The Reign of Fred Dame | SevenFifty Daily
The founder of the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas created a career path for stateside wine pros; in doing so, he elevated American dining for everyone.
In a San Francisco home full of items that reflect a lifetime of hard work and play—rifles and fishing rods, trophies and medals, a 1956 Chevy Bel Air in the garage beside many cases of wine—Fred Dame opened a Daou Chardonnay. Hushing his hunting dog, Bama, he surveyed his achievements. “None of this turned out the way I thought it would,” he says. “Would I say it’s better? Yes. Would I say it could be better? Yes. Would I make some changes if I were still running it today? Oh, yes. But that’s the nature of longevity and success.”
Dame was referring to the U.S. chapter of the world’s foremost examining body for sommeliers, the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas, which he founded in 1986, two years after he aced the master exam in London. More broadly, he was talking about the American wine scene and the dining culture that has grown along with it.
Colleagues give him much of the credit for that growth. “Fred Dame is the godfather of the American sommelier community,” says Laura Fiorvanti, MS, the owner of Corkbuzz Restaurant & Wine Bar (which has locations in New York City, Charlotte, North Carolina, and the Hamptons, on Long Island) and vice-chair of SommFoundation, the court’s scholarship wing.
Randall Bertao, MS, a CMS board member and the general manager of Los Altos Golf & Country Club in California, says, “Everybody who’s ever become an MS in America since Fred passed [the exam] owes something to him.”
“If Fred wasn’t an MS, he would’ve been commander of the [U.S.] Third Army,” says Steve Poe, MS, a CMS board member and the beverage director at Big Canyon Country Club in Newport Beach, California.
You get the picture. Industry people speak floridly of Dame. The praise is earned. “The sommelier profession could have [evolved] without the [American] court,” says Jay James, MS, director of sales and marketing for Napa’s Chappellet Vineyards and SommFoundation chairman, “but what made it more impactful is that through [Dame’s] efforts [to implement] standards of excellence and this really hard exam, there was something to achieve that denoted dedication to the art, science, and theory of becoming a sommelier. It gave the career legitimacy.”
Would-be masters’ tears have been shed along the way. There’s even been some scandal. But in over three decades, wine service in the U.S. has become the stuff of movies, with Dame and his disciples starring in the SOMM series of films. The CMS Americas chapter has conferred 172 of the court’s 269 Masters titles. Dame himself served as president of the Court of Master Sommeliers Worldwide in 2003, further establishing the American community on the global stage.
No wonder Poe compares Dame to General George S. Patton—he has raised an army of somms. For those who soldier on from introductory courses through Certified and Advanced levels to become Master somms, money is certainly a motivating factor. According to a 2017 GuildSomm survey, Advanced Sommeliers earn, on average, $87,000 annually. Master Sommeliers make nearly double that, about $164,000. As Geoff Kruth, MS, says in the first SOMM film, a candidate who passes the Masters exam will find that “six months later, suddenly the phone starts ringing for opportunities to travel, to speak, to teach.” The film ends by noting that on the very day candidate Ian Cauble passed the exam, he was appointed U.S. Ambassador for Krug Champagne.
Dame has certainly been a rainmaker for sommeliers. But in his own career, he’s also shown that restaurants aren’t the only arena for Master Sommeliers. Sales and marketing, in particular, have become robust career paths. And that development has only helped boost the money-earning potential for pros.
Finding the Magic
Dame stumbled into the wine vocation in 1971. Sixth-generation Californians involved in the raisin business, Dame and a cousin used funds from the sale of their family ranch for a post–high school summer in Europe. “We start off in Germany,” recalls Dame, “and my cousin buys two bottles of Mosel blanc. We’re watching the Mosel River go by, eating sausage, eating french fries, drinking out of the bottles. Then we move to the next place and taste something different; move to the next place, taste something different. I just fall in love with it. Everywhere we went, the wines were developed to complement the cuisine. In America, it was McDonald’s and Coke. But this was magic, and people weren’t getting hammered. They just appreciated it.”
For Dame, the trip wasn’t only cultural—it had a physiological effect on him. He discovered that he was blessed with a keen sensory memory, or as he puts it, “the nose!”
His olfactory acuity is so astute that his name has become a verb. “‘Daming it,’” explains Cauble in the first SOMM movie, “means that you just smell [the wine] and you know the vintage, the grape variety, the country, and the subregion.”
Dame also has a photographic memory. “If faced with a wine, he seems to never forget it,” says Jim Bareuther, Dame’s former boss, the executive vice president of sales and marketing at Seagram Classics Wine Company, now out of business. “His memory makes his palate even more impressive.”
So Dame was seemingly born to pass the blind-tasting and theory portions of the MS exam. And the third portion—the service exam? He learned those skills on the floor of the legendary restaurant The Sardine Factory in Monterey, California.
Building a World-Class Wine Program
It was 1971, and Dame was home in Monterey for summer break from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, where he attended school after priming his palate in Europe. He was sporting the era’s long hair. In Virginia, “most people were drinking Rebel Yell [bourbon] and beer,” he says. “I was drinking Lafite. The wines I could buy for nothing back then—I was like, ‘These people are idiots.’”
“A goddamned hippie Democrat … [Dame] came to us at 18 years old, to do some typing,” says chef Bert Cutino, Balestreri’s partner at The Sardine Factory. A week into the job, Dame cut his hair.
Dame spent the remainder of his college summers learning different parts of the restaurant business—“in the kitchen, behind the bar, as busboy,” he says. “You fall in love with it.”
After a brief attempt at law school to please his mother, he returned to Monterey and The Sardine Factory. “I’m running a 265-seat restaurant doing 700 covers a day,” Dame says. “Then the general managership came up, and they wouldn’t give it to me. I was only 23. So I took a job at another restaurant. That killed them. Ted calls: ‘We’ll have lunch.’ I get to The Sardine Factory, and we go into this incredible new wine cellar. It’s empty. He says, ‘We built this so you’d come back. I want you to build me the greatest cellar in America. Don’t screw it up.’”
Dame went for it. “In the early ’70s,” he recalls, “the [federal] inheritance laws changed. People were just trying to get enough cash to pay the freaking taxes. Their wine cellar were the first thing they sold. All these incredible wines came up for a song. It became treasure hunting.”
The Sardine Factory also supported the nascent California wine industry. Robert Mondavi, Hanns Kornell, Louis M. Martini—“back when Napa was brand new, I was selling their wines,” says Dame, “and I had a ball.”
In other restaurants at the time, says Balestreri, the New World was relegated to the back page. “We put California on the same page as Bordeaux,” he says, “and it turned out to be a huge success.”
“Today we have 15,000 bottles, and 1,800 wines on the list. Even now it’s considered one of the best [cellars] in the country,” says Cutino. “The key is keeping that balance [of Old World and New], and we owe that to Freddie.”
Equally important to the restaurant’s success was Dame’s effect on service. He was an early proponent of staff education and promoting personnel from the floor. “I said, ‘I’m not going to be here every night. Everybody here should have a modicum of knowledge,’” Dame says. “So we started the Sardine Factory Wine Academy—you’d show up, I’d teach you, and we had a series of pins you could earn.”
He didn’t care who the staffer was. If they had what he saw as talent, he made them a somm. “We gave a test to everyone,” Balestreri recalls, “and women were scoring the highest, so Freddie broke that glass ceiling.”
Founding the American CMS Chapter
In the early ’80s, Dame wanted to further his own wine education. “There was no school,” he says. “Who’s gonna teach you? Then I read about the master exam.” In 1984 he passed all three sections of the Court of Master Sommeliers exam on his first try and became the third American ever to earn the MS title. “I was 32,” Dame says. “I thought, ‘Am I done here? What if I helped people do this?’ With my experience at The Sardine Factory, teaching people who didn’t know anything, I thought there must be a segment of the industry that has talent without a way to express it.”
Dame gathered pros he knew from the Wine Spectator Restaurant Awards and in 1986 administered the first MS exam in the U.S. at The Sardine Factory. One person passed. “Guys were crying,” says Balestreri. “We learned we had to have educational programs and different levels, so the nightmare turned into something positive.”
The U.S. court grew—in 2006 the certified level was added to bridge the divide between the introductory and advanced exams—and thousands of would-be wine pros rose through the ranks. “I would never have imagined we’d put 7,000 people through level one in a year, which we did last year,” says Dame. Much of the success is thanks to the creation by Dame and others of supporting organizations: SommFoundation and the educational GuildSomm, which has more than 12,000 members in 90 countries. Dame is the chairman of GuildSomm, and its classes, online content, and community forum reflect his focus on mentorship. He is known for his steadfast support of aspirants. “When I doubted my abilities,’ Fiorvanti says, “Fred called me daily to tell me how much he believed in me.”
That doesn’t mean he isn’t tough. “If you want the hug-and-kiss guy, get someone else,” says Dame. “My job is to prepare you to the best of my ability for the shit storm I know is coming.”
“He’ll make you cry, but it’s always good [for you],” says Amy Mullally, a Certified Sommelier and the senior regional sales manager for Crown Point Vineyards in Santa Barbara, California. “For any level of the exam, one of the hardest challenges is to run through deductive reasoning in the time allotted. Not a lot of people are good at it, and not a lot teach it. He’s the best at getting to the point. And that skill applies in your career outside the testing. When you’re making a presentation, you’d better be able to dial in your thoughts. That’s one of the most valuable things that Fred taught me.”
A judge alongside Dame at the L.A. International and Pacific Rim wine competitions, Mullally has also seen the “fun Fred,” she says—the guy who’s “super competitive” at karaoke and who banters with fellow judges.
“Those of us who know him well know that behind that intimidating exterior is a teddy bear who is always willing to help,” says Emmanuel Kemiji, the owner of Miura Vineyardsin Napa, California, who was mentored by Dame through his MS in 1989.
Dame’s magnanimity goes hand in hand with his showmanship. “Fred was working for Seagrams, and word was he had an unlimited expense account,” recalls Jay James, MS, the director of sales and marketing for Napa’s Chappellet Vineyards and the chairman of SommFoundation. “The night after my advanced course in 1994, there were seven or eight of us at a restaurant, and Fred asked for the cheese cart. He took one look and said, ‘That will be fine.’ We ate the cheese [meant] for the entire restaurant. He was entertaining but also incredibly generous.”
A Trailblazing Path
“I had a penthouse on the beach, a new Porsche every year,” says Dame of life in Monterey in the ’80s. “I had the life, but I was bored. Then Seagrams came calling.” In 1987, Dame was hired to help develop Seagram Classics Wine Company, the start of a pioneering career trajectory after The Sardine Factory.
“I’m not sure any other Master Sommelier was working for a wine company,” says Bareuther, Dame’s boss. “[Dame] brought a different talent to us.” Whether at white-tablecloth restaurants or high-end retailers, “he could open any door.” Much of Dame’s success involved teaching. “Not only was he able to impart knowledge internally,” Bareuther says, “but our relationships in the marketplace increased significantly, largely due to [Dame]’s ability to connect our education to people.”
Dame worked for Seagram’s for 13 years, during which time he was promoted to national accounts, then to liquor. “Spirits was 70 percent of the industry,” says Dame. “It was a free MBA.” When the company was sold, he bowed out. Eventually, Dame went into distribution and learned that side of the business too. A year ago, Dame turned 65, and as he was pondering retirement, Georges and Daniel Daou reached out. The brothers had sunk their software fortune into a state-of-the-art winery in the emerging Adelaide District in Paso Robles. Would Dame work for them?
“Now I’m having more fun than in years,” Dame says. After wrestling with corporate bureaucracies, he says, he can finally get things done at the small, nimble Daou winery. And he’s proud of the wines. “When you’re in distribution, you’ve got 75,000 SKUs,” he says. “You’re taking crap out [into the marketplace].” With Daou, “everytime you pull a cork, people love it.”
According to Georges Daou, the winery gave Dame something in return—a shot of adrenaline. “He lost 25 pounds,” Daou says, “he’s invigorated to travel, and he’s passionate about what he’s doing,” floating “major ideas” that are “going to make Daou a lot more prominent.”
And Dame’s fame “adds credibility to our wines,” says Alexis Walsh, Daou’s senior vice president of marketing. “At the launch of our top-of-line Cabernet, held at Carnegie Hall [in February 2019], sommeliers were asking for selfies with him because he is legendary.”
Passing the Torch
“The Court of Master Sommeliers created the [high] level of fine-dining service in America today,” Dame says. “We created the sommelier system, which raised the level of wine service, which raised the service of everybody because they had to keep up with the guys selling wine. The greatest award I receive is when there’s a new Master. That validates everything I’ve tried to do, which is give more people an opportunity to enjoy the glories of food and wine.”
It hasn’t been a perfect process. Just 28 women have passed the American MS exam, compared with 144 men. Mullally says the court itself doesn’t discriminate; she chalks up the gender disparity to the industry overall. Citing Fiorvanti, who has established a scholarship for women, Dame notes that the candidate pool is diversifying. “I taught the MS intro and certified in Denver [recently],” he says, “and there was a full house of every gender, color, and whatever else you could imagine,” he says. “We had a 100 percent pass rate for intro. What didn’t matter? Who you were. It was what you achieved.”
That’s long been his philosophy—and that of the court. The exam process is “gender neutral,” says the executive director of CMS Americas Kathleen Lewis. “We, in fact, do not require any candidate to list gender when applying for programs. Offhand, I would say that there’s a stronger ratio of women applying for our programs and that the industry is taking a turn. However, I don’t have concrete stats.” But if the court and its partners started collecting demographic information, one wonders whether they could use that data proactively to help move the industry along.
Then there was the cheating scandal: In October 2018 the results of the blind tasting portion of the American Masters’ test were nullified when a proctor shared answers in advance. Rather than ferret out the aspirants involved, the court stripped 23 new Masters of their titles and told them they would have to redo the blind tasting exam. The move angered many. But Dame is adamant: “I have completely supported the decisions of the CMS board, period.”
His circumspection in this matter may be related to his desire for a graceful exit. Dame fathered the Master Sommelier movement. Now it’s time for others to reap the rewards (and take the heat). “I tell the people I teach when they become Masters, ‘You owe me nothing except one thing: the next you,’” he proclaims. “Until that debt is paid, you’ll hear from me. Pass one student that you mentor and see them succeed, and you’ll truly understand what it is to be a Master Sommelier.”
Teach one; that person teaches another—it’s Dame’s most deeply felt ethos, and how he will pass the torch. “It’s so nice to help pass on the spark to somebody,” says the Los Altos country club’s Bertao. “That originated with [Dame], and his gospel definitely spread.”
“I’ll retire as GuildSomm chairman in a couple years,” Dame says, “and then I’m going to hang it up. I’m a cowboy. I’m gonna disappear. I’ve given enough—now it’s their turn.”