Recently I was in Washington D.C. to present at the annual Society of Wine Educator’s Conference. The night before I joined two friends for dinner at The Grill Room in the Rosewood Hotel. The Grill Room is a small, intimate dining room that seats about 60 featuring a seasonal menu created by Executive Chef Frank Ruta. The cooking was simply superb and no mystery there as Ruta’s resume spans over three decades in D.C., including stints as the executive sous chef at The White House during the Carter, Reagan, and Bush administrations. He’s also received top awards from the James Beard Foundation and Food & Wine Magazine. But the wine program is also outstanding. The list at The Grill Room is overseen by good friend and fellow MS, Keith Goldston.

As long as I’ve been in the business there is still really nothing like being taken care of by someone the caliber of Keith. His service was, for lack of a better word, flawless. As he described wine recommendations to us and moved around the table opening and serving bottles, he effortlessly nailed the MS service standards from A to Z. It’s as if he’s been a sommelier all his life. In sense that’s true.

Keith has been on the floor for practically all his working career. Born and raised in Napa Valley, his first job at age fifteen was working in a small now long defunct Italian joint called Momma Nina’s. Then Keith somehow quickly parlayed that experience into getting on the staff at the dining room at Domaine Chandon. There under the tutelage of Daniel Shanks, Keith got his first serious training in fine dining. Daniel Shanks may not be a household name, but it should be. Shanks has been on staff at the White House since the early ‘90’s and has served as assistant usher to four presidents and their respective administrations.

“Daniel was the one who really got it into my head that it’s really more than just food and wine,” said Keith. “That dining is an experience, that it’s something special. You should respect the guest and respect service in general. If you’re not there to do it right, don’t do it at all.”

From Domaine Chandon Golston went to work at Masa’s in San Francisco in the early ‘90’s. In the span of four years he worked his way up from busser to captain—but not sommelier. During those four years there were two sommeliers on staff—the late Mike Bonacorsi, MS, and Burke Owens.

From Masa’s Keith went to Las Vegas to work at Spago and then Picasso in the Bellagio Resort. In 2000 he took time off to study for the MS exam. His efforts paid off; he passed all three parts of the exam on his first attempt in early 2001 becoming one of only 17 individuals in the history of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas (CMS,A) to win the coveted Krug Cup.

After passing the exam Keith went back to Las Vegas opening Aureole and Charlie Palmer Steak before moving to D.C. for the first time where he opened Charlie Palmer Steak D.C. In the last 10 years Keith consulted on various projects in the Bay Area and Los Angeles before returning to D.C. to open Chef Bryan Voltaggio’s restaurant, Range. Most recently he’s spent the last 18 months at The Grill Room revamping the program. 

End Game

My experience at The Grill Room and Keith’s superlative service made me think about recent movies and TV series concerning sommeliers and how they have influenced the profession, specifically the Court. I probably don’t need to document said movies or the TV series other than to say they have often portrayed individuals on the MS exam track.

The upside to all the publicity is obvious; increased public awareness of the MS program and exams, not to mention the sommelier profession in general to the extent that in a short period of time anyone who watches TV now knows what a sommelier is and what they supposedly do. Granted that’s a huge upside and with it has come an increase in the numbers in MS classes and exams. How much of an increase? I asked Kathleen Lewis, the executive admin for the Court here in the U.S. and the one person who knows more about the organization than anyone, and she provided some figures. In the last five years the number of Introductory Courses offered in the U.S. has grown from 62 in 2011 to 98 scheduled for 2016 with the number students attending the courses during the same period rising by almost 40%.

At the Certified Sommelier Examination the numbers have also risen considerably, from 44 exams in 2011 to 62 scheduled for 2016. No surprise there’s also been an increase in student numbers during those five years. In fact, the number of students taking the Certified Exam has almost doubled during the same period. While the increase in class and student numbers is impressive and shouldn’t be dismissed in any way, I would hasten to add that the number of CMS,A classes and attendees has with little exception risen every year since 2001.

Is there a downside to all the media exposure and increased numbers? Perhaps. If anything, more non-industry people are taking MS classes than ever. While not a problem at the Introductory Course, it becomes a concern at the Certified Sommelier Examination with more non-restaurant industry people now taking the exam with little–if any—restaurant service experience. During the past 24 months I’ve examined attorneys, dentists, veterinarians, and finance industry professionals at my service table in Certified Exams. The common denominator? None of them possessed the necessary service skills and experience to be able to pass that portion of the exam. 

​While it’s certainly possible to study wine theory and practice tasting with the Certified Exam grid becoming proficient at both, proper wine service using the MS standards requires previous experience—especially under the duress of an exam. The basic skills of carrying a tray and opening a bottle of sparkling wine may seem simple and straight forward, but they must be practiced hundreds, if not thousands, of times until they become automatic–and that only comes with a duration of time spent working the floor of an actual restaurant. Keith Goldston, exhibit “A.”

If you think that I’m trying to ward off non-industry people interested in the MS program, think again. I’m simply reminding those interested in taking the exams that the MS title–and the entire program for that matter—is based on service in the restaurant industry and any success is directly tied to experience in said industry. It’s what separates the Court from the WSET program, the Master of Wine title, and practically every other wine certification organization.

It’s also important to remember that the Court is non-profit sommelier organization based in the restaurant-service-hospitality industry. Our mission and vision as an organization is to raise the status of the sommelier profession by training and examining sommeliers at the very highest level.

I think we do it better than anyone.

During a follow up conversation to our dinner I asked Keith why he remained on the floor and hadn’t gone to other segments of the industry as so many Master Sommeliers have done. He joked that he was “allergic” to nine-to-five by this point in his life. He also said:

“There’s an honesty and authenticity to being on the floor. In our society there’s very few times where we get to impact people’s lives on a passionate level. I’m in a great situation in that I’m in a tiny little jewel of a dining room and have a real comfort zone which is my list. All of that definitely sets the table for success.”

And further:

“I don’t know if it’s Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point,” but for me the last 12-15 years of working service has brought a comfort level in that it doesn’t matter what the floor throws at me, I can handle it. Also the confidence that your list is your expression but not your ego; it’s all about having the perfect wine for what the guest wants. For me, that’s what is really fun; finding the right bottle that makes the night perfect for the guest. Sometimes that’s recommending a wine that you would never sit down and drink yourself. It’s a matter of making them feel great by finding the best bottle for that time.”

In the end I commend anyone setting out on the journey to become a top professional sommelier. It is anything but an easy one. The long hours and ultimately years needed to gain enough experience can initially seem daunting. But the rewards in the form of unforgettable experiences, life-long friendships, and the camaraderie of sharing great wine and food at the table are a combination rarely found in any other profession. Ultimately though, it’s all about service–the heart and soul of who we are and what we do.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.