For a person who “fell into the restaurant business” when he was 18, Tyler Alden has since pursued food and wine to the highest level. He wants to become one of the 273 professionals worldwide to earn the title of “master sommelier.”
Alden, who graduated from Mercer Island High School in 2001 and currently works as the education and training director for Purple Cafe, found out he had passed the last of a series of examinations on Sept. 5.
“It’s still sinking in a little bit, but I’m so pleased,” he said. “It was important to me to see it through, and I think being the best you can be in any career, regardless of what career it is, has a lot of value… Especially because this is focused on elevating others’ experiences.”
Update: On Oct. 9, the Board of Directors of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas unanimously voted to invalidate the results of the tasting portion of the 2018 Master Sommelier Diploma Examination for all candidates due to evidence that a Master breached the confidentiality with respect to the wines presented for tasting. Candidates affected by the voided exam will be able to take the test for a waived fee this year or in spring or summer of 2019.
Alden decided at a young age to join the restaurant industry, though he lacked the experience required to be hired as a waiter. He started out at the host desk at Bellevue’s old Cucina Cucina, before moving over to Wild Ginger in Seattle as a waiter, trainer and sommelier, and then to Purple in 2011 as the assistant wine director.
With his mentor Chris Horn, he learned more about being a sommelier and pursuing his certification. There are four levels to complete to earn a diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers — introductory, certified, advanced and master — and three areas in each level: Tasting, theory and service.
Each step is exponentially harder than the last, Alden said, and between sections, Alden thought about leaving the restaurant business to do something else, from music composition to finance (he had studied both at the University of Washington). But the prospect of becoming a master sommelier was enticing, and something he thought was noble to pursue.
“It’s not just about wine, it’s about food and beverage and executing that at the highest level you possibly can,” he said. “Then you get to harness all that knowledge for a simple moment of helping someone have a better experience.”
He also had to know about beer (he’s also a certified cicerone), cocktails, food pairings and more. Alden said he spent many hours studying: making “thousands and thousands” of flashcards, researching wine producers and drawing maps of the world’s wine regions.
“Being a master sommelier means you’ve been exposed to everything,” he said. “[Wine] is such a broad, complex, ever-evolving and interesting field that deals with people and history, and art and science.”
There was also a lot of travel involved throughout the process, as the court hosts exams and seminars throughout the U.S. and world. But of all of the places to live and work, Alden said he feels lucky to have grown up on Mercer Island, and he loves being in Seattle and amid Washington’s rapidly growing wine industry.
“Washington is an exceptional wine region,” he said, noting that the number of wineries has grown from less than 20 to more than 900 since the 1980s. “And we’re so young by world standards… But the depth and quality of what you can source has grown. From Syrah to riesling, we have a diversity that is hard to duplicate.”
The restaurant scene in Seattle also is evolving, he said. Heavy Restaurant Group, which owns Purple, recently launched a few new spots in Seattle: a taco eatery, a brunch restaurant and a wine bar, which Alden helped open.
One day, he may want to own his own restaurant or wine bar, but for now, he said he’s excited to mentor others in the restaurant industry, and “help people who are excited about wine learn more about it.”
Part of becoming a master sommelier is paying it forward, he said. It’s driven through education and mentorship. There are a few other master sommeliers in the Seattle area, including two others who were told they passed this year.
“We’re privileged to have some excellent industry professionals and incredible human beings that are local to Seattle who have mentored me for the past 10 years or so, and I look forward to doing the same thing for other people,” Alden said.
He now oversees training and education for Purple, and said he’s passionate about providing a positive experience.
“If I can change someone’s rough day into a great day, or great night into an exceptional night, I find happiness in that,” he said.
Though he said he didn’t “understand that extent of the sacrifice and effort it would take to achieve,” he “wouldn’t change a second” of his master sommelier training.
“It is one of the best journeys I could have possibly chosen,” he said. “It’s been beautifully fulfilling.”
This story was updated on Oct. 15 to reflect the fact that the results of the tasting portion of the 2018 Master Sommelier Diploma Examination were invalidated. All 54 candidates who participated in the tasting portion of the exam will have the opportunity to take a retest.
“Yesterday was a tough day for everyone in the Court of Master Sommeliers, but especially for those who passed the voided tasting examination in September. There are no words I can say that will take away the disappointment and anger that our candidates are feeling today,” said Devon Broglie, MS, Chairman of the Board, said in a press release. “I can only imagine how hard it hit everyone to learn that something they worked so hard for was tainted by the actions of a single individual. We ask for patience as we work through the details of giving our candidates a choice of when and where they will take their retests.”