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In Vino Veritas

Meet Jack Mason ’11, BS Hotel ’10, one of the world’s newest (and youngest) master sommeliers.


Jack Mason’s lapel pin is hard to come by. The discrete oval on Mason’s suit jacket bears the profile of the god of wine — Bacchus to the Romans, Dionysus to the Greeks — ringed by a scarlet border and the words “master sommelier.” The Hotelie is one of just 147 people in North America (and 229 in the world) who have earned the right to wear the tiny ornament, having passed the master sommelier (MS) exam in May. “People do perceive you differently — there’s a weight and a gravity to it,” says Mason, wine director of Marta, an upscale pizza restaurant in Manhattan’s NoMad neighborhood. “It’s cool to see that it’s very much respected.”

Photo: Liz Clayton, provided by Zagat

Administered annually by the Court of Master Sommeliers, the MS exam is notoriously grueling. First off, candidates must have passed the organization’s three prior levels of sommelier training — introductory, certified, and advanced — and been invited to sit for the MS. “The level of knowledge is so vast, and the test is just so hard,” says one of Mason’s mentors, master sommelier Greg Harrington ’92. “When you apply for a job, it tells employers you’re the best of the best of the best. It shows dedication, professionalism, and a level of excellence.”

The test, administered orally by other masters, is given in three parts. Candidates must pass all of them within three years; if they fail to do so, they go back to zero. “Some people pass it their first time, and some people pass it their ninth,” notes Mason, who was named to “30 Under 30” lists by Forbes and Zagat this year. “It’s a weird journey in a sense. There are people who have passed all the parts at some point, but never collectively — and that hurts. It’s a crazy, crazy exam.”

Mason first took the test in 2013, acing the service portion but failing the other two. In 2014, he passed theory and failed blind tasting. So when he went to Aspen last May to retake the tasting exam, the pressure was on. “I was impressed that he passed on the third try,” says Harrington, who owns a winery in Washington state. “We haven’t done an official study, but it’s like there’s a third-time jinx, because people know they’re going to lose their parts, so they get extremely nervous. We see a lot of people fail on the third try but pass all three on the fourth. I’m super impressed with anyone who can deal with that level of stress.”

As though the process weren’t fraught enough, the results are unveiled in a forum worthy of a reality TV show: all the hopefuls gather at a reception, and one by one they’re taken aside and given the news. “They do a very good job of messing with you — of convincing you that you didn’t pass,” Mason says, recalling that the masters opened with some chitchat about his career (during which his mind more or less went blank) before casually informing him that he’d triumphed. “That’s when my brain engaged again,” he says, “and I freaked out.”

And speaking of reality TV: Mason’s journey to the MS, along with those of five fellow New York sommeliers tested in May, will be chronicled in a six-episode show premiering in November. Entitled “Uncorked,” it’s set to air on the Esquire network. “The series will also deliver ‘takeaway’ information for the Esquire man,” the network said when it announced the show, “like how to navigate a daunting wine list or how to engage a sommelier without sounding like a fool.” Mason’s advice for achieving the latter boils down to three things: be candid about your price range, share your likes and dislikes — and above all, “Don’t be afraid of sommeliers.”

A Texas native who favors Champagne in his off-hours, Mason earned an associate’s degree from the Culinary Institute of America before matriculating on the Hill; as a senior, he was head TA of the Wines class. In his role as founding wine director of Marta — which opened a year ago and earned a respectable two stars from the New York Times — Mason had the pleasure of crafting its 250-item wine list from scratch. He notes that he’s one of just twenty or so master sommeliers who still serve on the front lines as “floor somms,” a métier he relishes even as he contemplates owning his own restaurant someday. “People my age are drinking way more wine than our parents did, and they drank more than their parents,” Mason says. “Our understanding of wine is growing, and it’s awesome. I love walking around the dining room and seeing that almost every table has a bottle or a glass of wine on it.”

By Harrington’s count, Mason’s certification makes him one of four Cornellians who can boast membership in the Court of Master Sommeliers, along with himself and two other Hotelies, Sabato Sagaria ’97 and Chris Bates ’03. At just twenty-seven, Mason is one of the youngest Americans to earn the honor. Harrington notes that if Mason had passed on his first try, at twenty-five, he would have set the record. “Though I wished him success and helped him as much as I could,” Harrington recalls with a chuckle, “I was like, ‘Hmm . . . hopefully he won’t beat it.’ “

The longtime record holder for the youngest MS in North America is — you guessed it — Harrington himself. When he earned his own lapel pin in 1996, he was just a few weeks past his twenty-sixth birthday. 

Third Time’s the Charm

Mason on taking — and passing — the master sommelier exam

 2013: Service “For a person who works in a restaurant it’s a little more intuitive, because it’s basically what we do every night. You walk up to a table, they have questions, you answer them, you do specific things like decanting or opening sparkling wine. If you’re not used to doing service while people talk to you, it’s actually quite hard.”

2014: Theory “It’s an oral exam on wines from all over the world, wine law, beer, sake, spirits, cocktails — basically anything fermented, they’re going to ask you about it. And it’s pretty intensive when you start to talk about sub-regions of small parts of France and stuff like that. So it can get minutely specific, and it’s a lot to wrap your brain around.”

2015: Blind Tasting “You get down to the grape, the country, the region, the level of quality, and the vintage. Even if you get all six wines right, you may not pass, because you haven’t shown the work that goes with it. They’re trying to see that you understand wine — how it was made and how that affects the glass — and can use that information to come to a deductive reasoning of what it is.”