Sommelier Thomas Price started working in restaurants at age 16, moving his way steadily up from dishwasher to bartender to bar manager to owner of his own place.
Then, in 2004, he sold his restaurant and took a new job — working as a waiter.
It sounded like a crazy downward move, but it was the start of an 8-year quest to win the country’s highest honor for wine stewards, the “Master Sommelier” certification that only 122 people in the U.S. have achieved since the test was first given in America in 1987.
Price, now head of the wine program at the Metropolitan Grill, which took him on as a waiter in 2004, was awarded the certification after grueling exams in Colorado last week. After years of spending nearly every spare moment studying, he was one of only four people to pass this final leg of the multi-part, invitation-only exam out of the 63 who tried.
“I’m on cloud one million,” he said.
Price has had an interest in wine and spirits for most of his adult life.
Originally from Alaska, he lost his parents at an early age and started washing dishes in restaurant kitchens at 16. “As soon as I was old enough to leave the kitchen, I did. I saw all the fun the bartenders were having,” he said.
In Seattle, he worked as a bartender and bar manager at the Santa Fe Cafe, where he met his wife Jessica, then worked at the Red Hook Brewery, then went for “the requisite” stint at Tom Douglas restaurants, as opening bar manager at Etta’s. He and his wife opened their own restaurant, Luau Polynesian Lounge, in 1997. It was a success, but after several years, with a young son and an interest in other pursuits, they sold it and moved on — or so they thought. They remained legally connected to it for years, draining their time and energy.
Price decided if he wanted to succeed at a serious career in wine, he should get professional certifications. And for a shot at learning enough to acquire the top certifications, he needed to work at a place with “a big time wine program.” The Metropolitan Grill only had a job opening for a server at the time, but he gambled correctly that he could work his way up to sommelier and go from there.
He passed the first of the four levels of the Master Sommeliers test, then the next. He took a brief stint as wine manager of Ruth Chris’s, then returned to the Met and eventually became head sommelier. And then, preparing for the final levels, “it’s a lifestyle change. The amount of time it takes to be successful — it isn’t lounging around reading Bordeaux books…” he said. “Your command of the information has to be just insane.” He passed part III, but the final victory eluded him.
The four-day diploma exam includes a oral exam on theory and a blind tasting of six wines that requires correctly identifying the grape varieties, country of origin, appellation, and vintage. It also involves a practical exam on everything from glassware to wine pairings.
He tried the final exam and failed, tried and failed again.
He told his wife he might give up. She replied that “you owe it to yourself not to have this weighing on your mind, and to try to get it.”
He revised his study habits, making himself audio tapes to listen to for added hours and participating in intense tasting groups with helpful mentors, like the weekly study session held at Canlis.
He and other Seattle candidates would meet three times a week, doing tastings and quizzing each other with questions like “Name three phytoplasma vine diseases,” and “name all the AVAs of Napa Valley,” or “In what country is the Thracian Valley?”
Finally, he passed two out of the required three levels of the final exam — and then last week, the final step. Seattle colleagues have been celebrating with him, including toasting him with a fine Bordeaux.
And now, he’s looking forward to more time with his family, and seeing the fruits of “educating people about wine through having my butt kicked for 8 years.”
He thinks the certification — really, the knowledge he gained to get it — will be a boon for his customers.
“Wine is all about taste and pleasure, and it’s so funny, because if you pour me six classic wines of the world (in a blind tasting) and I take 25 minutes and get them all right, it seems like I’m doing some sort of David Blaine parlour trick. But there’s a skill to it, and what’s translatable about the skill to my guests is having them tell me what they want to taste, (with them) not knowing what they want to drink, and getting that to them.”
And he’ll be there for the regular wine study group on Thursday, just as always. He’s not taking any time off.
“The wonderful thing about the court and the whole process is, how are you going to pay it forward?” he said.
“It’s your job now to help like-minded individuals get even better. That means mentoring, and that means tasting with them.”
Seattle has 7 other candidates for the master’s exam, said Lars Ryssdal, a former mentor to the Seattle group, now managing a California vineyard and winery project. There are now five Master Sommeliers in the state, he said — the others are Shayn Bjornholm, Greg Harrington, Joseph Linder, and Angelo Tavernaro.
Photo: Thomas Price, courtesy of The Metropolitan Grill