From the success of the Food Network to shows like Booze Traveler and Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, food-and-drink television has proven immensely popular. The 2012 sleeper hit Somm demonstrated that audiences were ripe for wine docudramas, too. To tap in to consumer curiosity about the wine world, Esquire created “Uncorked,” a six-episode series that follows six NYC master sommelier candidates as they swirl, sip, and spit their way to the examination finish line.
The finale airs next week, on December 15 at 10 p.m. So far this season, the subjects have competed against one another in the TopSomm Regional Competition and traveled to Sonoma for the TopSomm Nationals. Josh Nadel had a training session with New York’s own Pascaline Lepeltier, MS, while Yannick Benjamin and Morgan Harris took a “study abroad” trip to Spain.
The final episode portrays the somms, filled with nervous energy, as they head to Aspen for the big test. For one candidate, it will be her first attempt. For another, his last. During the show, they discuss the “what ifs” in passing, as well as what achieving this ultimate goal might mean for their future.
The Voice caught up with each of the candidates before the big conclusion, to gauge their feelings on filming the experience.
Jane Lopes, Sommelier, Eleven Madison Park
Lopes graduated from the University of Chicago with a love for food, wine, and spirits, eventually moving to New York in January of 2013 to pursue all three. Before landing her current role at Eleven Madison Park in October of 2014, she worked at Maialino and Ristorante Morini. During her tenure in Manhattan, Jane passed her advanced exam through the Court of Master Sommeliers, was named Wine & Spirits‘ “Best New Sommelier” in 2014, and won the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs Jeune Somm Nationals 2014. Jane is taking the examination for the first time.
Lopes on what motivated her to bare one of the most intense emotional periods of her life on camera:
“I think we all had different motives for doing this television show, and I’m guessing very few of them involved fame and fortune. I think there is a desire to expose what we all do and how hard we work to make it seem effortless. For me, I’m bad at saying no to things, and you never know what kind of experiences you will have because of saying yes to something like this. I was also the only woman in the final group. And though I believe being a female has very little to do with my job and this test, I think it’s important that there isn’t another portrayal of this test and profession as being just a boys club.”
Morgan Harris, Sommelier, Charlie Palmer Group
Harris was first exposed to wine during college while working at a white-tablecloth Italian restaurant in Boston. He has since moved to NYC, where he works as a sommelier at Michelin-starred Aureole in Times Square. He hopes to spend his career promoting wine as one of the planet’s finest agricultural products and a humanizing force for social good. Morgan is taking the exam for the second time.
Harris on what viewers learn about wine and wine professionals:
“We definitely get an opportunity to drop some wine knowledge, but Uncorked also shows our personalities and the intensely personal side of why one should struggle to be excellent — in particular, what it takes in the world of sommeliers. People will get a better window into the world of wine and who wine professionals are, and how we can be involved in their day-to-day wine-drinking experiences.”
Jack Mason, Wine Director, MARTA
Born and raised in College Station, Texas, Mason laid the foundation for his career at an early age while working in local restaurants. He went on to earn a hospitality management degree at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. In 2014, Mason joined the opening team of New York’s Marta as wine director, where he currently focuses on wines of Southern Italy and Champagne. Mason has been named one of Zagat’s and Forbes’s “30 under 30” and Wine & Spirits‘ “Best New Sommeliers” of 2015. This will be Jack’s third time taking the exam
Mason on the biggest challenge of preparing for the grueling exam while being filmed:
“The increased demand for time to film! Beyond the competitions, we had to do a lot of time ‘in the chair’ to help piece the show together.”
Yannick Benjamin, Sommelier, University Club, NY; Co-Founder of Wheeling Forward
French parents and a visit to Bordeaux at age thirteen inspired Benjamin to pursue a wine industry career. In October 2003, however, a car accident left him paralyzed below the waist. Rather than be deterred, he quickly adapted, outfitting his wheelchair with a table that allows him to continue to perform the tasks of a sommelier. Benjamin’s passion is his nonprofit organization Wheeling Forward, of which he is the co-founder and director of development. Benjamin is on his final attempt to pass the test.
Benjamin on what he hoped to achieve by joining the cast:
“I have a nonprofit called Wheeling Forward, which is an organization that helps NYC’s disabled community. Viewers learn more about it on the show. I am hoping that other people with disabilities will see the passion that I have for my profession and despite that most people told me that I would never work as a sommelier, I proved them wrong. I want people with disabilities to know that if they have a passion, they need go after it while embracing failure and learning from it — you have a lot to offer!”
Dana Gaiser, Wine Sales, Lauber Imports, NY
Gaiser first developed a taste for wine when his parents began exploring and collecting; by eighteen, he was making selections for their cellar. After a four-year diversion studying mechanical engineering at Stanford, Gaiser accepted a position as an assistant sommelier in 2001, and his passion for wine — especially Burgundy, German riesling, and Champagne — became a profession. He has served as a sommelier and beverage director at prestigious restaurants on both coasts but now works in imports for Lauber. Dana is on his third attempt on the exam.
Gaiser on an episode highlight:
“When I literally tasted blind [before a live audience in Pebble Beach] was pretty amusing. No one has ever blindfolded me before for tasting!”
Josh Nadel, Beverage Director, NoHo Hospitality
A native New Yorker, Nadel is a certified advanced sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers and co-founder of Gothic Wine, a boutique winery in the Willamette Valley, Oregon. Previously, he was a sommelier at Manhattan’s venerable, though now defunct, wine-destination restaurants Veritas and Cru. Nadel is now the executive beverage director of Andrew Carmellini’s restaurants in New York City, which include the Dutch, Locanda Verde, and Lafayette. This will be his fourth time taking the test.
Nadel on whether he would do it all over again: