The most deep-rooted memory I have about someone I've never met is that initial interaction. It stays with you and often speaks volumes as to who that person is. Today I'm at Pebble Beach Food & Wine waiting for a young man who has the distinction of being the only Master Sommelier in Boston, MA out of just 147 other Master Sommeliers in North America. To say I'm intrigued would be an understatement. Passing the MS exam is a feat akin to a rebirth. You abandon life as you know it and sacrifice everything for the cause. It's a one person rodeo and you are riding the bull, most are thrown and never reach the holy grail of wine accreditation known as the Master Sommelier.
The first thing I notice as we progress is the unpretentious ease with which Callahan carries himself.
He realized he enjoyed wine far more than his schooling.
Brahm Callahan is the Master Sommelier & Beverage Director for Himmel Hospitality Group, Boston MA, Grill 23 & Bar, the iconic Harvest Restaurant, and Post 390. He's been in restaurants for 20 years, literally since he was 11. He has a Master's Degree in Classics from Boston College and was working in wine at the same time he was getting his degree. He did not initially embrace wine as a career, but as time went on, while he was still in school, he realized he enjoyed wine far more than his schooling. At that point he decided to make a career out of it. In 2015 he joined 6 other individuals to become a Master Sommelier.
His official role has him covering beer, wine and liquor, or as he says: "Equal Opportunity Enjoyer". Each program is unique and has its' strengths. Grill 23 has 2,000+ wine selections. Post 390 is more bar driven, hip and funky on the wine list side, with a well rounded beer list. Does he have a favorite? No. It's like kids. They each have their individual charm and nuances of something special.
While he tastes these revered champagnes pretty regularly, it is rare to have all nine side by side.
He remembers the wines & taste by color. I'm looking for the word and he says it. Synesthesia.
"Joseph Phelps is the founder of what we call the modern wine movement."
What he learned during this tête de cuvée experience was each wine is uniquely like a personality in memory. "So some were personalities I remembered. In the context of the flight some were a little bit more playful or masculine." he says, reflecting on the experience. I asked, "Do you have visual recall?" He says remembers the wines & taste by color. I'm looking for the word and he says it. Synesthesia.
Another highlight for Callahan, speaking at the Joseph Phelps Insignia 40th anniversary tasting, (he has vast experience with the brand). "Joseph Phelps is the founder of what we call the modern wine movement. They've always invested in vineyards and really produced iconic wines. It's a privilege to be on a panel and speak on a wine that has had such an influence on an industry."
"Pairings", he says, "are very personal."
"Pairings", he says, "are very personal." You have to experiment with pairings to understand whether or not they are going to work. The almost last thing he thinks about when pairing is the protein. "Think about chicken. It's a pretty neutral protein. But if you grill it, it's going to taste different than if you smoke it , pan sear it or roast it. All four preparations will result in a different accompaniment. Roasted potatoes, vegetables, will affect it and it will all be very different if you are going to be putting BBQ sauce on it." In essence the hard fast rules are out the window. The air of superiority dispelled in Callahan's opinion because this is truly a service industry. Sommeliers need to make the experience a better one for the customers. They do that through sharing what they know and being helpful. Not necessarily lauding over others. Refreshing!
For those thinking about a career as a Master Sommelier. Brahm says the process is brutal and you have to be doing it for yourself. If you do it for anyone else it probably won't happen. It's a brutal journey, but the journey makes you stronger. You have to be 100% committed to it because it will own your life.
Throughout the interview two things stayed with me about Callahan. He has fun. Serious fun. He loves what he does and he loves helping improve the customer experience. He doesn't take himself or the job too seriously but is fully vested in the importance of what he does for the people he works for and the customers he works with. He has a great sense of humor and he is incredibly knowledgable about wine and food.
Brahm Callahan spent the better part of his 31 years in the restaurant industry, 20 actually working in it. Having the opportunity to have a short window of time with him was an enlightenting and refreshing experience. Much like he came into being a Master Sommelier, he comes into this event as a unique participant, one of just six other Master Sommeliers lending their expertise to the experience.