While some have said that I got my Certified Wine Educator credential in a gumball machine, truly, it was the culmination of just about two years of intensive study and practice. The Society of Wine Educators’ CWE exam is an all-day affair that includes two tasting components, an exacting multiple-choice test and an anxiety-producing essay question. Fewer than 12 percent of the applicants pass the first time.
I am proud of my achievement, but I have to say this: The CWE credential means nothing…at least when you measure it against the Court of Master Sommeliers Advanced Sommelier credential. Without going into mind-numbing detail, their test is five days long and conducted by some of the world’s smartest, detail-oriented wine professionals. This is a difficult exam; I am humbled by those qualified enough to attempt it, let alone pass it.
Atlanta’s ranks of Advanced Sommeliers grew by one in April. Jacob Gragg, sommelier at Aria, successfully negotiated the labyrinth of questions, tasting exercises and service scenarios to become Atlanta’s ninth Advanced Sommelier.
To say Gragg of Cumming is a phenom does not scratch the surface. On a recent visit to my wine shop, we casually walked the aisles as Gragg detailed the taste profiles, vinification processes and winery histories of a dozen or so bottles, easily referencing winemaking regulations of the various regions. Among his numerous achievements, he’s represented the South region in the Chaîne des Rôtiesseurs Best Young Sommelier Contest two years in a row. Gragg knows wine.
Here’s the kicker that will either leave you smiling or sick with jealousy. Gragg is 24 years old.
“I have always been around the restaurant industry since I was a small child,” Gragg said after receiving his Advanced credential in Anaheim, Calif., on April 27. “It was where I knew I wanted to work even from a very young age. I thought that the kitchen was going to be the area where I wanted to be in the restaurant business and started working in kitchens when I was 16.”
Gragg, who stands about six-foot-two-inches and always seems to wear an aw-shucks smile, gave up on the kitchen after he found his true calling in the dining room. “Interacting directly with the guests is much more of a fulfilling role for me I have found. Working with wine and other beverages is where I have found that I feel most comfortable and happy…. I wouldn’t trade what I do for the world.”
There is at least one more hill to climb for this young gladiator. While the Advanced Sommelier exam is demanding, the test to become a Master Sommelier is even more daunting. Gragg, one of the most amiable, soft-spoken people you’ll ever meet, faces the challenge with characteristic humility. “I find that the more I learn about wine, the more I realize how much more there is to learn. To prepare for the Masters Exam, I need to improve in every category and in every area of study.”
Gragg is a member of a cadre of wine professionals bent on making Atlanta one of America’s greatest wining and dining destinations. Through mutual support (and subtle peer pressure) the group works tirelessly to navigate the difficult straits that lead to the red lapel pin of the Master Sommelier. Gragg, who most everyone acknowledges has the drive and skill, would be one of the youngest masters in the world. Congratulations, Jacob, and good luck on your journey!
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a consultant for a metro-Atlanta wine shop. You can reach him at email@example.com.
— Gil Kulers, AJC Drink blog