|Photo by Michael Seto
New York has long been a hotbed of successful women. Before Hillary, the state sent Geraldine Ferraro to receive the first female nomination by a major party for the White House. Edith Wharton explored social hypocrisy in her acclaimed books. Sonia “From the Bronx” Sotomayor sits on the bench of America’s highest court.
Manhattan is also the epicenter of America’s fine-wine industry, the ranks of which ambitious women have been slowly but steadily infiltrating. Formerly the province of Caucasian gentlemen (and not-so-chivalrous gents), several of the industry’s leading ladies derive from the unusually high pool of Masters of Wine living locally.
Don’t be fooled: “Unusually high” equates to fewer than ten, and that’s out of a mere 318 MWs in the world. Less than 10 percent of MW candidates sit for the rigorous exams, and significantly fewer pass — and eager grape-loving masochists must be accepted into the elite program in the first place. Chelsea resident Christy Canterbury is one of those rare stars in the wine-world firmament to earn the credentials. (For clarification, the Master of Wine program differs from the Master Sommelier, or MS. While there is overlap in studies, the MW focuses on wine business and industry, and the MS focuses on service to the consumer.)
When I met Canterbury, she strode in wearing an elegant tailored suit; we’d agreed to convene for a late-winter-morning chat over a Rwandan coffee over at the High Line Hotel Intelligentsia. Having completed my WSET Diploma, I wanted to inquire about her MW experience. Did I have the masochism gene in me to keep going? I hoped to find out.
We’d met once before, at a dinner she hosted to extol the joys of reasonably priced vouvray (honestly, a revelation in bang for buck), but seeing her again reminded me of my first impression: How does she remain so slender and petite and flawlessly put together for a woman who eats, drinks, and travels on an endless loop for a living? (Trim traveling men prompt the same internal query.) One might divine Canterbury’s stylish sensibility as Parisian, but she is, in fact, Texas-born, hailing from the ironically “unpleasant” (as she put it) town of Mount Pleasant.
Despite harboring a childhood dream of pirouetting onstage professionally in satin toe shoes, she fled Texas for New York to work in finance and private equity. The 24/7 lifestyle left her dissatisfied, so she squeezed a few more hours out of her weekends to learn about wine while working at Vintage (the first all–New York–wine store in Soho that debuted and eventually closed, sadly about a decade ahead of its time). After gaining a modicum of “wine street cred,” she left her career to work on the business side at Italian Wine Merchants, and then parlayed that role into her first restaurant industry gig, running the $125 million beverage program at Smith & Wollensky.
The idea to pursue her Master of Wine came about organically. Canterbury is an insatiable student (she finished her undergrad program at SMU in three years, speaks fluent French and very good Spanish, and is working on her Italian), and she started with the WSET Intermediate, then Advanced, followed by the three-year Diploma program, which she completed in June 2003. “I decided immediately, being on a roll with my education, to continue,” she says. “I never wanted to be wrong or pretend that I knew what I was talking about if I didn’t, nor be unable to have a conversation at a higher technical level, should I want to.” Also, earning the rare MW would help distinguish her from the rest of the industry.
To Canterbury’s surprise, a series of employers (the MW takes years to complete) fought to dissuade rather than encourage her to pursue an education, despite its relevance to her job and the prestige it could bring to the company. “I had one boss tell me, ‘Good luck, you are crazy,’ and another employer flat-out refuse to allow me to attend the residential seminar because ‘the company was going through a difficult transition period.’ If I didn’t attend the mandatory week-long exam training, I couldn’t sit for the test. I ended up calling in sick for those days, and showed up Monday morning for work. We never discussed it again.”
While an employer’s lack of enthusiasm could be attributed to the anticipated distractions of an employee (although how many male somms or wine professionals going after their MS or MW are discouraged from doing so, I wonder?), Canterbury was shocked further by the institute’s lack of support.
“I was angry with the process for a number of reasons,” she says. “While I had a great cheering squad among my friends, nobody else was really helping me. I had several disengaged, bum mentors assigned to me. It was a lonely road at times.”
Aside from the week-long group seminar, hosted around the world in various locations once a year, the MW is, essentially, just an exam. No companion classes, syllabus, books, or coursework are offered to guide candidates toward success. It is the ultimate life test in discipline.
Canterbury eventually found other candidates in the city with whom she could study, taste, and prepare. Fortunately, they all passed — and they were all women. Canterbury rocked her theory exam on the second try, and her practical (blind wine-tasting) exam on the fourth.
I asked her whether she felt the long, expensive, frustrating road had been worth it. Candidates have been known to spend upwards of tens of thousands, even up to a hundred thousand dollars (although the $100K figure is an accounting I can’t make sense of) in self-study expenses.
“I had no idea how many doors this could open,” she says. “Even as a candidate just two years into the program, meeting MWs who were willing to help someone young in the wine industry was amazing. And being an MW has allowed me to work for myself. I honestly don’t know how I ever could have done it without it.”
Canterbury’s freelance work consists of speaking, judging, and writing about wine, and she appears at conferences for both trade and consumers. She remains miraculously poised, unwrinkled, and fit. “When I am on the road, I end up eating a lot of bread and crackers — or foie gras. So I work out a lot; I go on runs through the vineyards.”
Canterbury’s top three regions to watch:
Oregon “Due to growing outside investment, the wine quality is off the charts, and their pinot noir and riesling are stunning.”
Eastern Europe “Keep an eye on places like Croatia, even Romania. NYC restaurants are opening up their lists to these places, too.”
Greece “I love that Greek wines are becoming mainstream, and that assyrtiko is the new grüner veltliner.”