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Profiling Laura DePasquale: Master Sommelier

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Raise a glass to this wonder woman.

Laura DePasquale is one of the world’s leading wine and spirits experts, a master sommelier and business executive who is also a mentor, a storyteller, and all-around badass. Read on.

laura depasquale master sommelier headshot

Meet Laura DePasquale

Usually, writing the introductory paragraphs for Unpeeled’s women in food profiles comes easily: a general paragraph or two about their field, their life, and what makes them inspiring.

The great Laura DePasquale, however, is not a woman easily described. She has reached the top echelon of wine field, having been awarded the rare distinction of Master Sommelier — one of only 273 such experts in the world, and one of only 25 women master sommeliers in the Americas.

Currently, Laura holds the role of Senior Vice President of Sales and Commercial Operations, Artisanal Wine Division, at Southern Glazer’s, the largest wine and spirits distributor in the U.S. and a preeminent global distributor of beverage alcohol.

Laura DePasquale is a storyteller, an artist, a business executive, and a mentor. She is one of those wise, fun people you wish you could invite over for dinner (she’ll bring the wine, of course), so you can listen to her stories and advice all evening long: stories about serving Gianni Versace at her coffee shop in the early days of the Miami Beach scene, making it as an artist in New York, working in the hottest restaurant in New York City when California cuisine was ascendant, and more.

As you will see, Laura’s life path has not always been a direct one. The most interesting paths never are. But no matter which the unexpected turn or changes she’s ever faced, Laura has shown a passion, a tenacity, a drive, and a discipline that can inspire us all. I hope you enjoy this interview with the deeply talented Laura DePasquale. Below, Laura shares her story, her secret to success, thoughts on climate change’s impact on wine, her favorite emerging wine regions — and of course, her picks for the perfect Thanksgiving wines.

wine bottles on rack
Photo by Hermes Rivera for Unsplash

The Interview: Master Sommelier Laura DePasquale

[Editor’s note: This interview took place in April 2023. This article has been edited and condensed for space.]

I wanted to talk about your journey into wine. How did you start drinking wine, and when did something about wine click for you?

My father was Italian, and wine was a part of our life. I was allowed to have a little wine as a child, but I didn’t like it. After I left D.C. [where I went to college] in 1990, I moved back New York City and had 40 dollars to my name — literally. I was working as a designer and had a freelance job, but wasn’t going to be paid for four to five weeks.

So I got a job at a very hot restaurant around the corner [Arizona 206]. There was a real revolution happening in New York City restaurants at the time. California cuisine and Southwest cuisine had infiltrated. The wine list was all California.

I didn’t know anything about California wine, but California wines were really taking off. I tasted a chardonnay and a pinot noir from California, and I was like, “This is wine? This is delicious!”

I am sitting here thinking about how even though this was 1990, you’re still able to tell me the exact wines you tried.

I remember the brands, too! It was just like, click. And this was also the first time I was tasting things like dandelion greens, arugula, rabbit, and seeing that pasta didn’t have to be in a red sauce with meatballs. So this period woke up my wine sensibility, and also woke up my food sensibility.

I did this for a couple of years, and I decided to get my M.F.A. in painting. So I knew I was going to stay in restaurants for a while while I was in grad school to pay the bills.

It’s interesting that even as you are working so much in the restaurant industry and making money there, you still had an eye toward a future in a totally different career. 

At that time in New York City, very few people went into hospitality as a career. Everyone I knew was also an actor or dancer or comedian or auditioning. It was really that we were going to make money to support what we really wanted to do. It was a great time; everyone was so creative and there was a social scene around that.

[Laura then got recruited into a management position as the beverage director at the Royalton Hotel Group.]

That was my first time working with all women. We were an all-female management staff. People asked what that was like, and it was great. But I really didn’t know what I was doing. I was doing staff trainings one step ahead of the staff.

So what did that look like? What did you do to train to teach staff?

Read books. I would buy books and study them and put together a presentation and present it to the staff. But in my mind, I was focused on the M.F.A. and being a famous artist.

So how did you then come to move to Miami?

I moved to Miami in 1993. I did it for love. It was very beginning days of South Beach. Miami was like a desert — an artistic desert, a food desert, a wine desert. I was like, “What have I done?”

I now had my M.F.A. and was alone a lot because my [partner at the time] was always busy. So I decided that I would get a job as a hostess, just to meet people. Miami had just started having a little bit of attention. So we eat at all the restaurants, and the one I decided sounded most interesting was Norman Van Aken‘s place.

So I call and show up, and the guy running it was an extraordinary wine guy. I told him I worked in New York, and he asked me, “When can you start?”

After a couple months as a hostess, they convinced me to be the dining room manager and to start working with the wine list. I’m working with some extraordinary wines, but I’m still not really into it. My art career is taking off a little bit with my first solo shows, I’m applying for grants, so it’s still not a career for me.

[Eventually the restaurant closed, and Laura opened a coffee shop on South Beach with her brother, where she did the baking and served coffee to regular customers like Gianni Versace. At the same time, Laura’s art career was had momentum; she was awarded a competitive grant, and held solo shows in New York and Philadelphia.

Her personal life took a turn, and Laura divorced. She also found herself struggling to find commercial success as an artist. Wanting to make a big life change, Laura sold the coffee shop and moved to Coral Gables to work for another Norman Van Aken restaurant.]

What happened once you moved to Coral Gables and were working on the restaurant?

My friend told me about a flier he saw on the wall for a Court of Master Sommeliers course and exam the following weekend. He knew I knew something about wine, so he told me I should take it with him.

So there I was at Disney World, at the Contemporary Hotel, tasting wine with three master sommeliers, and I was like, “Holy crap. This is everything I love, combined in this glass of wine.” It’s travel, it’s history, it’s art, it’s culture, it’s tradition, it’s food, it’s agriculture.

And I decided right there that I would become a master sommelier. And I passed the first level exam.

What was the next level of your training for master sommelier?

At that time, there was just intro level, then advanced. So I studied and prepared to take the advanced exam, but we [my study group] didn’t really know what we were doing. There were no other master sommeliers in the area or really any mentorship available.

The master sommelier exam is a three-part exam. I passed the theory, I passed service, but I failed the blind tasting. Part of the reason I failed was because we used to practice one wine at a time. We didn’t know any better. But for the test, you sit in front of six wines for 25 minutes. That was the first time I ever sat in front of six wines — plus I was a nervous wreck.

[It turned out that Laura was very close to passing. The Court of Master Sommeliers offered her a place at the next available exam.]

Were you tasting wine every day? What kind of study discipline goes into preparing?

I wasn’t tasting every day. You’re also book studying. And then I failed the blind tasting portion again. At that point, I couldn’t carry over the theory and service passing scores anymore, and had to go back and pass all three the next time I sat for the exam.

Did you ever lose heart or wonder why you were still doing this?

Absolutely. I was done. Nope, nope, nope, I’m done. I was traveling a lot, I loved my career, and the business was doing well.

So this was March or April of 2004. Then out of the blue, I got an email from the London, from the head of the Court of Master Sommeliers worldwide. He said, “the impossible has happened.” Someone had dropped out of the next testing date. It was in four weeks in London. I could take their place.

In that split second, I decided I was going back. And I decided I wasn’t even going to worry about the tasting portion. I just wanted to get the theory and service portions.

So I take the test. And sure enough, I passed all of them.

What was it like to pass all three and become as master sommelier? How did you find out?

It was kind-of brutal, actually. I was the only woman taking the exam out of 25 people. I had a few friends there, but no one else really even talked to me.

Everyone taking the test is brought back at an appointed time for a feedback panel. Everyone is very nervous. But no one was coming to get me and my friend John.

Finally, an examiner came to talk to us last. We had no idea if that was good or bad. We went into separate rooms, and the examiner, Gerard Basset, a truly wonderful human who unfortunately died too young, asked me how I thought I did. I knew I had killed theory, and I told him a thought I did pretty well at service. And I did pass those two.

Then he asked how I thought I did with the blind tasting. I went to get my notebook to write down feedback so I could learn from all the things I screwed up. And then he told me I passed!

What did that moment feel like?

I told him I was going to cry, and then he said I couldn’t because he would cry. And then we’re crying. It really felt surreal. I think I was levitating down the stairs outside the room. One of the other candidates who passed saw me and must have just seen it on my face. He just spun me around and we were so happy. Then my friend John came out and he passed, too.

What did passing mean in your life?

The thing with passing was that not only was it a great accomplishment. it also really empowered me to find my voice. I don’t think I’m the most gifted taster; I don’t think I’m the smartest person. But I was relentless. I was not going to be denied. I was going to do it.

It really helped me begin to find my voice as a leader and belief in myself as someone who could make a difference in this industry, for women in particular, and for diverse voices. Fortunately my company supported this. Within three years I was promoted to the executive level.

The woman factor is something I really wanted to speak about, because so often as the leadership pyramid builds, it skews disproportionately male at the top. It seems like this is also true of the wine and spirits industry as well.

And that’s true. There are many more female and diverse-owned wineries and spirit brands as well as wine makers and distillers, but on the industry and business side, it is still skewed heavily male and not very diverse. But I’m really proud of what Southern Glazer’s has done in terms of training and mentorship and diversity initiatives, and I am a part of mentoring in the field.

What do you think needs to happen in the field itself to find more diversity and diversity in leadership?

I think it is happening. I think that transformation is that hardest thing that any company or person deals with. And certainly in the past five to seven years, there has been a lot of transformation about our language, what’s acceptable and not acceptable.

I sat in executive rooms for years listening to things that were off-color, were inappropriate, were insulting. Human resources just didn’t really even exist. And I was expected to just be quiet. And I survived it.

How do you think of mentorship?

Because I am now comfortable and confident in where I am in my career, I can think about how I can help: How can I assist the next generation? Who will take my place? How can I help?

I’m thinking back to what you said about your relentlessness — your not wanting to be denied — being what propelled you to pass the exam. But in becoming a master or advanced sommelier, what percentage of that success comes down to the work and discipline? At some point, do you just need a special something beyond that?

You need discipline. I always thought about prepping for this exam like being an athlete. I am not an athlete. But I thought about it like training for the Olympics or a marathon. My brother was a professional ice hockey player. And I remember the discipline — the four a.m. practices, the waking up in the middle of the night to feed yourself to get bigger, the playing when you’re hurt, all of that.

The special something is the obsession with passing. You can be really smart, talented, and dedicated. And that will get you through the advanced level. but you cannot get through master level without that obsession, and that will to win, and that training discipline.

Did I want to study four hours per day? No. Did I want to do relentless blind tastings to get one out of 6 wines right? No. But gradually it coalesced. I’ve coached a lot of candidates. It comes down to the discipline.

So what you’re saying is that you don’t need to have extra taste buds or very special nasal passages. It’s just that you’ve got to be a dog with a bone — or a dog with a wine glass.

It’s the discipline. You also have to love it and be passionate about it because it does require a lot of sacrifice, but no, you don’t need special senses.

I wanted to wrap up with some general wine overview questions. One thing I am curious about is where you predict to see, or are seeing, climate change’s impact?

I see it everywhere. Fortunately, the 2022 vintage, globally, is good. But we have come out of some really catastrophic events. There’s no 2020 out of Napa or Oregon because of wild fires. Extreme frost and hail decreased vintages in France, Italy, and Spain. Water issues are everywhere. I just came back from northern Italy and I have never seen the rivers at such low points. It’s pretty terrifying.

There’s certainly an awareness about it. I am also seeing some climate mitigation. There’s more organic farming. There’s more water conservation in places where you’re allowed to irrigate. There’s a huge initiative in Napa for fire breaks. Vineyards don’t burn, but all the surrounding forests do, and that gets smoke in the grapes.

Are there any particular regions or wines that excite you right now?

I think everyone’s been talking about Mt. Etna in Sicily for a while. But I really like what else is happening in Sicily — not just what’s happening on Mt. Etna, but around it. Mt. Etna has been acting as somewhat of a halo for the rest of the island. So we’re seeing some cool, high-quality wines from native grapes coming from Sicily in general.

The other place I am head-over-heels in love with right now is northwestern Spain. So areas like province of Galicia, where they’re using native Spanish grapes. A lot of these are old, old family vineyards. The wines are very well priced as well.

I also see interesting things coming out of Australia. I’m seeing younger winemakers with a lighter touch. Less recipe, more terroir; less winemaking and more grape growing.

And I also have a couple of quickfire questions. First, what do you have for breakfast?

Coffee. And I will almost always have something sweet, like a cookie.

What is a dish that feels like love to you?

Italian, of course. It’s my grandmother’s red sauce and meatballs. And my mother’s homemade chicken soup.

It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving dinner without what on the table?

A three liter of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

What about a Thanksgiving wine for people who prefer a white? What do you recommend?

Champagne goes with everything, so that’s a possibility. But also, an Alsace pinot gris with a little age on it. It’s extraordinary with turkey, sweet potatoes, stuffing — especially if you put sausage in your stuffing.

Laura, thank you so much for taking the time. This has been so interesting and inspiring. 

laura depasquale master sommelier headshot

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