Best of the Best

03.08.14

The Mr. Miyagi of Wine Sommeliers

Passing the Advanced Sommelier Exam isn’t easy, so many candidates trek to Aspen Mountain to train their palates with the best man in the business.

The man with the best palate in the world lives on Aspen Mountain, in a tucked-away cabin at the top of a walking path that disappears into the slope.  His home doubles as a workshop where Master Sommelier candidates aiming to pass their blind tasting exams make pilgrimages in order to learn how to correctly identify flights of six wines. 

“Let me tell you something,” he said when I arrived for my first appointment a couple of years ago. I had flown in from New York and driven four hours from Denver to learn from him. He’d agreed to taste with me after we met in Aspen, when I’d failed Blind Tasting on my Advanced Exam. “This is a game of logic. This is not a guessing game. The first thing you need to do, before anything else, is get over your fear.” 

He annunciated “fear” with rising inflection, in a way that made it clear that was the point of our tasting—the point of any blind tasting, in an exam or otherwise. Those six wines represent the unknown.

Every year, the Court of Master Sommeliers administers its Masters Exam, a notoriously difficult three-part, four-day examination that measures candidates’ aptitude in blind tasting, general knowledge, and practical wine service. The test has become more widely recognized thanks to a recent documentary, SOMM that chronicles four candidates as they attempt to pass the examination. The Blind Tasting portion, for many, represents the highest hurdle.

Jay Fletcher has become the secret sauce to dozens of success stories in this arena. A legend in the American sommelier community, he taught himself how to blind taste years ago by focused practice and repetitive analysis. He passed his exam in 1996. Since then, Jay has continued to methodically hone his technique and mentor a handful of candidates. 

Fletcher learned of the Court while reading an article in a local paper about a man in Las Vegas who had passed the exam. That week, he signed up for the Introductory Course and, soon after, passed the Advanced Exam on his first try. But when he sat for the three-part Masters-Level Exam, he choked.

“People fly in from across the country to taste with him.”

“I got a panic attack in the Theory portion,” he told me recently. “I missed Tasting by changing one of his calls at the last-minute. In Service, I dropped an entire tray of glasses.” 

His examiner told him the program “probably isn’t for you.”

Fletcher returned home fired-up and determined. “What I learned,” he said, “is that I was scared.” He started to train. He developed systems that he repeated, practicing routinely. “The more you train,” he told me, “the more you notice. The more you practice, the more confidence you gain.Confidence is everything.”

Like with other things in his life, Jay carves his own path and creates his own approach. Before he passed his exam, he worked in restaurants. Before that, he gambled in pool halls. He hustled. “It may sound romantic,” he told me, “but it was a very tough life.” 

That first time I tasted with Jay, I settled into a chair at his kitchen table and stared into the flight. He picked up a timer and I picked up the first glass. Twenty-five minutes later, the timer beeped. I’d fumbled through the flight. I’d managed to hit the time mark but only identified three wines correctly.

He summed up my incompetence with startling efficiency. “Guess what?” he said. “Your acid calls are off. And you can’t identify oak.” 

Jay sent me on my way with an assignment to practice. “Memorize your tasting grid,” he told me. “Think about the acidity in lemons versus oranges. Drink oaked and unoaked versions of the same grape. And pay attention.”

I took his advice, and my palate improved. I created blueprints for each wine. I memorized the grid and tasted as much and as often as I could. My palate began to fall in line.

When I called a few people to see if they might share their own experience learning from the master, the outpouring was so profuse there is simply no way to incorporate them all. People fly in from across the country to taste with him. And despite the scheduling demands of regular life (Jay is a father to two daughters, a husband, and he has a full-time job running the fine wine division for Southern Wine & Spirits in Colorado), he makes time for them.

Richard Betts, sommelier-at-large and author of The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert, says Fletcher is “far more than a Master Sommelier mentor to me.” He observes Jay’s “drive, a passion, a will to survive and ability to thrive that is unlike any person I have ever met” and notes that Fletcher is “very analytical and tactical, and it gives him great strength when assessing situations.” Betts calls him “one of the two people that have had the most profound influence on my life,” noting that he “literally wouldn't be the person I am today without him."

I asked Jay what compels him to share so much of what he’s learned with others.

“I saw my own life get so much better, going through the Court,” he explained. “I’ve seen so many people’s lives improve because of the this organization. Helping people get over this hurdle is my way of giving back.”

Every time I returned to taste with Fletcher, he shared his own stories before we dove into the flight. Last May, before I sat for my Masters exam, I tasted with Jay one last time, and Jay shed light on his pool hall days, drawing an analogy to the exam. “When you’re playing pool for a living, you have to be focused. There is an inner game, and an outer game. The money, your opponent’s friends, a girl in the bar – that’s the outer game. Focusing on the inner game is the only way you can win.”

“You’re ready,” he told me after our last flight together. “Now go out there.  Focus on the inner game. Go in there and fight. Any issue that arises, you’re going to swing at it with your samurai sword, and you’re going to come out standing on a pile of dead bodies." 

He is a vivid storyteller, yes. And I thought of his imagery while I listened to “Eye of the Tiger” before heading into that tasting exam that morning. I kept his words in my head, and I focused on the wine in the glasses. After my timer beeped, and I knew I’d nailed that portion of the exam, I thought of the point in all of Jay’s lessons. He teaches about the presence of possibility through the absence of fear.