Randa Warren - Conversation With A Master Sommelier

I recently caught up with Master Sommelier Randa Warren of Tulsa, Oklahoma, one of the still few female Masters in the world. We discussed her journey to arrive at this highest level, and her advice on experiencing wine that everyone can apply. 

Getting started

I was just really frustrated not really knowing very much about wine and being in a situation where I was starting to dine out more frequently, with people with some financial ability. Some of the people I was with thought by having good wine that meant ordering expensive wines, and that was usually a Cabernet. I just really wanted to learn a little more about wine. I knew there must be more, and I was interested in it. I would pursue it by taking some low-level wine courses in a home study program in New York. That led to the upper levels in that program to the point where it got difficult. So I got a tutor to help me with one of the more advanced programs, some of the viticulture, on diseases and pruning. Then I met a core group, and began studying with them via fax, because we didn’t have email at the time. I took the introductory Sommelier program, and I just loved it! I passed the Advanced Sommelier exam in 2000, on my first attempt.

master struggles

When I got to Master level, they just cut me off at the knees. My service was very weak, because I didn’t work in a restaurant. Being a woman and being from Oklahoma, and being blonde, if you want to go down that road, but just not working in the restaurant industry really hurt me. People would be like, “Why are you even doing this?” I knew I had to work regularly in restaurants. So I began working in restaurants for free, then I began traveling around the country working with Master Sommeliers, tasting with them. One of my idols is Madeline Triffon, who is the first female Master Sommelier in the world. She was gracious enough to let me work under her in some of her restaurants. There were so many things I picked up from so many different Masters that took the time to help me. I was very blessed in that situation.

I loved (the SOMM documentary film), because I thought it was an excellent portrayal of what it was. I was a big advocate of note cards. I had note cards for everything. I always had note cards in my purse. And people in my neighborhood, if I didn’t have my note cards, they would say, “Where are your note cards?” So, that movie, you notice they all had note cards, they all had quiz cards. They were totally consumed with wine and the theory of wine, and that’s what it took. I thought it was an excellent portrait. 

You really have to put a lot of things on hold. But at the same time you are advancing yourself, feeding your passion for knowledge, advancement in wine. Everyone in this program, give or take the very gifted ones, has had something that dogs them. I have a friend who is a great wine taster, but didn’t conform to the system, the tasting grid, getting your points. He would just sail through it, and they would say, “Well, yeah, you got the wine, but you didn’t get any points.” It has to be to be a fair program, to test people equally. I had a lot of setbacks, failures, at the Master level, but every year I came back, and I was ten to twenty times better than the year before. A lot of challenges, but all of them were overcome. I think anybody can overcome challenges that are thrown your way. I passed the master in 2007.

would you like to try...

When I come back from South Africa I’ll be all hot on the South Africans, and bring in six or eight new wines, and they’ll be slow movers, and I’ll be saying, “Why did I bring these in?” But I can get people to try things, they usually trust me, and my palate. I wish I could have that store full of unique, and not so much expensive, but high quality wines, but they just don’t move. I tell people all the time, "If you like Sauvignon Blanc, that’s great. But just don’t be stuck drinking California Sauvignon Blanc the rest of your life." You’re missing out if you don’t try some from New Zealand and you’re certainly missing out on the Loire Valley. At some point you’re going to tire of that simplistic taste, or someone is going to expose you to something with a little more complexity and the lightbulb will go off, and you say, “OK, I’m willing to spend more money to enhance this experience.” Life is too short to be locked into only three different grape varietals. I do see people wanting to try new indigenous varietals, so people do want new things, and they’re willing to spend money for it. I think that’s great, and a lot of people are just like I was seventeen years ago, wanting to learn more about wine, and to start moving up the scale a little bit. 

A friend of mine came in, budget conscious, having a dinner party, and I sold her a bottle of Sauternes. It was kind of a big deal, because I sold her a thirty-five dollar bottle of dessert wine, and she wanted all the others to be under twenty dollars. I said, “if you ever want to call me and have me put together something...” and she said,  “No, I really like to come out and talk to you and get the reasoning behind the madness of why you ordered this and why you pair this with this food verses that one.” I saw it as a real achievement, and told her on the way out to pick up a piece of baklava, and save some of the Sauterne and drink it with the baklava. It’s the most incredible dessert wine pairings I’ve ever come across. She said she would, so we’ll see what she thinks. To me, that’s what’s rewarding, to get somebody into something they would never have done on their own.

future challenge

Programs (Court of Master Sommeliers) are going to get more rigorous, more strict. I think they’re trying to get people to think more at every level, not just blindly studying, blindly tasting, without any focus. I think it’s really going to become a lot more focused, much more rigid, and produce some excellent Sommeliers. The Court is also focusing a lot more on, "How can we make this program better for the students, and not waste their time and their money?" I think everybody is thinking more smartly. I’m very excited about where the court is headed. 

I would just encourage the readers to challenge themselves, to push themselves a little more. Look where you are right now, look where you could be with a little bit of study, look where you could be with a lot of study, look where you could be if you pushed yourself through four levels of the Master Sommelier program. The question is do you want to do that? Where do you see yourself in ten years? If you put yourself on a pinnacle you never thought you could reach, just by doing a little study each day, a little tasting each day, having more wine tasting parties, finding a core group of people to study with and taste with. The bottom line is to enjoy it. To enjoy what you drink. But to get out and discover new treasures every day. That’s what makes life exciting, and worth drinking!