Jack Mason is only 27 years old — but he’s already passed one of the hardest exams known to man and has earned one of the most exclusive job titles in the world: Master Sommelier.
In May, Mason was one of just seven sommeliers in the US to pass the incredibly difficult exam, which consists of three sections: a verbal theory examination, a blind tasting of six wines in 25 minutes, and a practical restaurant service component. Candidates must pass all three sections to earn their diploma.
(If you’ve seen the 2012 documentary “Somm,” you know the exam is much harder and more intense than it sounds.)
Forbes reports that the average candidate sits for the exam two to three times — and some take it as many as six times. It takes years to prepare for, and a very small percentage of candidates who attempt it actually pass.
Mason, now a sommelier at Danny Meyer’s New York pizzeria Marta, says he began this journey when he was 21 years old. But really, it started even earlier.
Mason grew up in College Station, Texas. Passionate about food and cooking from a young age, he made his way to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, after graduating from high school to pursue a degree in Culinary Arts.
Next, he worked his way through the Cornell School of Hotel Administration.
“During my time in the Culinary Arts program, there was an intensive wines class that most students dread,” he tells Business Insider. But unlike his peers, Mason found it to be “interesting and exhilarating.”
“I was hooked,” he recalls.
Once the course was over, he asked his professor for permission to continue coming to classes to taste wine and further his education. “After several weeks of additional study I found I had a new desire: to work with wine.”
After graduating from Cornell, Mason says he wanted nothing more than to become a sommelier.
“After a couple of months of discussion with Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Houston, Texas, they offered me a position on their sommelier team under the condition that after 90 days, they would re-evaluate to ensure that I was a good fit,” he explains. “Looking back on the opportunity they gave me and now being in the position of hiring sommeliers, I can definitely understand their hesitation with a young person with no prior experience to join such a prestigious wine program.”
Thankfully, he says, it all worked out.
Upon working his way through the wine list at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse over a two-year period, Mason was ready to take the next step.
“I knew I wanted to work my way to the top,” he says. “Being exposed to the depth of knowledge and skills required to pass the Master Sommelier exam intrigued me and it seemed like a great way to push myself to grow.”
The Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) was established in 1977 “to encourage improved standards of beverage knowledge and service in hotels and restaurants,” says the official website.
The first successful Master Sommelier examination was held in the UK in 1969. By April 1977, the Court of Master Sommeliers was established “as the premier international examining body.”
Since the Court’s inception, only 229 candidates across the globe have earned the Master Sommelier diploma, which is the “ultimate professional credential anyone can attain worldwide” in the wine, spirits, and alcohol industries.
The site says all those who successfully earn the Master Sommelier diploma are required to sign an agreement binding them to the code of ethics and conduct.
Mason explains that all aspiring Master Sommeliers have to sequentially pass the Intro exam, the Certified exam, and the Advanced Sommelier exam before they’re even eligible to take the three-part Master Sommelier exam, for which you must be invited.
“I began this journey when I was 21 years old and it has taken me six years to work my way through all of the exams,” says Mason. “I took the Master Sommelier exam three times and picked up one portion each time.” (A student who passes one or two parts may retake the section(s) he or she failed during the next two years. If all three parts are not passed during a three-year period, the candidate is required to start from scratch.)
“The first time I took the exam it was in Dallas, Texas, and I was able to pick up the service portion,” Mason says. “The second two and third time I took the exam were both in Aspen, Colorado. My second attempt at the exam I picked up the theory portion of the exam and my final try before resetting, I was thankfully able to secure the tasting portion.”
Passing, he says, was (and still is) “pretty surreal.”
“After working for so many years to achieve the shiny gold pin I still don’t quite believe that I can now call myself a Master Sommelier.”
He says earning the title has opened a whole new world of professional opportunities and has “added another dimension of validity” to his career.
“Many doors are being opened on a daily basis,” says Mason, “but the biggest door that I hope it will help open in my career are partners to help me open my own restaurant.”
Currently the wine director at Marta, a Union Square Hospitality Group restaurant in New York’s NoMad neighbourhood, Mason’s primary job responsibilities are to curate and fuel the wine list, educate and empower the wine team and staff, and to work the floor.
But he says Master Sommeliers go on to do all different things: become winemakers, restaurant owners, education directors, importers, etc.
“It’s one of the most exclusive titles that a person can append to their name, as there currently are only 229 people in the world with this title.”
He says the hard work of preparing for and passing the exam also pays off, quite literally.
According to the most recent poll by the Guild of Sommeliers Salary Survey of 2014, the average salary for a Master Sommelier is $US150,000 compared to the $US78,000 for an Advanced Sommelier.
“You’d be surprised to know the amount of sacrifice that it takes to become an MS,” Mason explains. “So much of life gets put on pause to balance your career, family, and studying for this exam. After working insane hours as a restaurant professional you have to take the limited time able to be devoted to your personal life to study and have to forsake time spent with friends and family. The greatest gift that I have received by passing this exam is being able to now devote the time I used to study to focus back on the relationships that I hold most dear and my personal health.”
Mason says passing the exam and earning the Master Sommelier title isn’t the end of his journey — rather, it’s “a whole new beginning of being able to give back and help others achieve their own goals within the hospitality industry.”