A trip to Italy when she was a teenager sparked Sheri Sauter Morano’s initial interest in wine. But she didn’t begin formal wine training until after graduating from Duke University in 1997, embarking on studies at the International Wine Center in New York City. When Sheri became a Master of Wine in 2003, she was the youngest American female ever to have passed the exam. She now enjoys working in a variety of fields within the wine industry.
What is your first wine memory?
My mom actually likes to joke that I was weaned on grape juice—when given the choice, I chose grape juice over milk.
But I think I first really started to pay attention to wine when I was 16. Our high school Latin teacher took a group to Italy for Spring Break. We went from Milan to Sorrento, and since 16 was the legal drinking age in Italy, my parents gave permission for me to have wine with dinner as part of the local cultural experience.
Even though it was just cheap Italian table wine, I can still close my eyes and remember the feeling of the communal dinner table—a feeling of comradery that added something to meal that was really different for me. My parents had wine at special occasions, so wine wasn’t foreign to me, but this was a different approach. It seemed so natural, the experience of food and wine together, the feeling of sharing at the dinner table.
When did you begin to see wine as a professional opportunity?
I originally wanted to be a professor of Tudor history. But after graduating from college, I took one night class in New York City with Mary Ewing Mulligan and her husband—I think they were promoting one of their Wine for Dummies books. I learned that she offered more in-depth classes at the International Wine Center, and signed up for the first WSET certification.
I sat at the very back of the room, at the very end of the table. But I got lucky—I was sitting between two sommeliers, and they took me under their wings.
We did our first couple of certifications together, then got to the diploma. I thought it would be fun to do the MW studies—Mary was the only female MW in the U.S. at the time. I thought, “I can be the second.” The Institute of Masters of Wine offered an approach to wine that felt interesting and interdisciplinary. That appealed to me.
What wine or wine region are you most interested in right now, and why?
I judge every year at International Wine Challenge in London, and the last couple of years have been really interesting. There are lots of shifts and changes, and regions that are trying to expand their reach. Portugal is an area to watch. They’re doing really interesting things by combining indigenous grapes and international varieties.
I also strongly believe that in the U.S. we haven’t seen the best of what South Africa has to offer. It’s a beautiful and dramatic country with lots of producers doing exciting and interesting things, particularly in the Swartland. The U.K. is starting to see these wines in the market.
I’d also say classic regions, which a lot of times are forgotten because they’re not trendy. But they’re classic for a reason—they’re regions that consistently produce really good wines. I find myself going back again and again to Bordeaux and German Riesling.
What’s the next trip on the books for you?
For the first time in a very long while, I don’t have one planned!
But there are two places very high on my list, Greece and Portugal, and I’m itching to get something planned. I also would love to go back to couple places in Italy: Sicily, as I was only there a couple of days, and Piedmont.
What advice would you give to young people, and particularly women, looking to get into the wine industry?
It’s a very exciting industry these days. It’s becoming increasingly diverse. The opportunities for women are very open.
It’s interesting—a lot of people get into wine because they fall in love with a particular wine, have an experience at a winery or at dinner with friends. But the thing that appeals most to me is that it is so interdisciplinary. The wine industry is not just about the best wine or the best food and wine pairings. It involves myriad aspects: it’s the people growing the grapes, at all variety and quality levels; it’s about people selling wine—so many facets.
People get caught up in the esoteric—“Have you ever heard of this grape, region, producer…?”—and I have fun with that too, but at same time I think it’s critically important to understand all parts of the industry. It’s not only fine dining and expensive wine. A big segment of the market is people buying wine at grocery stores. Plus packaging, advertising, how to teach, how younger wine drinkers perceive wine, the diversity of wine and experience.
People often ask me what is my favorite wine or grape. I don’t have one. I actually wrote my MW paper on how a bad day tasting wine is a good day at work—how the real significance of expertise is about developing a palate and learning what wine is. Even though I have the MW designation, there is always something new for me to learn. Each vintage is new, different, exciting. That’s what keeps this job fresh and challenging and vibrant.
Photo credit Fox News.