There are only 135 master sommeliers in North America, and only 211 professionals have earned the that title worldwide. In rare occurrence, two master sommeliers — Sean Razee and Jay Fletcher — will be in one room lecturing and taking questions on all things wine on Feb. 15 in Vail.
The event will be a fundraiser for the Vail Symposium and has been titled “Perfect Pairings: An Exclusive Evening with Master Sommeliers.” In addition to a lecture, there will be dinner prepared by Big Delicious Catering with wine paired by Razee and Fletcher, and a showing of the documentary “SOMM.” “SOMM” takes viewers on the humorous, illuminating and often emotional journey of the massively intimidating Master Sommelier Exam and the mysterious world of the Court of Master Sommeliers. The exam covers every nuance of wine, spirits and cigars. To pass, the exam requires the sacrifice of sanity, personal lives and general well-being.
Before the event, though, we caught up with Razee and Fletcher to talk about their progress through the wine professional certification levels, the documentary, and just why perfectly pairing your next get together is all important.
Vail Daily: You’re having your girlfriend’s parents to your home for dinner and don’t want to screw up the wine pairing. In short, how do you choose what to serve in coordination with different dishes?
Jay Fletcher: There are classic wine pairings that always work with classic dishes. With a little research, it’s not hard. Examples like lamb and Bordeaux, shellfish and Chablis, goat cheese and Sancerre come to mind.
Stick to the classics for important dinners and you will be fine. There are many books and websites that will steer you in the right direction.
VD: A $10 bottle and a $200 bottle of wine — can the average person really tell the difference?
Sean Razee: A person that regularly drinks a $10 bottle can absolutely determine that there is a difference in the $10 and $200 bottles of wine (assuming they are tasting them side-by-side); but, they might have a hard time identifying or articulating what the difference is. A person that regularly drinks a $200 bottle wine, can also determine that there is a difference in the $10 and $200 bottles of wine, although it is more likely that they will be able to tell you what the differences are. Now this brings up an interesting topic, though: Price in relation to quality? In an interview I read one time, Kermit Lynch was relaying to the author that a bottle from one of the producers he used to import sold for $20,000. He went on to say, “Are they worth it? Not always, but every once in a while I wish I were a Russian billionaire.”
VD: Red meat and red wine has been the rule of thumb. Is it that simple?
JF: It depends on the type of red meat and the sauce. Filet is softer and more delicate than a NY Strip. Game meats are more pungent. The selection of red wines must be appropriate for the meat. The sauce on the meat must be appropriate for the structure of the wine. Pepper accentuates tannin. Tannin cuts protein. Acid cuts fat, etc.
VD: Jay, you are a part of the Court of Master Sommeliers in America and a number of organizations that are quite hard to pronounce. What do you have to say about the almost exclusive formality that surrounds wine?
JF: I don’t think it is exclusive. The wine community is vast, from entry level consumers to experts. We are all family. I feel fortunate to be a part of the Court of Master Sommeliers. I think the organization has done great things during the past 20 years to improve the service and quality of wine programs across America. Wine people in general are usually a fun bunch.
VD: OK, Sean, why do you preach removing the formality pretense around wine?
SR: I come from a very humble wine background. On the one hand, I wish I could say that my family has a cellar full of old vintages of the greatest wines of the world ... but they don’t. I don’t. I came into wine when I was just about 30 years old. I still remember what it was like to not know anything about wine; that gives me an opportunity to relate to people that are just beginning their wine journey. My goal as a sommelier is to show humility, anchored with great knowledge.
VD: How rigorous was the testing process to become a Master Sommelier?
SR: If you ask someone that has taken the test 8-9 times and still not passed, then they would say it is damn near impossible. I had great mentors, and I was in a position to be able to focus my heart and soul into that exam, and I was able to pass on my second attempt. Passing this exam requires a commitment by you and your family, and to some extent your friends, your work colleagues and everyone around you.
VD: What does it mean to be a Master Sommelier?
SR: Now I cannot tell you how other Master Sommeliers will answer this question, but I can tell you my point of view. For me, a Master Sommelier exemplifies the highest standards and knowledge of wine and beverage service and utilizes that knowledge and those skills to benefit the guest and mentor students of the trade.
VD: Have you seen the “SOMM” documentary? Thoughts?
SR: This documentary highlights a lot of great moments in the candidates’ journeys. The film also touches on the people around the candidates and how impactful that aspect of the exam can be. I thought it was really well done. At the end of the movie, everyone in the audience is dying to find out exam results, as if they or their loved ones were sitting for the exam themselves.
VD: Is it possible to have a favorite wine?
JF: Sure, but variety is the spice of life. I like to drink what fits the food or the moment. Being a wine professional, my favorite wines are super expensive; they are wines that you don’t get to taste often.
VD: What can the Symposium event attendees expect from you two and the “SOMM” documentary?
JF: They can expect a few laughs, some insight on the training techniques of dedicated sommeliers and some great food and wine.
SR: This documentary is fun and exciting. Jay and I like to have fun, laugh and have a good time. The attendees should expect no less!