Two of Four Black Master Sommeliers share their commitment to the profession and to each other.
by Sedale McCall
When Chris Gaither passed the notoriously rigorous Master Sommelier exam earlier this year, the media was quick to emphasize the fact that he was only the fourth Black Master Sommelier in Court of Master Sommeliers history.
But for Gaither and Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) Diversity Committee Chair Vincent Morrow, the color of their skin isn’t the whole story. Both Gaither and Morrow highlighted the exam as the ultimate meritocracy, and one that shouldn’t necessarily focus on race.
“The exam is a meritocracy, so people that passed, earned it,” says Morrow. “For us to say anything else other than their hard work is attributed to the diversity of the class would be misleading. We could just as easily have the exam next year and it would not be as diverse. Seeing first hand all the work that Chris and others in the class have put in, the credit goes to them.”
It’s understandable that news articles would focus on diversity and Gaither as a Black Master Sommelier since there are so few.
“This was my seventh attempt – I started in 2015,” says Gaither. “Had I passed then, maybe we’d be having that conversation back then. Others who are considered to be adding to the diversity of this class have been testing for years. So, perhaps it’s a coincidence that all of the people that passed did so this year. Everyone is pushing at their own pace.”
Making strides for diverse candidates
Like many organizations, there has been a spotlight on diversity in wine over the past two years, with significant focus on the highest levels of the industry, including the Court of Master Sommeliers. The CMS has spent considerable time working to help increase the amount of diverse candidates joining the organization.
Beginning with the appointment of Emily Wines to the Board of Directors, CMS set out to change the narrative when it comes to diversity in wine. They’ve since created an Anti-Racism Pledge to document their commitments to diversity and inclusion, and held listening sessions to discuss actions for the future. This isn’t something they expect to see change in the short term, but they are committed to the long game.
“The work we’re putting in now is about bringing people in from the beginning rather than showing up and giving people pins,” Morrow says. “The work we’re doing is long-term work; it’s not for tomorrow or the next day. The results of that will hopefully come 5-10 years from now and be more fruitful and long standing.”
Wine education is a team sport
As they discussed their paths to taking, and eventually passing, the Court of Master Sommelier exams, both Gaither and Morrow revealed an important aspect of the journey: that it’s a group effort. It’s obvious how each individual must prepare and pass one of the wine industry’s most intense exams on their own. But it’s enlightening how much group work and mentoring contributes to their individual journeys to success.
“It’s 100 percent a team sport to get you prepared, but in that moment you have to synthesize all of that and make it happen yourself,” says Morrow. “But when I found out Chris passed, it felt like another pass for me. You want everyone to get through it, but it’s not always how it works. So it still feels like you’re testing, in a way, when you have people that are still going through it, even when you’re on the other side.”
Gaither continues, “nobody passes this exam by themselves– you have to work with other people.”
Gaither and Morrow both felt this moment deeply as they detailed their long journeys through the industry. Morrow moved to Sonoma in 2005 to attend Sonoma State and learned of the exam in 2010. He ultimately passed it in 2018. Also in 2010, Gaither moved to California as an intern with the famed French Laundry, where Morrow was also working. Gaither began his journey to MS soon after, with the most recent exam being his seventh attempt.
Finding success in hospitality
Now that Gaither doesn’t have to study for exams, he can focus on his San Francisco restaurant, Ungrafted. As for Morrow, he is focused on putting more of himself into the CMS and its diversity efforts.
“I’m throwing more and more of myself into the Court,” says Morrow. “We’re trying to build a hospitality group in Napa (which is not easy to do!). Dealing with the day-to-day challenges of running a big wine program, my involvement in the Court and continuing to study, sometimes it’s hard to see too far in the future, but slowly and surely [the future] is becoming more clear.”
Morrow continues, “I see [myself] continuing to run successful businesses– opening another restaurant; participating in proctoring exams and being an active and contributing member of the court. I’m looking forward to mentoring more people as well.”
Chris added, “there’s never a dull moment. There’s always a lot of work to do, but it’s very fun and very rewarding.”
Only time will tell when we will see the fifth, or 15th Black Master Sommelier. But one thing is for sure– there will be members of the Court rooting for them, and pushing them all the way to the finish line.