When the Court of Master Sommeliers confronted waves of public backlash last year over complaints about insufficient diversity and sexual-harassment allegations against numerous members, some wine professionals stepped away from the organization in response. For 33-year-old Master Sommelier Vincent Morrow, it was a tough call.
With an African American father and an Italian American mother, Morrow is no stranger to feeling personally conflicted. “I’ve kind of felt this way in a lot of my life,” he says. “It’s like, well I’m half this and I’m half that, so I don’t really know where I fall. Am I supposed to help, and if I don’t, then what does that make me?” But of all the questions on his mind, one reigned: “If we don’t, who will?”
See our past coverage for more on the 2020 allegations against members of the Court of Master Sommeliers.
In January 2021, he took a co-chair position on the Court’s Diversity Committee, which had formed the previous June, while maintaining 60-hour weeks as wine director of Press in St. Helena, a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner.
In the following months, the committee implemented new bylaws and ethics policies, a non-discrimination policy and an anti-racism pledge. Dress code policies were updated to reflect a more inclusive approach to what’s considered “appropriate” in a modern-day restaurant. Gender was removed from service examinations, meaning no more serving women first or addressing guests by terms like “ma’am” or “sir.”
The committee also shortened the timeline for eligibility for the board of directors, to narrow the gap between leaders of the organization and younger members. “You could pass the [Master Sommelier exam] and then not even be eligible for the board for 8 to 10 years,” Morrow says. “So we found that people who were winding up on the board, for the most part, just weren’t connected to the people taking the exams in their mid-20s that were still on the floor.”
Then in April, the committee helped launch the first online and on-demand versions of the Introductory Sommelier Course and Introductory Examination, with the goal of making the certification process more accessible. (Previously, students had to travel to attend in-person events.) With that, the committee is awarding an initial round of 100 scholarships for the course to BIPOC+ individuals, prioritizing financial need. And in July, the Court announced a new executive director, Julie Theobald, an expert in nonprofits and corporate leadership, rather than wine.
Morrow’s dedication to improving the organization is partly due to his own experiences. He grew up in Phoenix with extremely limited exposure to wine (“The only things I remember about wine were those Carlo Rossi jugs, and also boxes of Franzia”) and originally moved to California to attend Sonoma State University on a soccer scholarship. Drawn to the seemingly mature and sophisticated lifestyle of enophiles, he chose wine business strategies and marketing as the required concentration for his business degree. After a subsequent series of positions at wineries including Hart's Desire and Ridge, Morrow signed up to pursue his sommelier certification with the Court.
He was renting a single room in Calistoga, not the most conducive environment for studying. So he began frequenting the now-closed Napa spot 1313 Main, where he’d often attend industry nights and taste bottles with peers and staff. The wine bar became a valuable educational hub for Morrow, and he recognizes how much more challenging and isolating the studying process would have been without it. “Hopefully people that were in my position before have more tools and feel a little bit more connected,” he says, referring to the impact of the new online Introductory course.
Morrow was later hired at 1313 Main and became beverage director in 2012, one of the numerous impressive wine positions on his resume before he took over the all-Napa wine list at Press in December 2020.
Morrow recently sat down with Wine Spectator associate editor Julie Harans to talk about the start of his wine journey, what he drinks as a break from all the Cali Cabs, and his mission to forge a welcoming and inclusive path for the next generation of wine professionals.
Wine Spectator: Was there a certain experience or bottle that sparked your interest in wine?
Vincent Morrow: In my sophomore year [of college], I came home for Thanksgiving; I had just turned 19, and my mom offered a taste of red wine, and I was like, “Wow, this is really good.” I don’t remember what it was, but I ended up having a second glass. And this was during Thanksgiving dinner, one of the few times during the year that my family would all sit around the table together. I remember looking at the table and my family and thinking, “This is amazing; we have food and wine and I feel relaxed,” and there was an appeal in that. And when I moved out here [to California] and played soccer, my mom was my biggest fan, so she would visit twice a year and I became the [beverage director] for her tastings. Those experiences are what made me decide that I wanted to figure out how to do something in wine.
WS: It sounds like that sense of connection you felt during Thanksgiving dinner foreshadowed your attraction to the restaurant industry.
VM: Totally. It’s funny because my younger brother is definitely the salesperson in the family and very hospitality-minded and can always connect with people, no matter where they come from or who they are. And we definitely get that from our father. I don’t know if it’s coincidence or if it just runs in the family. But restaurants provided me this medium for connecting with guests. And I like dressing up in a suit.
WS: Did being Black feel like a barrier to entry to the wine world?
VM: I didn’t really think about it at the time, to be honest. I was already kind of used to doing things that, quote–unquote, most Black people around me weren’t doing. Like I had been playing soccer, and outside of Hispanic and Latino, I was usually the only person of color on the team. I was just kind of used to it, so I didn’t really consider that as a barrier. Whether it was or wasn’t, I didn’t perceive it as so.
WS: Did you have any mentors early in your wine journey?
VM: Right after I passed the [Court’s Certified Sommelier] exam, another gentleman, Sur Lucero, who had just passed the [Master Sommelier exam] in 2012—he was at Oenotri at the time—took it upon himself to gather about 20 Certified Sommeliers from around the valley. He was thinking about it as, “This is the next generation, we have to give them the support and the platform,” so he helped wrangle everyone and told us to start a study group and hold each other accountable. Because that whole generation of people like Dennis Kelly, Jason Heller, Dustin Wilson, all these guys that had been around Napa had passed at that point. Sur and I are still friends today, and it’s been nice to kind of take that baton and try to pass it onto others as well.
WS: In addition to the policy and procedure changes made since January, how else are you working on reforming the Court?
VM: For a long time, the organization was just reactive, and we’ve really tried to shift from that. Very minimal on social media, didn’t want to play favorites, didn’t want to politicize anything. I would say the intent was to be safe and neutral, but when it comes down to it, that can also play against you if you’re not proactive and anticipating things as they come down the pipeline. Not just because we live in a digital world, but in general, people are much more aware and watching everything you do and want things to be inclusive and want things to be accessible and they want it yesterday, and we just weren’t moving at that pace.
That was also one of the challenges of starting the diversity committee; we had so many ideas and wanted to implement things [quickly]. I think a lot of us came from a place with a sense of urgency in restaurants and wanted to instill that into what we’re doing now. And I feel like that exists now.
WS: How do you view the Court’s progress so far?
VM: I feel confident about where it’s at now and everyone that’s on the board now. Certainly there are still lots of challenges, whether past or current, that have yet to be addressed. It’s been an interesting growth period to observe because, for seven or eight years, I was on the other side of it.
Next year, It’ll be the 10-year anniversary of the Somm documentary coming out. Since then, the popularity [of the profession and certification] has just skyrocketed through the roof, and there were not systems or structures in place to field all of that demand. It didn’t necessarily start the problem, but it created the opportunity for it.
And it’s not just about the organization, it has to be about the industry. Because if you look at the organization now in terms of demographic, we are more or less representative of the wine industry and the hospitality industry, and that’s not good enough. If we’re only striving to be that, nothing’s ever going to change. But if we’re trying to change the industry, that’ll inform who’s actually attempting the exam, and hopefully people pass, and then our demographic changes.
WS: What else needs to happen to make the wine industry more inclusive?
VM: Making sure that things like certifications and diplomas and degrees have as much equal access as possible, that’s a start. Because for me, I saw it as [the certification] will speak for itself. All things aside, that’s an objective link. As a person of color, I was always like, well, if I can get that, then no one can really say anything. They can see the color of my skin or they can see tattoos or they can see me in street clothes, but I can say, well, there it is, take it or leave it, so to speak. So helping people get something, whether it’s through the Court or through the Institute of Masters of Wine or even just a local wine school, that can be a huge way to not only get over barriers, but then help break them down and help more people across.
WS: What do you drink at home? Do you need a break from Cali Cabs?
VM: My girlfriend and I were in Germany working harvest last year, and we love Riesling. So coming back to Napa was challenging, when you go from like 11 percent alcohol to 14.5, just getting used to that on a daily basis.
But I really enjoy white wine and lighter reds, especially with the weather right now. I’m looking at the wines out of Sicily right now; they are firing on all cylinders and provide a lot of wine for the money, with all the texture and aromatics and light-red fruit and even some herbal qualities. It’s a lot packed into one, and maybe a bit more diverse-feeling in terms of the experience than just a Pinot Noir from Burgundy, which only gets more expensive.
WS: How’s everything been going at Press restaurant since you’ve reopened in early February?
VM: We did 350 [covers] this past Saturday, and that’s the most the restaurant has ever seen. We’re still trying to find that right balance of hiring, but making sure it’s the right people. And not even the right experience per se, but the right enthusiasm and passion. Especially on the wine side, I think this is a good opportunity for aspiring sommeliers or junior sommeliers to really make that jump, or even people that have been servers and worked with a lot of wine.
That’s not isolated just to young people. I think there’s an older generation too that maybe hasn’t worked in restaurants but has been around wine for a long time and would like to be involved. That was something that was brought to my attention last week on a mentorship Zoom session. Someone expressed that they’ve loved wine for so long and want to help on the floor or even just help a few nights a week, and they feel like they’re getting stonewalled because of their age. The restaurant industry has to get more creative, fast, more than we already were during the pandemic ... it’s just like with anything in life, and for wine, it’s about finding a balance.
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