Exclusive Interview: Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis

We had the pleasure of sittings down with Catherine Fallis, the fifth woman in the world to become a Master Sommelier. As a noted wine scholar, expert judge, consultant and writer, Catherine has earned the highest accolades and the wine industry’s highest distinction: Master Sommelier.

SW: Tell us about your journey to wine. What first sparked your interest in the industry?

Catherine:  At barely twenty, I backpacked around Europe, from the beaches of Cinque Terre to the Black Forest, from Sevilla to Crete. Equipped with street smarts, wanderlust, and a keen thirst, I tried everything I could afford on my Eurail budget.   From the sweet, succulent bite of my first peach in Paris, for which I gladly paid the equivalent of about $5 (so much for being a savvy, hard-bargaining New Yorker) to the bitter, intoxicating café correcto in Madrid, a much better deal at 35 cents, I discovered a whole new world of sensual pleasures.

I can’t remember a day going by without enjoying a modest glass or two of the local wine. What better way to learn a little bit about the history, the culture. I was hooked! This lesson was much more enjoyable, much more sensually charged, than reading a history book.

SW: You were the fifth woman in the world to become a Master Sommelier, and currently one of only 229 Master Sommeliers in the world. That’s quite a distinction. Tell us what that process was like.

Catherine: The Master Sommelier Diploma, granted by the UK-based Court of Master Sommeliers, is the ultimate professional credential that anyone can attain worldwide. The MS syllabus includes production methods of wines and spirits, international wine laws, harmony of food and wine, wine tasting skills, and practical service and salesmanship, including service of liqueurs, brandies, and ports. In a blind tasting of six wines in twenty-five minutes, candidates must correctly identify grape varieties, country and region of origin, age, and quality. Hundreds begin but very few candidates successfully complete the program. 229 have earned the title, of which only 21 are women.

Passing the Master Sommelier exams was especially challenging for me. If it weren’t for the support and advice from America’s first female Master Sommelier, Madeline Triffon, I never would have continued on down the home stretch. She told me, “There are politics in every organization. You have devoted the last several years of your life to this. Now put on the blinders, and finish the race.”

I had aced service on the first go-around, I think in part due to my experience with hard-ass demanding New Yorkers, but  also due to my sales skills—I’d recommended the most fabulous wines in the world. I did so well that Fred Dame, one of the judges and a Master Sommelier, told me I got the highest service score in history! In spite of that I decided that I was not going to start all over again if I didn’t pass the tasting and theory portions on my third try.

In November, 1997, I flew to London for my last time at bat. I holed up in my little hotel room with all my maps and books. The inn was just a few blocks from the swank Dorchester, where the exams were being held, and I hated my room. But I was only paying about $60 and figured it was worth a shot asking for a different room. When I walked into the upgraded digs, I felt a strange sense of familiarity. I was staring at an oil painting of yellow roses very similar to the one that hung in my Nana’s bedroom. I immediately felt her presence. Later, as I was thumbing through one of Oz Clarke’s wine books, I stopped to look the label of Chateau Cheval Blanc, my all time favorite wine. White horses were another good luck charm.

On the morning of my exam, I got up at 4:00am. I stretched and did some calisthenics in the room. I dressed but did not brush my teeth. My stomach was growling as I walked through Hyde Park on the way to the Dorchester. The sun was just rising. I saw two white horses. I felt that was a good sign, along with the yellow roses. I was right. I answered eighty questions in fifteen minutes, and then sat there drumming my fingers on the table, saying, “Anything else, gentlemen?” The judges were shocked. I sat there thinking, “Third time’s a charm!”  I got up, left the room, and preceded to the bar, where I drank a shot of single malt scotch, neat. Even though it was about 10:30am, it was happy hour somewhere!

On November 2, 1997, in London, after five years of testing and training, I became the fifth woman in the world to earn a Master Sommelier Diploma.

SW: What is your favorite part of your job?

Catherine:  Meeting with wine producers from all over the world, at the table, with my colleagues.

SW: As a Master Sommelier and San Francisco resident, you are well versed in Napa Valley wines. What do you think gives the area its edge as a wine-producing region?

Catherine: It is naturally blessed pristine paradise, so of course the grapes are happy there. And the wines are like drinking sunshine in a glass.

SW: You recently launched an exciting new site called The Planet Grape Wine Review. What can readers expect to find there?

Catherine:  Planet Grape Wine Review is the first female-led, points-scored review panel in the USA.  Our highly credentialed beverage industry experts review wines, spirits, beers, ciders and gourmet products. Because they go through panel evaluations first, there are no duds. Each panelist brings their own palate, tastes, preferences, and rich experience to the table. Our partnership with social mobile commerce wine app Drync means folks can discover, track, share, and purchase most wines we suggest directly from the app.

SW: You’re known for your philosophy that wine should be approachable and accessible. While wine is often considered a highbrow pursuit, how would you dispel that myth?

Catherine: Be warm, inviting, friendly, and funny. This way folks will relax and have fun with wine.

SW: With the summer season underway, can you share some of your favorite summer food and wine pairings?

Catherine: Basil-buttered popcorn with Sauvignon Blanc; Grilled Lemony Shrimp with Pinot Grigio; Halibut Filet with Chardonnay; Pecorino Sausage Pizza with Sangiovese; Chicken and Mushroom Risotto with Pinot Noir; and Grilled Flank Steak with Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon.

SW: Any tips or little-known facts for selecting and enjoying wine that you’d like to leave with our readers?

Catherine: Leave it to the experts – let us guide you through the process – engage your SOMM, merchant, or grape goddess!