Best New Sommelier 2015

Jack Mason, MS | Marta, NYC

“I love food,” Jack Mason, MS, says. “I was at the Culinary Institute to cook. But the opportunity to push into something that was super deep…and also to get to interact with people, to help them put together an experience and to watch it play out—I thought that was really cool. And I still think it’s really cool.”

When the lists are written, the inventory done, the boxes schlepped and the budgets approved, there’s one thing that draws people to make a profession out of wine in restaurants. It’s a genuine enthusiasm for matching people to bottles and vice versa.

We asked thousands of sommeliers across the country to take a break from their multitasking and consider the best new talent in their field. Five sommeliers—all with fewer than four years at the helm of a restaurant list—garnered the most votes in our poll. They are the guides other sommeliers would most like to have by their side, advising on what to drink tonight. Please welcome the Best New Sommeliers of 2015.

“My parents drank magnums of Yellowtail,” Jack Mason, MS, recalls. “They let me have a little sip every once in a while.” It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t what drove Mason to leave College Station, Texas, for the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, New York. He wanted to cook. The son of an Air Force major, Mason hadn’t even considered a career in wine until he took a wine class, required for his associate degree, with Stephen Kolpan. “I asked if I could come back and taste with the other classes,” Mason says. “There was so much I wanted to know—so many factors in a wine that can create a great dining experience.” He went on to complete his bachelor’s degree at the Cornell Hotel School, where he met Greg Harrington, MS, a graduate who’d come back to talk to the class. Harrington suggested Mason get on the Court of Master Sommeliers’ exam track.

“When I turned 21, I took the Introductory and Certified back to back,” Mason says. “So I decided to do the Advanced and passed a year later, in Houston.” He had moved back to Texas to live with his future fiancé, and took a job at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse; he was there when he took his MS exam for the first time. Then he moved to New York City to work with the Alta Marea group at Costata, moving through Ai Fiori and Marea, before heading to Aspen to take the exam again, and pass. On his way, the soon-to-be MS stopped in at the home office of Union Square Hospitality Group, where John Ragan was hosting a study-group tasting.

“He said, ‘Hey, by the way, we’re opening up this new, fun concept and we’re really excited about it.’ And I said, ‘Okay, that’s cool.’ When I came back from the exam, they had posted an opening for a wine director at a new USHG site. I’m friends with Jeff Kellogg, at Maialino, so I asked him if he thought I should interview for this. He said, ‘Yeah. Duh.’” When Ragan got Mason’s application, he immediately called him in for a meeting with Terry Coughlin and chef Nick Anderer, the managing partners of the new wood-oven pizza restaurant, Marta, in the Martha Washington Hotel.

Mason started in his first wine director role in July 2014, building a list from scratch. He was 26 at the time. —Joshua Greene

Jack cares and cares and puts in the time. I have never witnessed someone who combined so much focus with so much easy likeability. — Levi Dalton, I’ll Drink to That!

Jump-Shift Wine
We tasted a Vouvray in Stephen Kolpan’s class. I don’t remember the producer, but I remember that wine. It was structurally different from things I’d tasted before. It had the sensation of there being sugar, but it was also refreshing at the same time. I thought, this is a cool wine.

Italian Virgin
The summer before I graduated from Cornell, I won a Banfi scholarship. It was the first time I’d been to Europe, the first time to Italy. They took us not just to Tuscany and to Piedmont, but also to Rome. They made it a food and wine trip, a cultural trip. We’re going to a Parmigiano factory; we’re going to see balsamic [vinegar] being made. We got to see the whole picture.

From One Young Somm to Another
I worked with Drew Hendricks at Pappas and he told me, “Don’t ever get too geeky. We’re there to help people out and create an experience. Having lots of wine knowledge is helpful, but don’t get too tied up with the clones of torrontés.” I had just graduated and I was super-interested in the clones of torrontés. Drew kept me in check.

In Martha Washington’s Cellar
We have 9,000 bottles in a space that’s twelve by twenty six feet. Four sommeliers; I don’t know how many SKUs. From July 28 to September 10, when we opened last year, I was meeting people, tasting at the home office on Union Square, putting together a list and putting systems in place, working closely with John Ragan. I would have loved for this to be Lockwood shelving—the most space efficient—but we didn’t have that sort of money. We went with metro shelving, the next best thing.

55 Champagnes
I love Champagne and I think it goes really well with pizza. It’s a really refreshing pairing, even if it’s not something that comes to mind first. I wanted to have a fun Champagne list and make it affordable—to offer it at a lower price-point and get people into it. When we were opening, Danny [Meyer, CEO of USHG] likes to look at things and I heard through John Ragan that Danny said, “What’s up with all the Champagne at a pizza place?” It turned out to be a fun thing.

Recent Surprise
I’ve been opening a lot of 1996 Champagne that’s oxidized, more than I want it to be. So when I opened a 1998 Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill, I went in with the expectation that it would be oxidized. I always thought the wines were good, but this bottle was exceptionally fresh and well balanced. It was really, really good.

Jack comes across with this innocent schoolboy thing, but he’s brilliant—an insanely talented guy. — Greg Harrington, MS, Gramercy Cellars

Barolo of a Certain Age
People are going to walk into an Italian restaurant and expect Barolo. What you might notice is that all of our Barolo are around ten years old. If we’re going to have aggressive nebbiolo tannins, let’s have some wine with some age on it so the tannins soften up. Most of the old stuff started with Rocche del Manzoni out of USHG. The rest I’ve found at auction. As we’ve grown, I’ve had more time to balance and slowly build the list.

The Grind
Studying theory, how you rote memorize things, is unique to everyone. I’m not a flashcard guy. I focused first on what to study—looking at all the knowledge and whittling it down to the most important pieces of each region, the most important producers, the things that matter. I was living in the Bronx at the time and working in SoHo—an hour subway ride. I would write everything in a notebook, then rewrote that notebook, then studied that notebook for hours a day.

Cooking with my friends and family. I love to cook everything: what’s fresh, what’s in the store. This weekend we brought it back to Texas and made fajitas, guacamole, queso—it’s the Velveeta with RoTel, but I don’t open a can, I make all the vegetables fresh, and then I use Velveeta, the stuff out of a nuclear reactor.

Favorite Corkscrew
Someone gave me a Code38, so I have that. But mostly I have a bunch of Pulltaps all over the place that I just grab.

I love the question, “What are you excited about? What’s new? What should I have with this?” I love it when people say, “Here’s what I drink, but I want to try something different from that.” Most of the time, people are looking for red wine. Right now, I really love the wines from Etna. Passopisciaro did a library release and we got some 2007s that are in a really good place. We have some I Custodi—also 2007—that are more structured.

Post-Shift Drink
Champagne. Literally, every night at Marta, the chefs and front-of-house managers come down and we share a glass of Champagne as we’re decompressing and buttoning up for the night.

This sommelier was featured in W&S October 2015.
photo by Daniel Serrette