Back in the days before grad school, my house flood and the ensuing chaos, I used to fantasize about becoming a Master of Wine.
The Master of Wine (MW) is a professional designation issued by the London-based Institute of Masters of Wine, and it involves years of intense studying and a brutal exam that includes a monster of a blind tasting and a written thesis. Given the rigors, it shouldn’t come as a shock that today there are only 380 Masters of Wine in the world (the entire world!).
The MW is like having a Ph.D. in vino. But don’t take it from me – take it from Martin Reyes, a self-proclaimed wine nerd who happens to be the first Mexican-American Master of Wine.
In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, I’m honored to share a conversation I had last month with Martin as he drove through the verdant valley we call Napa. Read on to find out how he got into wine (hint: it involved a girl), why he decided to pursue the Master of Wine designation (hint: it involves two girls–his wife and daughter), and what he really thinks about wine snobs. (Edited for clarity from a transcript of a telephone conversation).
Señorita Vino: I have to start with the obvious question: when did you first know you loved wine?
Martin Reyes: The first time I fell in love with wine, I was in Paris as an exchange student and I got completely hammered. But it was a different kind of hammered. I thought wine was something special, and since I was in Paris, I thought I should choose wine as my signature drink. It’s the romance of wine. I mean, I chose my major because the girl I liked chose it as hers. [Editor’s note: Martin is a modest muchacho. Before he became an MW, he earned a degree in International Relations from Stanford University.] As an alcoholic beverage, wine carried with it something else. That something else was interesting to me, but also cool for whenever you went out on dates. You wouldn’t come off as an uncouth barbarian who drinks vodka and gin.
Señorita Vino [laughing]: And something about that Paris experience inspired you to to go into the business?
Martin Reyes: There are really two distinct points when you talk about passion for wine. The first is when you realize you like wine. The second is when you decide to go into the business. I started out at Wine Globe in the Bay Area. After that I became a glorified stock boy–albeit a relatively decently paid one–at K&L Wines. One of the reputations K&L has is that everyone knows everything.
Señorita Vino: How did that early experience get you where you are now?
Martin Reyes: Today I spend half my time as Chief Wine Officer for Peter Paul Wines here in Napa Valley. I also have a wine consulting business with clients in each of the channels–importer, winery, distributor–on the East Coast.
Señorita Vino: So talk to me about the Master of Wine. What made you decide to do it?
Martin Reyes: It’s a triangulation of various factors. First is the innate desire to learn. We either are curious, kind of curious, interestingly curious, or we’re comfortable with the knowledge we have. Many people are driven to be the best they can be, the best in their field. For me, it was ‘If I’m gonna be in wine, what is the top academic achievement in the field, how can I learn the most, how can I be influential in the business?’ In 2004 I knew someone who was trying to become the youngest Master Sommelier. I thought, ‘Oh, so you’ll be working in restaurants forever?’ Fuck that!
Señorita Vino: [laughter]
Martin Reyes: Pardon my language.
Señorita Vino: Don’t apologize! I swear like a sailor when I’m not interviewing Masters of Wine.
Martin Reyes: I used to be a bartender part of the time and I wasn’t good at restaurants, that is not interesting to me. But I learned that there’s this thing called a Master of Wine, and that it was more academic [than the Master Sommelier program]. The MW was viewed as more applicable to the business of wine as opposed to restaurants. The second reason I decided to go forward with it is credibility. I don’t look like your average wine expert. I look young, I have brown skin. Credentials are a shortcut to credibility. You don’t want to convince people over and over that you know something. This is what inspired me to get my CSW [Certified Specialist of Wine], the CWE [Certified Wine Educator] and the WSET [Wine & Spirits Education Trust] certifications. I did all of those because I wanted to learn, but I also wanted to break the mold of looking like I didn’t belong as a Hispanic.
Señorita Vino: Makes sense. Those are both great reasons – knowledge and credibility. What about the third?
Martin Reyes: My daughter was born while I was in the program. I passed the exams when she was 9 months old. When you become a parent, you start looking at the world through your child’s eyes. I thought that if the MW was a path to financial security, if it would provide a means to take care of my wife and daughter, then it’s well worth it. In this business, I may get the chance to work in France someday. And wouldn’t it be great to have my daughter learn French, and to be able to afford to take her to a Spanish immersion class now rather than much later?
Señorita Vino: I’m in awe.
Martin Reyes: You can do this, too!
Señorita Vino: You’re an inspiration. On that note, I started this blog to inspire people to get past their fear of wine. I noticed that Latinas in particular seemed intimidated by wine, and that there was a perception that you had to have a one-of-a-kind palate or a lot of knowledge to enjoy wine. What advice would you give people about getting past these perceptions?
Martin Reyes: There’s one very useful tool to defuse your internal intimidation around wine. Link the wine experience to something that you really understand. For example, people tend to understand things they’re passionate about, whether it’s food, music or movies. And generally they’re not intimidated by these things. Say you really liked a particular film, and some dude sitting next to you hated it. Well, screw them! You liked the film, so what does it matter that someone else hated it? If you look at wine through the lens of music or movies, you’re not intimidated when others don’t share your tastes.
Language is a similar tool. To a dog, the sound of us speaking is [nonsense]. But you and I have on average 11,0000 words in our vocabulary. Knowing how complex language is, yet how easy it is for us to speak–we don’t have to think about it–it makes wine seem a lot less complicated.
Señorita Vino: Great analogies–simple yet genius.
Martin Reyes: Defuse the bomb of intimidation! Don’t worry about what people think of your taste. Don’t be afraid to learn about wine. Don’t be afraid to talk about it. All you have to do is drink the hell out of it!
To learn more about Martin, visit http://www.MartinReyesWine.com.