In all the world, only 197 men and women hold the title of Master Sommelier, 123 of whom live in the U.S. Five of these individuals call Washington state home. Thomas Price is the most recently pinned of the group, and Angelo Tavernaro is the senior member. As such, he’s the first in our series of profiles of Washington's Master Sommeliers.
Tavernaro moved to the U.S. in his twenties, landing in Las Vegas in 1972. That's where, in 1993, he became the city’s first Master Sommelier. (Vegas now has 12.) In fact, he proudly tell you that he passed the entire master’s exam on the first try—a major feat considering the pass rate in recent years has been as low as 3.5 percent and as high as 16 percent. Averaged out, fewer than 12 percent of candidates pass the exam. Tavernaro is one of only 14—inlcluding Shayn Bjornholm—to have passed all three parts of the exam on the first try.
Tavernaro is originally from Italy, and he worked his way around top European restaurants before coming the states 40 years ago. He likes to say he brings an Old World experience with him. And, he speaks five languages. He initially wanted to be a translator, but ended up a “translator of wine” instead. The majority of Tavernaro's career happened in Vegas—teaching, directing the wine program at Caesars, opening the Rio wine cellar, influencing the wine decisions of people like Frank Sinatra—but in 2005 Washington state beckoned. He uprooted and moved, first to Prosser and then to Pasco last year. Today he teaches classes at the Academy of Wine and Services, waxing poetic about Washington and its AVAs.
Why would a man steeped in the Las Vegas wine culture move to the Tri-Cities? Because of the wine, says Tavernaro, in that deep Italian-accented voice of his.
First, it was the fact that Washington is one of the only places in the world without phylloxera—a small, sap-sucking, aphid-like pest that feeds on the roots of grapevines—and more specifically because he believes one can actually taste the difference in wines that are grown on rootstock that hasn’t been grafted. After phylolloxera hit Europe in the late 1800s, the vines there were grafted with American rootstock, which had phylloxera resistance. Tavernaro could go on for hours about that subject, and what it meant for wine.
Taverno had this epiphany when tasting Chilean wines back in the 1980s and '90s. The rootstock of certain Chilean cabernet dates back to France in the mid-1800s, before Phylloxera arrived in Europe. "At the time I did not understand the difference, but upon describing the finish structure of a Chilean cabernet, I tasted and perceived a fuller, more intense flavor than from grafted vines," he says. Fundamentally, Tavernaro believes he can taste grafting—or the lack there of—on the back of the throat and way back on the palate.
"What really surprises me is that the winemakers or wine writers have not made known to the public why the Eastern Washington wines taste better," says Tavernaro. "It's because they are grown on their own roots and also the perfect conditions we have here in Eastern Washington for growing grapes. It has all to do with our soil: The sandy loam deposited here from the Missoula floods in Montana does not allow the louse to grasp in the soil and reach the roots and do its damage."
And then Tavernaro says to go ahead and prove him wrong.
Wine grown on ungrafted roots tastes better, and is easily distinguished from versions grown on grafted roots? Maybe, maybe not. But, what matter is it when you’re getting stories on wine and the world from a guy who has been a Master Sommelier for longer than most grapevines have even been in the ground in Washington state?