Matt Brown dreams of the day he officially becomes the best in his industry.
Already an expert and a leader in Omaha’s culinary scene, the general manager and advanced sommelier at V. Mertz hopes to add the title “master sommelier” to his resume.
The title will be the culmination of a nearly 13-year adventure—from being a host at Lincoln Thai eatery Blue Orchid to running the upscale Old Market restaurant. He’s come a long way from hosting to managing an inventory of roughly 450 Old World and New World wines plus 200 varieties of spirits.
If he achieves his goal this July, he will become the third master sommelier from Nebraska, joining Matt Stamp, formerly of V. Mertz (previously owned by the Stamp family), and Lincoln native Jesse Becker.
Brown knows that he needs to prepare for all seemingly out-of-the-blue inquiries evaluators may throw at him during his exam. After all, the process of becoming a master sommelier is designed to challenge the best of the best.
“That’s why there’s less than  of them around the world,” Brown says.
In order to achieve his goal, Brown has to face the Court of Master Sommeliers, an international organization that oversees the certification process. Sommeliers need to complete all four levels to become a master.
A three-day evaluation program makes up the introductory, or basic, level. Two days of classes include principles of vineyards and winemaking, grape varieties, production, and flavor. They also practice tableside etiquette, including wine service and customer interactions. On the third day, candidates take an exam that includes a blind tasting of six wines (three whites and three reds). They must analyze each wine, including origin of the grapes.
“I didn’t really have time to study for this one,” Brown says. “I had a lot of experience in the business and that helped me in passing the test.”
Candidates have three years to complete the second level as certified sommeliers. The one-day examination consists of three parts—a written test with multiple choice answers, a blind tasting of six wines, and a wine service practical exam. As candidates taste the wine and perform table service, judges may ask questions regarding a variety of drinks, including coffee and tea, in addition to wine and spirits.
The truly outstanding aspirants go on to become advanced sommeliers. People at this level are among the most knowledgeable in the industry. They’re the ones who know the history of where each wine comes from, the soil used to grow the best varieties of grapes, and even the flow of water in the region, Brown says.
At The Grey Plume, Heather Smith says being an advanced sommelier is the fun part of her job as general manager.
“I enjoy getting people out of their comfort zone [in trying new wines],” she says. “ If you want a pinot noir, we can give you options to try something new.”
The five-day certification process includes classroom discussion to ensure candidates display sound knowledge of wine growing, production, history, and table service. The final exam consists of a written portion, a blind tasting, and table service performance.
“My exam was six glasses with similar colors. I had to know where they were from,” Brown says. All the while, as he explained his answers, judges would ask questions about other drinks and request general information. The process tests a sommelier’s overall knowledge.
The top level—master sommelier—is the most challenging. The process is similar to the advanced sommelier examination, but with higher score requirements. Offered twice a year, candidates spend a considerable amount of time preparing. Brown says he studies about three hours a day. Most candidates work daily with a master sommelier mentor. But, in Brown’s case, he doesn’t have one to work with.
Stamp and Becker, who each achieved the honor while working in Omaha, have since moved out of state. Stamp is co-owner of Compline, a wine bar and restaurant in Napa, California. Becker, who created the wine program at Boiler Room, is now a portfolio specialist with Winebow.
Anthony Johnson, the current manager of Boiler Room, continues to use the program that Becker established nearly 10 years ago. Adjusting the inventory as needed, Johnson says he maintains the program’s core. While his team doesn’t have any true sommeliers, Johnson encourages servers to spend time with customers and gauge their beverage interests.
At a restaurant, a sommelier’s daily regimen includes managing the beverage inventory, as well as visiting with customers on drink selections, says Brad Marr, a certified sommelier at Dante at Shops of Legacy. Marr, who previously owned Lot 2 in Benson with his wife Johanna, plans to pursue the advanced sommelier certification.
“The challenge for us is making sure you find that perfect bottle of wine for your customer,” Marr says. In some cases, that may mean trying something new.
As Omaha’s culinary scene continues to grow, the city’s sommeliers see the benefit of working together. Meeting weekly, sommeliers and restaurateurs test drinks and discuss issues. No longer seeing each other as competition, the group works together to make Omaha’s wine scene a tasteful adventure.
This article first appeared in the May 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.