very talented people working on their Master exam. We get together and study, but mostly just get together. And blind taste the wines — that's the key.
SI: That must be an expensive proposition, tasting through all those wines?
MS: Yeah, very. It helps to have a group of six or so people. Everyone brings one red, one white. You just get together and blind taste.
SI: So why wine?
SI: You were the head sommelier at Guy Savoy for two years after that. Sounds like L.A. was lucky you left Vegas and happened to earn your Advanced certificate here.
MS: I always wanted to live here. But from my view from the outside, I didn't know if L.A. was the right career move for wine. I started thinking about it four or five years ago. L.A. has an amazingly diverse food culture, but it wasn't until three years ago I saw a big turn in national attention [to that food culture]. It seemed like chefs were opening cool stuff, it was an exciting time to be here.
MS: Yeah, that's a re-imagined Pimm's cup. I love to drink everything, I love great cocktails, tequila…beer. We had a pretty good list of everything at Trump — beer, sake, sodas. That was really exciting there, where I got more into those.
SI: Any plans for the Master Sommelier exam?
MS: The next level is ridiculously challenging. I'll try and pass through, but obviously right now I'm riding a high of passing the Advanced. You need to put in a lot of work.