When a young Fred Dame flew to London to take the Master Sommelier exam in 1984, the prodigious taster from California had no idea what to expect.
"I didn't have any intrinsic fear going in. I didn't know any of the examiners. I didn't know anything about it," Dame says.
Mustering all the knowledge he'd either learned from winemakers or taught himself, Dame became the first American to pass all three parts of the exam in a single year.
He did so well, in fact, that he won the Krug Cup, the award reserved for someone who not only passes all three parts of the exam on the first try in a single year, but who also grabs the highest score. Dame went on to found the American Branch of the Court of Master Sommeliers in 1986.
Dame's experience is rare. Since the exam's inception in 1969, only 211 candidates worldwide have earned the title of Master Sommelier (MS). Only 16 have passed on the first try. Master Sommelier is the highest designation one can earn in the world of wine service, the fourth and final level of the Court of Master Sommeliers. There are currently 134 Master Sommeliers in North America. Of those, only one active MS, Michael McNeill, hails from Atlanta. At least for now.
Five of Atlanta's Advanced Sommeliers sat for the Master Sommelier Diploma Exam in 2013: Eric Crane, Matt Bradford, Marie Ballard, Justin Amick, and Joon Lim. None of them passed. Of the 133 candidates who attempted the feat nationwide, only five returned as Masters. Atlanta's five MS candidates remain undeterred. They've banded together for weekly tastings and have more or less put their lives on hold while they prepare for the 2014 exam next spring/summer.
"[Atlanta has] some of the best younger somms in the country. They've got the passion, they've got the dedication, they've got the talent," says Andrew McNamara, MS and Director of Fine Wine at Premier Beverage, a wine and spirits distributor in Florida.
McNamara passed the exam in 2007, and, like Dame, is one of the few candidates to pass on the first try. From Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., McNamara offers the Atlanta group advice and guidance whenever he can.
"Atlanta is one of those areas that when we look at the country, is a spot that's growing pretty dramatically," he says.
After remaining stagnant for years, the number of sommeliers in Atlanta has increased dramatically. Prior to 2010, Atlanta had one Advanced Sommelier. As of 2013, there are seven.
In the mid-aughts, a new generation of chefs began mounting a massive takeover of the Atlanta dining scene. In many cases, they were thirtysomethings cooking mostly to please themselves and their friends. There was a renewed obsession with sourcing — where the food came from and the stories behind it. Food Network was busy turning chefs into celebrities, including locals such as Richard Blais, and driving a nationwide obsession with restaurant culture. Atlanta's cocktail scene quickly followed.
Now, there's a new generation of sommeliers on the rise.
Like many Masters, McNamara isn't exactly sure how he passed, but he knows how hard he had to work to do it.
"It was nine months of every waking moment where I wasn't working, just studying. My wife and I would have one hour a week and that was it. ... It was like having two full-time jobs," McNamara says.
Somm, a documentary by director Jason Wise released earlier this year, offers an illuminating glimpse at what it takes to become an MS. The film follows the intense and geeky pursuits of four candidates three weeks before the exam. In the film, the aspiring somms submit themselves to an exhausting battery of study sessions and blind tastings. To the audience's delight, they sacrifice sleep, their health, and home life in order to prepare.
At the Master level, candidates have three years to pass each of the three sections. The average annual pass rate for the exam is less than 10 percent. For some, completing all parts can take years. Most never pass the final stage.
"I may have to face the fact that I might never become a Master Sommelier," says Lim, 32, currently a server at Kevin Rathbun Steak. Lim is the only server in the city of Atlanta who is also an Advanced Sommelier. He sat for the MS exam in Aspen, Colo., in May. "I don't know if I can accept that quite yet. For now I have to think that I can do it."