Thomas Price is back in a restaurant after eight years away, but in an exciting new role. In 2012, Price became the 190th American Master Sommelier, the first Black American to achieve the certification. It was the culmination of an amazing 34 years in restaurants. As a young, orphaned teen, Price sought safety and refuge in restaurants, working his way up from dishwasher to become a restaurant owner. Along the way, he fell in love with wine and set his sights on one of its toughest certifications.
After placing the Master Sommelier pin on his lapel, Price stepped away from restaurants to work as director of wine education at Jackson Family Wines in Sonoma. But now Price has left California for Alabama, taking a position as Master Sommelier in Residence at 1856 – Culinary Residence. This teaching restaurant is inside Auburn University's new Tony and Libba Rane Culinary Science Center, which also houses the Horst Schulze School of Hospitality Management. At the Wine Appreciation Center, Price teaches HOSP 4600: Beverage Appreciation, with a heavy focus on wine.
Price took a break from his new job to chat with Wine Spectator about his journey and his new chapter.
Wine Spectator: What was your first restaurant job? And how did wine enter your life?
As an orphan, my life has been super duper challenging. I started as a dishwasher at 13, had no parents by age 15, and raised myself working in restaurants. I was always welcome in hospitality and worked through all the back of the house positions. I was running a high-volume kitchen by age 18. When I turned 21, I moved to front of the house. In 1983, while working as a bartender and waiter at The Marx Bros Café in Anchorage, I tasted a Graham's Malvedos '76 Port with stilton cheese, which was my "Ah ha!" holy smokes moment.
How did you make the move from bartender to restaurant owner to sommelier?
It was at Tom Douglas' Etta's Seafood, in Seattle, where I first helped manage a wine program. And once I got a taste of it, I wanted to make my living in wine—just wine. "But how do I do that?"
I first considered opening a neighborhood wine shop. Then I saw a friend, Shayn Bjornholm, at a wine tasting. He had just passed his Master Sommelier exam. I didn't know anything about the test. But I thought, "I want the look he has in his eyes right now. This guy looks like he's achieved something amazing."
Later, realizing I needed to be around a big-time wine program, I took a job as a banquet waiter at Metropolitan Grill. Here wines of the world came to the door, helping me prepare for the exams. I passed Level 1 Introductory Course in 2004. During a brief stint as wine director at Ruth's Chris in 2006, I passed Level 2 Certified Course. I went back to the Met, as manager, occasional sommelier, and got to wear a tuxedo! And when my mentor, David Coyle, left, I became wine director. While working manager shifts, I passed Level 3 Advanced Course on my first attempt in 2008 and worked here until I passed Level 4.
How difficult was the Level 4 Master Sommelier exam?
I wasn't mentally prepared to be the best in the world at something. It was terrifying! I did not pass in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Not from a lack of preparation, but on exam days I would lay an egg. When I kept not passing the test, Shayn kept mentoring me tough love.
I finally realized that I'm not scared to be this good. By 2012 my head was right. I was mentally ready to pass, and I crushed it! Now I teach my students who freeze up during tests that you've just got to believe. It is not lack of intelligence, ability, or effort. Get in the mindset!
Do you have a favorite wine or region?
Wine is about who you are with and what you are doing. When I am in Auburn making brisket in the backyard on a 95-degree day, I drink a cheap Provence rosé with an ice cube in the glass. As chairman and CEO of the Somm Foundation [a nonprofit that assists sommelier education], I will soon be in Napa Valley drinking some of the craziest wines on the planet from its cellar. I love both experiences. They are interchangeable.
Why Auburn University? What is your work life like here?
In 2014, as [Court of Master Sommeliers America] director of university programs, I was very dedicated to nurturing and expanding these programs. When I started teaching the intro course at Auburn, I immediately connected with Hans van der Reijden and Dr. Martin O'Neill. Returning to teach each year, and seeing the progress, I became excited about this opportunity.
Everyone involved is working long hours. But it is super fulfilling for us all to have students in the restaurant learning. I teach students how to serve, converse with guests, and to pair wine with the menus of inaugural chef-in-residence Tyler Lyne.
It lifts all of us up to have the honor of teaching the art of our industry, but also to speed up their education in a real time, vocational, hands-on way. Most students in my beverage class aren't going to become a Master Sommelier or make hospitality a career, but some are. So, I mentor them separately. I do want all beverage students to be able navigate a restaurant wine list and to bring cool, relevant wines to their parents' house for Thanksgiving. No matter what career they pursue, they are more valuable if they understand wine and food.
How does it feel to celebrate your 10th Anniversary as Master Sommelier here?
It feels wonderful! The Auburn people have been very welcoming, kind, and sincerely generous. I love my house and am beginning to have friends over… I am very comfortable at home in Auburn.