This Tuesday, a new reality show concept launches on Esquire TV revealing an inside look at the sommelier journey to become a Master Sommelier. The new show, Uncorked, follows the lives of six sommeliers from across the country. Each sharing a little bit of their life and occupation. Each in a committed pursuit of a near impossible title.
Only 230 people across the globe have passed the test in its forty-plus year history, but this accomplishment allows a person entry into one of the world’s most exclusive clubs, where membership can lead to some of the most desirable jobs in the food and wine industry. The six-part docu-series will chronicle six aspiring Master Sommeliers preparing for, and finally attempting to pass, this ultimate test.
To pass, one must have an extensive knowledge of wine theory, the skills to perfectly present and serve wine to the most discerning palates, and from taste alone—the ability to determine the year, grape variety and region of a wine. Each hour-long episode of Uncorked, will feature the Sommeliers swirling, smelling, and “slurping” a multitude of wines. They also enter competitions overseen by other Master Sommeliers.
One of the candidates, Jack Mason, grew up and began his career in Texas. Today, he’s the wine director for Italian-inspired Marta restaurant in New York City. Since opening Marta, he has been named one of Zagat’s and Forbes’ “30 under 30,” and Wine & Spirits, “Best New Sommeliers” of 2015. In anticipation of the show’s first episode, we caught up with Mason, 28, to bring us up to speed on his Texas roots and wine career.
Jessica Dupuy: In what part of Texas did you grow up?
Jack Mason: I grew up in College Station. My dad was a doctor and practiced there. My grandparents lived nearby in Houston, so I spent a lot of time between the two cities.
JD: How did you get into food and wine?
JM: Well, I started out in food. My grandfather was a great cook and so was my mom. I started thinking about culinary school in high school. My first job was in the kitchen at a place called Christopher’s World Grille in Bryan. I started in prep and then moved up to line cook. Later I worked at Café Eccell and was the opening chef at the restaurant for Saturday morning service. I was only 18 at the time. Once I graduated college, I went to New York to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).
JD: So how did wine factor in?
JM: Halfway through my program at the CIA, I took a pretty intense wine class. It was unlike the other classes I was taking which focused on skills and trade knowledge. This was more about studying facts on history, geography and viticulture. I started to see a strong connection between food and wine and it was really exciting to me. Around the same time, I found out about the hospitality school at Cornell University and decided to apply. Unfortunately, I didn’t get in. So I headed back to College Station to take some core classworkk at Blinn College before applying again to Cornell.
Thankfully, I made it in. While I was there, I met a number of great wine mentors including Gregg Harrington. He was making wine in Walla Walla, Washington and he was also a Master Sommelier. He’s the one that suggested I go through the certification process through the Court of Master Sommeliers.
JD: What does that process look like?
JM: The Court has a solid reputation in both Europe and the U.S. for teaching wine professionals about the world of wine, but also emphasizing the importance of hospitality. You have to pass an intro level exam that is basically a test of your general wine knowledge. Following that, you take a Certified Level exam that is in three parts: a written exam on theory and wine knowledge; a service exam in a mock restaurant setting; and a blind tasting exam. The third, Advanced Level is a more rigorous and intense version of the Certified Level. Finally, there’s the Fourth level, which is extremely difficult to achieve. The whole thing takes a few years to get through and you’re often failing multiple parts of it at the Advanced and Masters levels.
I took my Introductory level in 2010 in Seattle and Harrington convinced me to stick around town for another few weeks to take the Certified level and get it over with. It was brutal, but I’m glad I did it.
JD: How old were you when you became a Certified Sommelier?
JM: 21. At the CIA, they teach you the highest level of service expectations and I had already studied about theory.
JD: Once you were finished at Cornell, what direction did you take?
JM: My wife got into pharmacy school in Houston, so we moved back to Texas. While she was in school, I got a job at Pappas Bros Steakhouse, which was an absolute blessing. Drew Hendrick, who had recently become a Master Sommelier and has been a major mentor for a lot of sommeliers in Texas. As a kid right out of college, they could have easily passed me over, but he was really fighting for me to get a job as a sommelier with them. While I was in Houston, I passed my Advanced level certification and began work to pass get my Master Sommelier diploma.
I was at Pappas for almost three years before my wife got a job offer in New York and we decided it was a great opportunity for both of us.
JD: New York is pretty different than anywhere in Texas? Especially in the food service industry. Was it hard to adjust?
JM: Yeah, it was pretty intense. It was 2013 and I struggled to find a job at first. Even though I’d worked for an a reputable restaurant group with an amazing wine program, New York is a whole other animal and they tend to like their own kind. Fortunately, I found a position at Costata steakhouse. After a while, one of their sister restaurants, Ai Fiore, needed someone to run their wine program, so I bounced between the two. In 2014, I was approached to be the wine director for Marta, which was soon to open, and I’ve been there since.
JD: This new series, Uncorked began filming after you had achieved some of the credentials towards your Masters diploma, what was it like having them film your experience?
JM: Honestly, it was rough. We were opening Marta at the same time plus I was studying pretty frantically to pass the exam. I had already passed two of the three parts of the exam in two attempts. If you don’t pass all of them in by the third attempt, you have to start all over from scratch. There was a lot riding on this.
JD: What do you hope viewers gain from watching a series like this?
JM: You know, the series does a good job of capturing the anticipation and hard work behind what we do, but it also reveals the depth of knowledge not only about wine, but hospitality, that we all work to deliver in our careers. Each episode shows a little bit about each of the candidate’s back story, so you get to know as as real people, not just wine-obsessed geeks. I’m most excited about the show because it continues to put out there that this is something people work hard to do and can enjoy a rewarding career.
UNCORKED premieres Tuesday, November 10 at 10/9c only on Esquire Network.