When Wayne Belding, co-owner of the Boulder Wine Merchant, passed the master sommelier exam in 1990, he was the 13th person in the country to hold the elite “M.S.” title. But while wine interest has soared in recent years, there are still only 94 Americans who hold this honor. What’s even more surprising is how many of them work in Colorado. With 11 masters calling the Centennial State home, we rank third behind only California (28) and Nevada (17). That’s more than culinary epicenters New York and Chicago combined. Just what, we wondered, contributed to this phenomenon?

For U.S. wine professionals, the M.S. diploma is given by the American Chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers. While the format has changed over time, there are currently three levels (introductory, certified, and advanced) that a candidate must pass before he or she is invited to sit for the M.S. exam. Once they reach the master level, candidates have command of endless wine trivia, such as the 34 grand crus of Burgundy, and must be able to blind-taste six wines, identifying the grape, region, and vintage. More candidates fail than pass, and wine gurus can spend an entire career testing and retesting before acquiring the title. “When I first took the master’s exam I got crushed,” says Jay Fletcher, M.S., an Aspen-based distributor and consultant who sits on the court’s board of directors. Indeed, many say that diligence and perseverance are critical to achieving the honor.

And Colorado is home to a large number of highly motivated residents, many of whom embrace the disciplined life of an athlete in training. To wit, Richard Betts, M.S., master sommelier of Montagna at the Little Nell in Aspen, and Bobby Stuckey, M.S., wine director for Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, are marathon runners. And, before his days as an M.S., Stuckey was also a pro cyclist. Likewise, Brett Zimmerman, M.S., Denver-based importer, was a member of the development team for the U.S. Ski Team. Meanwhile, other Colorado masters spend their free time climbing our state’s fourteeners.

What’s more, this elite crew brings the notion of coaching and teamwork to the wine world. According to Carbondale’s Damon Ornowski, M.S., Colorado masters are particularly willing to mentor others. Stuckey, for example, first trained in Colorado but moved to California before completing the exam. He explained that in Napa Valley, of all places, there was no one to study with as there had been in Colorado. Back in the Rockies, Stuckey blocks off time every Wednesday and Saturday to help train people like coworker Jesse Becker, who just received his M.S. in February. Sean Razee of Beaver Creek’s Spago, the state’s other 2008 M.S., trained under Fletcher. Referring to all of Colorado’s M.S.’s, Chad LeMieux, wine director for Denver’s Sushi Sasa, says, “It’s remarkable how accessible they are; they are really into giving back.”

This means that the phenomenon of lots of master sommeliers in Colorado is feeding on itself, and LeMieux, who is studying with help from Denver-based distributor Doug Krenik, M.S., Stuckey, and others for the court’s certificate level, is not alone. There are countless other area wine professionals who are training under existing Colorado masters for various levels with the court, three of whom sat for the M.S. exam in February. They did not pass, but, like so many before them, these budding somms will likely be back for the next test, which is set for February 2009.

Is There a Master in the House?

While Denver is home to two master sommeliers who work in wine distribution and importing, the city does not yet have one working a restaurant floor. Perhaps that’s why so many in the industry seem to be pursuing it. These city somms have passed the Court of Master Sommeliers’ introductory and certified levels, and are actively studying for the advanced exam. Who’ll be first?

Sian Nagan
The Capital Grille
A bookworm, Nagan received her diploma from the International Sommelier Guild and has taken the Wine and Spirit Education Trust advanced exam, while also pursuing both her master of wine and master sommelier titles with the court. She plans to take her M.S. advanced level exam in 2009.

Ryan Gaudin
Osteria Marco, Mizuna, and Luca d’Italia
Admired by his peers for his incredible palate and industry prowess, Gaudin plans to go for the advanced level within the next year.

Kevin Arndt
Restaurant Kevin Taylor
A step ahead of the rest, Arndt has attempted the advanced exam once. He’d like to try again in August and sit for his M.S. in February.

Ryan Fletter
Barolo Grill
Fletter, who values the journey as much as the summit, is eyeing spring of 2009 for his advanced exam.