At 8:30 a.m. on April 29, Scott Tyree, wearing a dark navy suit with a lucky stone from a friend tucked into a pocket, entered a suite at the Four Seasons in St. Louis, the city’s acclaimed arch visible in a window behind him. Waiting for Tyree was a panel of four proctors, all master sommeliers, and six glasses of classic wines – three white, three red. He was there to take, for the 10th time in 16 years, the famously rigorous master sommelier exam.

The Master Sommelier Diploma Exam, administered by the Napa-based Court of Master Sommeliers, is the highest distinction a wine sommelier can earn. The exam has three parts, and a pass rate of just eight to 10 percent. Tyree, a 58-year-old wine consultant from Freeport, had already passed the first two parts – more than once, in fact – but had always stumbled on the blind tasting portion of the exam. Feeling frustrated and pressured, he had decided that, pass or fail, this would be his last attempt.

That decision to let go made him calmer and more confident than he had been in the previous nine exams. Still, he followed a strict schedule the morning of April 29 that he hoped would help keep him focused, and not fearful: Up at 5:30 a.m. Coffee and breakfast at 5:45 a.m., a 20-minute run, followed by a half-hour review of study materials. He visualized walking to the exam room and what the room and wines would look like.

The room was completely quiet. The proctors went over the rules, then told Tyree to start when he was ready. He had just 25 minutes to do a blind tasting of the wines, describing out loud their appearance, nose and taste. Then, using skills of deductive reasoning, he had to draw conclusions about each glass. Appearance alone provided hints about the grape variety – where it was grown, how it was treated, what the climate was like. A pale, straw-colored white wine likely came from a cool climate. An opaque red wine with a deep ruby color might mean it was made from a thick-skinned grape from a warm climate.

Next came the nose, which revealed information about the condition of the fruit. Last, Tyree tasted the wine, absorbing hints about tannin levels, acidity and alcohol levels. He took in all of this sensory information and gave the panel his conclusions: the grape varieties he believed were used to make each wine, the region or sub-regions they came from, the vintages, the quality, and whether they came from the Old World or the New.

Then Tyree thanked the proctors, shook their hands, and waited a day for his results. When he met with them the next day, he didn’t want feedback. “Just give it to me – yes or no,” Tyree requested.

“OK, you passed,” a proctor said.

All a shocked Tyree remembers about that moment now is that the proctors seemed genuinely happy for him, and there were “lots of tears all around.”

The minute he left the room, he called his husband. He somehow choked out the words: “I passed.”

With those two words, Tyree became the first Maine resident ever to earn the title of master sommelier. He is the 165th professional to receive the diploma in the United States since the American chapter gave its first exam in 1987. Worldwide, he is 256th.

It’s mind-bending

A candidate for master sommelier has to pass through three stages just to earn the opportunity to take the exam: The Introductory Sommelier Course takes two days and includes a written exam. The Certified Sommelier Examination, is a one-day exam with three parts – tasting, theory and practical service. The certified sommelier exam prepares candidates for the final two, most difficult hurdles – the advanced and the master sommelier exams, according to Kathleen Lewis, executive director of the Court of Master Sommeliers in Napa.

Interest in becoming a sommelier has been growing nationally, she said. In 2009, the Court conducted 28 introductory sommelier courses and 36 certified sommelier exams. This year, the organization expects to conduct 80 introductory courses and 60 certified sommelier exams.

Stella Hernandez, co-owner of the Portland restaurant Lolita, became a certified sommelier in 2015, thanks in part to Tyree’s encouragement and “nudging.” They met at her previous restaurant, Bar Lola, where Tyree was a customer. Later, he worked at Lolita for about six months. She says what Tyree has accomplished is “huge.”

“He’s the 256th master in the world, so it’s not something that’s common to achieve,” Hernandez said. “Just the depth of knowledge that’s required is mind-bending,”

A different path in life

Tyree didn’t set out to be a master sommelier. He had a degree in radio, TV and film production from Northwestern University, but film work didn’t pay much. To pay the bills he got a job as a bartender at Spiaggia, a well-known Italian restaurant in Chicago.

The sommelier at Spiaggia, Henry Bishop, was known for mentoring employees – like Tyree – who showed an interest in wine. “He had a way of educating and communicating with people in a very down-to-earth, funny way,” Tyree said. “He was really one of the people who was instrumental in piquing my interest in wine, and then it just sort of took off.”

But it was Tyree’s time at Shaw’s Crab House, also in Chicago, that made him believe he might be able to fashion a career out of his growing love of wine. After Tyree described a wine at a staff wine tasting one day, the general manager told him, “You have a really good palate.”

“This is an example of how one person’s positive comment can set you on a completely different path in life,” Tyree said.

Tyree started reading about wine. He convinced the general manager at Shaw’s that the restaurant needed a sommelier on the floor, interacting with customers. At the time, the word sommelier still had a bit of a “snooty” connotation, Tyree said, but he tried to be approachable and friendly. “One person on the floor changed everything,” he said. “More wine went out, sales went up.”

During a brief apprenticeship, or stage, at Charlie Trotter’s, he met his next mentor, Joseph Spellman, who introduced him to the Court of Master Sommeliers and encouraged him to take the organization’s courses and exams.

In 1998, the year Tyree passed the certified sommelier exam, he became wine director at Tru, one of Chicago’s most famous restaurants and holder of two Michelin stars. (It closed in 2017).

“It was so much fun to serve great wine to people, especially back then,” Tyree said. “There wasn’t the variety (of wines) we have now. General consumers didn’t have the knowledge that they have now. It was just really fun to turn people on to wine.”

When Tyree started at Tru, the restaurant had a “very small” wine cellar. By the time he left, he had passed the advanced sommelier exam, and the restaurant had a $1.4 million wine cellar.

Test-taker

Tyree first attempted the master sommelier exam in 2003.  The theory level – which tests knowledge of viniculture, grape varieties, wine regions, and vintages – is an oral exam in front of a panel of master sommeliers.

Next comes the practical exam, which is held in a large room set up with different scenarios – a Champagne service table, a decanting table. The proctors might pretend a table is at a French bistro, and hand over a wine list and menu. Master sommeliers, posing as guests, quiz the candidates on their knowledge of wine and how to serve it.

To prepare himself for the pressure of the test, Tyree imagined he was working a crazy busy Saturday night at a restaurant, with everything  going wrong. It helped him ignore the fact he was being judged. “That always worked for me because I never failed the service exam,” he said.

Not so the blind tasting portion of the exam. Why did he fail so many times?

“I just never really trusted myself,” Tyree said. “When I would practice, I would do quite well, but once I was in the room, the pressure was just too great for me.”

Candidates don’t have to nail down the details of every glass perfectly, but they have to be very close.

Tyree was “devastated” when he failed the tasting portion of the exam once again in 2007. Disappointed and tired of the pressure of studying, he would not make another attempt for five years. Tyree left Tru that year and got married. Over the next few years, he worked for a wine auction house and as wine director at another Chicago restaurant.

In 2010, he moved to Maine with his husband, who’d been hired by Idexx. Though Tyree built up a career as a wine consultant here, the dream he thought he’d left behind began haunting him. He decided to tackle the exam one last time. To prepare, he joined a tasting group in Boston – he couldn’t get all the wines he needed to study in Maine – and his husband set up practice blind tastings for him at their home.

“One way or another,” Tyree told himself by the time he was ready to try again, “I’m done.”

Pass it on

Sixteen people took the exam on April 29. Tyree was the only one who passed.

He received his diploma and a red-and-gold master sommelier pin at a luncheon ceremony the following day.

Hernandez was not surprised by Tyree’s success. She described him as patient, knowledgeable, and generous with his expertise. “That’s one of the pieces that people forget – you can’t be a master without being willing to share.”

Hernandez says Tyree was the first person she showed her wine list to when she and her husband Guy opened Lolita. “It felt like I was handing over my novel,” she said. With a full-time job and a 12-year-old son to consider, Hernandez is not yet ready to take the next step toward becoming a master herself, but she continues to study, trying to keep her skills sharp. She says Tyree taught her that. “One thing Scott embodies is you never stop studying,” Hernandez said.

Were Tyree still working as a sommelier or wine director, his achievement would have meant a huge career boost. But Tyree is now more interested in education. Potential Maine sommelier candidates have approached him about forming a tasting group here. He is teaching an introductory class in Buffalo, New York, this summer. He’s thinking about writing a history of the sommelier profession, and about opening a wine bar.

Finally passing the master sommelier exam was “a huge relief,” Tyree said, but he doesn’t consider all those years of trying a hardship. He loved preparing for it, he says. He loved the challenge.

Nonetheless, “I feel a huge sense of ‘I can breathe now.'”

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