“This lady knows more than I do”, I thought when I poured for the fit brunette and her friend at a tasting this past fall. As it turns out, I met Laura Williamson MS ten years ago, when a supplier invited me to join them for dinner. I remember her describing a wine with the texture of cashmere and a scent that reminded her of a particular flower that grew near her home when she lived in Arizona.
When Laura and I finally sat down in a Del Mar coffee shop, she shared how she passed what many consider the most difficult test in the world, how she protects herself and the importance of confidence.
Service was hardest part of the Master Sommelier exam for her. Laura failed service at Advanced but passed the first time at the Masters. “We armor ourselves with perfectionism. I had to let that go because I have more than enough. It’s about turning it around. I might not know exactly the right answer, but I have this little piece of the answer that I can turn around and present as the answer. Once I came to terms, it became fun. These are guests that want to enjoy themselves. Because you’re having fun, you are in your element. You have the knowledge at that level. You have to relax enough to access it. Put your nerves aside and have the ease with your stored knowledge.”
Laura learned how to blind taste in the pre-Coravin era. Once the bottle was open, she analyzed the wines for what they are. “When you watch a wine break down over time, you understand the structure, texture, finish, and you feel the wine. You are one with the wine.” When she sat down at the tasting portion of the exam, she knew there was not one MS in the room who had blind tasted as much as she had that year. She was completely in the zone. Whatever happened, she knew how hard she worked and that she did the best she could. She was in a class of 11 that passed in 2005 when there were only 78 Master Sommeliers in the world.
Certainly all 28 of the female Master Sommeliers are intelligent, driven and focused, but is there a common denominator? Laura says they have all developed a protective shield from proving themselves. The big red pin of a Master Sommelier looks like a target to people who are eager to stump the somm. They are constantly critiqued and challenged. They still don’t gain the publicity or the positions offered to men and if they do happen to get a plum assignment, they are rarely compensated the same as a man in the same position—despite being more talented. They have to push 20-30% more.
Laura’s advice for all young somms is to listen more and assert less. “Don’t assume you know more than you do. There is always an infinite amount to learn, especially when you’re young and could not have possibly tasted everything. Listen to others and how you can understand the world. It takes a long time to learn so settle in, relax, absorb.”
Young women have to realize that we will be held to a higher standard. Instead of being bitter, arm yourself with knowledge. Learn as much as you can. That will instill the confidence. Sink into that personal confidence while still being professional to annihilate any questions of capability. When you have confidence, you don’t hear the outside noise. Sometimes, we have to go over and beyond but it’s never a wasted effort.
Because of the sensual nature of wine and the automatic relaxed feel from imbibing, you have to be careful and sometimes not be yourself. Laura grew up a carefree person, so she had to learn how to hold back and put up boundaries. Make sure there is no confusion about the purpose of the meeting. In her experience, she finds, “[m]en are shocked to learn how knowledgeable I am, so they can get excited. Enjoy the excitement but temper it and defuse the situation. If the boundary could be challenged, renegotiate the terms and make your own. We don’t always feel like we can set the terms, but we have to have the confidence.”
Even if you do have the confidence, the wine industry, due to the nature of the product, opens the door to so many types of abuse. “Poor judgement reinforces the societal belief and we brush it under the rug. It’s easier to let it go than be defensive. If you take up the defense and go to combat, it may be your ticket out. You weigh the battle. Walking away is easier even when we could set in motion a better way. One of the most important aspects is finding your inner power and fostering it. The more we do, the more we are able to defend ourselves.” Master Williamson has done it all within the wine trade, from working the floor to representing a supplier and consulting, with projects in between. When her last restaurant job went sour, she realized that she needed to change her view. “Trust, you’ll figure it out.” For the next chapter in her illustrious career, she is developing an online program to help consumers discover their own preferences so they too can explore this wonderful, infinite world of wine with confidence.