The original SOMM documentary, released in 2013, gave viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the arduous journey towards becoming a Master Sommelier. The film highlights four candidates going through the notoriously challenging exam, one of which was Ian Cauble. We watched him hunched over flashcards, studying until the early morning hours. We also saw his poise, holding his head high and confidently walking into the exam room.
After successfully becoming a Master Sommelier, Cauble became the United States ambassador for Krug Champagne. He also maintained a presence in front of the SOMM cameras. He was a featured storyteller in the film’s sequel, SOMM Into The Bottle and has made several appearances in episodes on SOMM TV.
We wanted to reconnect with him further. From starting a family to launching a successful business, it’s safe to say Cauble is busy and thriving. Read ahead for our one-on-one interview to find out what he’s doing today, what he would be doing if he weren’t in wine, and whatever happened to those infamous flashcards from his studies.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Nicole MacKay: Let’s start from the beginning. It must have been a peculiar experience to go through such a rigorous journey with the SOMM camera crews around. What was it like?
Ian Cauble: It was initially unsettling having cameras in my face, especially going to take one of the hardest exams in the world. It added extra nerves, particularly in early 2010 when I arrived at the Napa exam with Jason Wise (director of SOMM and creator of SOMM TV) by my side with a camera. It was all very new, and cameras had never been around the exams in any way. Of course, the cameras were never allowed in the actual exam. Nonetheless, it added a bit of stress at first.
But as we continued filming, I stopped thinking about it. I was so close with everyone on the crew. They were with me in my house, sitting on my couch, watching me study. I became really comfortable with them.
The hardest part for me was at the end of SOMM when I didn’t pass the tasting portion of the exam. That was my second attempt, and I was now facing my third attempt in 2012 with tasting left. Many people don’t know that if I didn’t pass on the third attempt, I would have lost all my parts (Service and Theory) and had to start from scratch. The film was almost complete, and I had to sit in the theater and watch the whole thing, with the end “to be determined” based on my performance at the tasting four months later*.
There was a lot of pressure, not only from the test but also from how monumental the movie would be. At the end of the day, I didn’t let the pressure get to me. When I walked into that room, the test was the only thing that mattered. I was not thinking about the cameras waiting for me outside.
*Editor’s note: The version of the film that Cauble references was the first cut. The final release included footage after his successful tasting four months later.
NM: If you were to go through the exam process again, would you change your study technique? Especially given today’s technology?
IC: I would not. The process I went through was first learning geography. I would then study those places’ wines, grapes, soil, and winemaking practices. Then, finally, I would describe what the wines tasted like in those places and who made them. That three-pronged approach of geography, geology, and then people helped categorize the information in my brain.
With that said, the test has evolved since I took it. There are so many more books about different wines and regions. Some new perspectives and websites didn’t exist. As more information becomes available and new wines are produced, the test becomes more complex. Also, a Master Sommelier should be current on the U.S. market, constantly evolving.
NM: How often do you find yourself referencing texts? Do you have one that you return to the most?
IC: Luckily, most of my learning is in real life. At SommSelect, I taste new wines every day. Pre-Covid, I would travel to Europe a few times per year, walk the vineyards and see the destinations in person. But I still reference GuildSomm, The World Atlas of Wine, or Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia if I need a resource.
NM: Speaking of Covid, unfortunately, it’s flipped the hospitality industry on its head. Sommeliers without work have turned to doing other wine-related things, causing some chatter about the sommelier term itself. How do you define a sommelier?
IC: The definition of a sommelier has undoubtedly evolved. Historically, a sommelier was a person who managed wine collections and oversaw wine moving from point A to point B. In more recent centuries, a sommelier became the person who led the wine selections and service in a restaurant.
Today, for many reasons, more and more “floor” sommeliers who work in restaurants are now working in retail or consulting in some fashion but don’t work the floor anymore. They’re doing the same job of providing expertise, except for the last moment of opening the wine for you. With the pandemic, thousands of sommeliers haven’t been able to work in restaurants. I don’t think that takes away from their expertise or ability to refer to themselves as sommeliers.
A vital skill set of a sommelier is curating and selecting a wine to bring joy to people. To call yourself a sommelier, you should be able to show up and do that job in a restaurant if someone gives you a wine key, tables of customers, and a wine list. I also understand people’s frustrations of people calling themselves a sommelier, even though they would not be able to do the job. It’s the same thing if you call yourself a chef. Just because you took a few days of cooking classes and got a certificate from somewhere doesn’t mean you’re a chef. You should be able to run a kitchen or cook professionally if you use that term.
NM: Let’s talk about SommSelect, what’s it about? And how do you balance what the consumer wants versus a sommelier’s palate?
IC: Every wine we sell on SommSelect is something we would bring over to a friend’s house for dinner. We focus on wines the team truly loves, and our customers are the people who like the world’s great wines from classic regions, so they have similar tastes.
Our job is to find the best price-to-quality ratio bottles that speak to a place and come from the authentic farm-to-table experience. We have so many dedicated followers because our customers know SommSelect will provide singular wines that represent every appellation of the world. We sell wines for every taste, and our daily offers break down the amount of fruit, earth, tannin, acid, etc., so the consumer can decide what type of wine to buy based on their taste. The team goes out of its way to accurately describe the wine on offer so people can buy a wine they are likely to love based on their preferences.
NM: SommSelect is nearing 8 years old – how has it evolved in that time? And what are some things you haven’t accomplished with it that you’d like?
IC: When I started SommSelect, we aimed to share our passion for great wine and hopefully stay in business! After the first year, it was clear we were onto something, and we slowly began adding incredibly talented people to do the specific jobs which set us apart from other companies. It is wild to look back and see what we have created and how many people love SommSelect.
Earlier this year, we launched our Build A Case program, allowing our customers to explore our expansive wine selection and consolidate their orders into a custom case at their leisure over time — without the cost of shipping. I’m proud of the Build A Case tool because not only was it something customers were asking for, but no one else in the industry has implemented this technology.
I would like to see us accomplish the “Amazon experience” of delivering wine in the most efficient way possible. The logistics of shipping wine is incredibly challenging, not only getting the wine from Europe to our warehouse in California but then delivering it to the customer in temperature-controlled manners wherever possible—especially when it’s 100°+ in many places across the country. It can sometimes take 10 to 20 days for wine to be safely shipped to many areas of the U.S. so that the customer gets as much pleasure drinking it as we did when we tasted it. We are constantly evolving and learning ways to optimize the customer experience.
NM: So while you’ve been building SommSelect, you’ve also started a family. Have you thought about how you’re going to introduce wine to your children when they’re older?
IC: I’ve already begun introducing them to special bottles through the aromas. I’ll swirl the glass and put it under their nose. Their eyes light up because the flavor complexity of old, great wines is much more than anything they’ve been exposed to.
I’ll probably introduce them to wine through a trip to Europe once they’re old enough to taste the wines.
NM: Let’s say you’ve had a long day at work. You come home and reach for a drink. But it can’t be wine. What is it?
IC: I’m really into different types of Mezcal. For me, it’s the most exciting spirit on earth. I like to make a drink with fresh lime juice, a touch of agave nectar, and a high-quality mezcal for an early evening cocktail. I often drink it straight, depending on the type of Mezcal. Some should not be mixed, just like high-end Bourbon should not be made into a cocktail.
NM: Have you ever thought about if you weren’t in wine, what would you be doing?
IC: I’d probably work in the cannabis industry in distribution or retail. I think it’s a really exciting time for the industry, especially in California, and I have many friends working on exciting cannabis projects for both medical and recreational use. I want to get into that space in the next decade. There are many ways the art and craft of the way a sommelier educates a consumer to increase the pleasure of a bottle of wine could cross streams into another very cerebral product. Cannabis has brought a lot of pleasure to humanity over the past few millennia, just as wine has.
NM: Speaking of friends, do you keep in touch with your SOMM film cast mates?
IC: I still consider myself good friends with everyone from the film. Of course, geography plays a significant role. Dustin [Wilson] moved to New York, so I don’t see him as much. But Brian [McClintic] is on the West Coast, so I see him often. And DLynn [Proctor] lives in Napa, so I see him a few times a week.
NM: Brian (McClintic) found himself in the headlines last year after resigning from the Court of Master Sommeliers in support of Black Lives Matter. Did you feel pressure to do the same?
IC: I spoke with Brian after he resigned from the organization and understood his decision. It was something I never thought about doing myself.
I felt the most effective way to make change was from within the organization and to get involved. I’m proud of the organization’s work in the last year—the newly elected Board of Directors has been incredible at implementing the much-needed changes, and this work continues every day by many dedicated individuals within the CMS who want to create real change.
I also took that time to implement changes at SommSelect to build a more racially diverse and socially sustainable wine business. We started the SommSelect Wine Education Fellowship to lower the barriers to entry that prevent so many passionate BIPOC from pursuing a career in wine. There are many layers to this fellowship: a mentorship with DLynn and me, along with financial support and various wine experiences for this individual, including a 12-month membership to our SommSix wine club. SommSelect is also committed to amplifying more diverse perspectives through our various platforms. We realize that diversity & inclusion work is ever-evolving and a continuous goal. We are committed to constantly working towards creating a more equitable industry.
NM: Looking at the website, the deadline to apply for the Fellowship is Monday, September 27th. Can you tell us a bit more about it and what you’re looking for in a candidate?
IC: Our goal for the SommSelect Wine Education Fellowship is to provide the mentorship, guidance and connections people need to grow in the industry. We do this via one-on-one mentorship with DLynn Proctor and me, access to hundreds of wines essential to their education, and so much more.
We’re looking for someone with a genuine passion for the world of wine and who intends to put their life into it. Our purpose with the fellowship is to positively impact someone so they can share their passion with more people in the future.
NM: That program has the ability to change someone’s life, that’s great! I have just a couple of more questions. As someone who’s been in the industry for some time, will you share how many bottles are in your personal wine collection? Which bottle holds the biggest amount of space in your heart and why?
IC: I have a collection of a few thousand bottles. My most treasured bottle is a 2009 DRC Richebourg. It was a gift from a close friend when I passed the exam. I’m looking forward to opening it around its 25th birthday!
NM: I have to revisit the SOMM film one more time. There was a lot of banter among you and the other guys about burning flashcards after passing the exam. Did you actually do that?
IC: I didn’t! That was more of a spiritual metaphor for never wanting to look at them again. I actually gave many of the flashcards to Jason [Wise] as a memento.