Being A Somm Is About Service, Not Stardom

Brahm Callahan is used to being the most knowledgeable wine professional in the room. Thirty-two years old with a face that looks 10 years younger, Callahan is one of only 149 Master Sommeliers in the United States. That’s fewer American Master Sommeliers than American Nobel Prize laureates, fewer American Master Sommeliers than people who were struck by lightning in the past decade. More Americans have been to space than are Master Sommeliers.

It’s an exclusive club of the most sophisticated palates in the country. You might expect such exclusivity would lead to a life dominated by glamour and jet-setting. But if this is what you were thinking, you’d be wrong. Dead wrong.

I spent a snowy winter night watching Callahan pass from table to table at Grill 23 & Bar in Boston, where he’s the beverage director. That night, the restaurant would seat around 700 people, many of them wealthy — $800-magnums-of-Bordeaux-on-a-Saturday-night type of wealthy. Wearing a suit jacket, a black tie, and a noticeably large watch, he weaved between tables and pushed out chairs, pouring wine for one guest, clearing the plates off another’s table.

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With that certain brand of handsome that stems directly from quiet confidence, I watched Callahan serve Middle Eastern royalty. Then I watched him carry a half-bottle of French wine to a table of three middle-aged women. He gently entered their conversation, bending to table level and showing the bottle. Something he said made the whole table laugh; one woman tucked her hair behind her ear.

But when he got back to the service area after selling a particularly expensive Bordeaux with a glass of it in his hand, the façade slipped a little. “Want some?” he asked me, handing me the glass. “Smells like butt hole,” he said, half-laughing as he backed his way into the wine storage room. “That’s how you know it’s Bordeaux!”

It was one of many moments when Callahan belied the popular image of what a Master Sommelier is. Hit documentaries like 2012’s “Somm created an idealized perception of what the title means, casting the sommelier as the coolest, richest, most-cultured person in the room. “Somm” was followed by “Somm: Into the Bottle,” and Esquire Network’s “Uncorked.” Eventually, the image of the trendy sommelier became such a trope that it inspired backlash. British wine journalist Stuart Pigott went on a full four-piece rant on the evils of the glamorized “hipster somm” in Grape Collective. Wine Enthusiast asked their readers what they hate about sommeliers and received answers like, “Be informed, not snooty!” and “A bad sommelier … tries to upsell me.” Hell, there’s a parody Twitter account called ShitMySommelierSays with nearly 16,000 followers and a bio that reads, “Does my Double Windsor Tie make my ass look fat?”

But nothing dispels the fantasy of the glamorous, rich Somm like following Brahm Callahan for a weekend. There is only one conclusion Callahan leaves you with, and it’s that to be a Master Sommelier is to be a member of the service industry. Every night he’s on the floor, Callahan is working to provide every guest with a memorable night. Everything he’s learned – all the regions and producers and varietals that he and only 148 other Americans can name – was to one end: so he could provide better service.

That’s what Callahan believes the purpose of the Master Sommelier is, I learned while drinking homemade dandelion wine with him and his dad, Bob. Bob’s humble homemade wine was Callahan’s first, and it’s these humble roots that have shaped his approach to wine ever since.

This kid gets to put his name on the wall!

A photo posted by Brahm Callahan (@brealsomm) on

The first Master Sommelier examination was held England in 1969. It was the brainchild of a number of British service institutions that wanted to create a higher echelon of the service industry. To that end, the Court created a test, “to encourage improved standards of beverage knowledge and service in hotels and restaurants,” the Court website explains.

By 1977, the Court of Master Sommeliers was an internationally recognized organization. But few gained entry to the Court because the test was almost impossible to pass. So the Court broke the test down into levels: introductory, advanced, and certified sommelier tests. Aspiring Master Sommeliers now need to pass each of these levels to even be considered for the test.

Advancing through the lower levels has become a point of pride for wine enthusiasts, some of whom aren’t interested in the service part of the job at all. This is true especially here in the U.S.; Americans love having a piece of paper proving their mastery in a subject. But only 236 people in the world have passed the Master Sommelier test since 1969. It’s widely considered one of the hardest tests in the world due to the breadth of knowledge it takes to become a Master Sommelier — just eight percent of people who take the exam pass.

The lower levels alone are often enough for people to advance their way high into the wine- service world. “Certified sommeliers tend to get a little more respect when it comes to their palates and service because the Court exams include a service and blind tasting section that is very hard to pass and prepare for,” Mary McAuley, a certified sommelier and the founder of Ripe Life Wines, told me in an email. Other wine exams, she says, are more “based on theory and facts.” But even if someone manages to pass the extensive oral theory exam and can name four out of six bottles in the blind tasting section, one third of the Master Sommelier test is about service.

It’s the service section that Callahan found easiest. Covering his whole back and one thigh, Callahan, who has a master’s degree in ancient history from Boston University, has a tattoo of a Roman centurion and the letters SPQR. The letters stand for “Senatus Populus que Romanus,” which means “to the Senate and people of Rome.” Every Roman soldier had it branded or tattooed on them as a reminder that they were the property of the state, and they were tasked with doing what was best for the people.

The tattoo, Callahan tells me, is to remind him of the service his position requires.

God I hope somebody in DC remembered to order extra Campari!

A photo posted by Brahm Callahan (@brealsomm) on

Callahan got his first service job was when he was 13. His dad’s girlfriend at the time, a bartender, helped him get it, and he worked as many hours on the books as was legally allowed for a minor, and then some off the books, too. He worked his way through nearly every restaurant job through high school. By the time he was finishing up his bachelor’s degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, he was working the floor as a sommelier without any certification. But Callahan grew up around alcohol. It was on the table during meals, and his dad has always made homemade wine in the basement. He tells me this while speeding in his gray Audi hatchback. We’re driving to his dad’s house, the house he grew up in near the Connecticut River, the day after I met him at Grill 23. He’s practically vibrating with energy, despite working through the night, waking up at 5 a.m., and going on a run with his toddler, Sawyer. He’s dressed casually, in a white sweater and jeans.

Callahan is familiar with the story he tells when asked to recall his rapid rise to becoming a Master Sommelier. The wine press has buzzed about his youth, his charm, and his position as the only working Master Sommelier in Massachusetts. His retelling seems practiced, and I catch lines I’ve read him say to other publications. Yet when I ask follow-up questions he’s just as comfortable responding. It’s almost as if he has a never-ending library of knowledge and memories he can pull from whenever he needs an illustrative anecdote or obscure fact.

That memory has served him well. Callahan decided to take the introduction and certification courses in 2008. He’d been working toward his master’s degree in ancient history, paying his way working as a wine director. He had decided to pursue the certifications because he needed the validation. “As a 23-year-old kid with a baby face, it was hard for anybody to take me seriously, let alone think I was running a program,” he says.

He passed both with ease. A few years later, at a different job, one of his coworkers noticed his passion for wine and told him he should try out for the advanced sommelier certification. This one, too, he passed on the first try.

“If I hadn’t passed I probably wouldn’t have sat for it again,” Callahan told me. “Then I passed and I was like, oh, well, now I guess I should figure out if I can pass the Masters because it’s like getting into the playoffs and not playing the final game.”

He started studying harder than he ever had before. He tried to learn how to override the way he naturally tastes wine so he could adhere to the deductive tasting technique the Court of Master Sommeliers prefers. He studied for a full year while also working as a beverage director.

“I thought I had a good idea of what it takes to pass the master exam,” Callahan told me as we drove to his dad’s. “I thought I was working really hard, studying really hard. I spent a year studying and sat the Masters exam the first time in 2013 and essentially got set on fire.”

He failed – not once, but twice, a “humbling experience,” he recalls. But you can only take it three times before you have to start from the beginning. He had one more chance to take the test. Determined to pass, Callahan stopped traveling, stopped consulting. He disconnected from social media, television, the news. “There’s a gap in my life where I don’t know what happened in the world,” he said.

Then he lined his shower walls with laminated maps of regions and wouldn’t let himself get out of the shower before he had said aloud everything there was to know about a specific region. He grew an ungainly beard.

Callahan sat for the final time in Aspen, Colorado. Then he went to the theater and watched “Mad Max Fury Road” four times. He watched “Captain America” twice, anything to keep his mind from questioning himself.

On the final day, Callahan sat in a room and watched as his friends walked in to find out if they’d passed, then walked out disappointed. He was one of the last people to hear his results. He passed.

It was a huge relief. His wife Sally – his childhood sweetheart – was pregnant, and the pressure was on. But passing the exam was more than just another certificate he could frame for his wall. It was the culmination of a life devoted to hard work and service.

Callahan sources his intensity in everything he does to one place. Whether it’s his undergraduate degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, his master’s from Boston College, his Master Sommelier certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers, or any of the numerous jobs he worked throughout his life, his commitment to hard work comes from his dad.

So this happened yesterday….#pbfw

A photo posted by Brahm Callahan (@brealsomm) on

We arrive in Callahan’s hometown around noon. The house he grew up in is blue with green doors, the plants outside neatly trimmed. Inside, records spill onto the floor and nicknacks crowd shelves and side tables.

I follow Callahan straight through the living room and to the kitchen where his father, Bob, greets us warmly. He gives Brahm a back-slapping hug and shakes my hand. He’s wearing an Adirondack shirt with brown bears dancing under a red moon among Christmas trees. Brahm and Bob stand close and make small talk in the familial way of people who see each other regularly, if not often.

Bob is a carpenter by trade, and by the time Brahm was eight years old, he was helping out around the shop. Memories of his dad’s workshop flood back every time he smells wood or sawdust notes in a wine. But even in his dad’s house, Brahm serves. When it comes time to try the pear brandy-fortified dandelion wine Bob makes in the basement, he lets Callahan pour it from the recycled maple syrup bottle.

We eat Bob’s family-famous pizza while Elvis Costello plays on the record player. It’s not hard to imagine the scenes Bob tells me about Brahm’s childhood happening all around me, like the time Brahm and his bandmates stayed up late practicing and drinking cheap beer from the local brewery. The night quickly got away from them, and so did the beer, so they moved onto a bottle of Bob’s Single Malt Lagavulin. At 4:30 a.m., Bob came downstairs in his robe.

“Brahm!” he shouted. “What are you doing? You’ve got to feed these guys!” So Bob made the guys pizza. The band was shocked when they found out how much the bottle of Scotch they downed was, but they paid it off a little at a time.

Callahan and his dad have made their own and paid off their debts their whole lives. Making pizza out of ingredients from the garden was cheaper and went further than any other food they could make, and the same was true of making their own wine. No one in the family was a stranger to working numerous jobs at once.

Sitting in his dad’s dining room, drinking dandelion wine and eating his pizza as Brahm did countless times throughout his childhood, the humble beginnings of the future Master Sommelier are clearer than ever.

“It’s about your effort, not where you come from,” Callahan later tells me on the ride home.

But in his case, it seems more like it’s both. Hard work and service definitely run in Callahan’s blood. But he’s brought that to his profession. It’s what being a Somm is all about. It’s not about fancy watches or jet-setting. It’s not even about the group tastings of thousand-dollar wine that you see in the movies. Spend two days with Brahm Callahan and you’ll never again think of being a Sommelier — even a Master Sommelier — as anything but a service-industry job, one filled with moving cases of wine from floor to floor and polishing glasses. After all, it’s written on Callahan’s body.