So What, Exactly, Does a Master Sommelier Do?
In honor of National Wine Day (May 25), Patrick Okubo describes his job in wine education at Young’s Market.
Photo: Courtesy of Patrick Okubo
Patrick Okubo is one of the state’s three resident master sommeliers, a prestigious title held only by 236 people in the world. Translation: He knows a lot—a lot!—about wine. But what does that mean in daily practice? Okubo, who served as a sommelier at Formaggio, now works in wine education and sales for Young’s Market, a national distributor of wine, beer and spirits. In honor of National Wine Day tomorrow, HONOLULU Magazine caught up with him to ask how his job works, what he drinks with friends and the most memorable bottle he’s ever had.
HONOLULU Magazine: What does a typical day look like for you?
Patrick Okubo: Every day is pretty different. It’s not like being in the restaurant where you get into a routine. My title is wine educator, but that’s a small part of what I do. I also do sales, events and administrative type things. I’ll do a presentation for [our internal sales team] on a topic like sparkling wines once a month. Then I do training with the operations team to help them know a little bit more about wine—and that’s more like quarterly. With restaurants, I’ll do staff training. At 4:15 [p.m.] I’ll show up at the restaurant and they’ll give me 15 minutes to go over a product. And I’ll go all over the state for that, like, Mama’s Fish House [on Maui] or the Big Island.
For sales, there are account calls, where I’ll meet up with the wine director or manager and taste them on the wines and try and sell them on it. If a restaurant is new, I’ll help them with their new wine list from scratch. At trade tastings, we get everyone to come to us. We’ll get different wine managers to come and taste through a lineup of 25 different wines.
For events, I do wine dinners. I probably do seven dinners throughout the month. On the 28th, I’m doing one at Restaurant 604. It’s usually on a slower night and tries to get people to come to the restaurant—hopefully [it] will be a draw for people to come. I haven’t worked in a restaurant since 2011 and this is my only chance to talk to a consumer about the taste of wine. That’s the part of the job I miss the most. I wish every day could be like this.
HM: What’s the best part of your job?
PO: [Wine dinners] are the best part for sure. I get to experience all these different restaurants and work with great chefs. If I only worked at one restaurant, I wouldn’t get to experience all these others. When I worked at Formaggio six days a week, I never went to other restaurants.
HM: What’s something that people might not know about your job?
PO: A lot of people think my job is one of two things: events where I eat or drink all day, or I choose what Young’s Market sells. That’s not true. There are a lot of things that determine what Young’s sells. We’re a national company and a lot of it [depends on] suppliers we have. There is a little bit [to my job] about finding new wines, but that’s mostly not what I’m doing.
HM: What’s the biggest surprise about your job now?
PO: I guess it would be to see how great a lot of these restaurants are. I’m very lucky that I travel a lot to the Neighbor Islands. I see great restaurants across the state and what makes them so great. On the Big Island, they have restaurants that take farm-to-table to another level because they have more resources and produce. They don’t get the press, but I get to experience it. On O‘ahu, the culinary experience of these chefs who have gone away and come back to O‘ahu is so great to see.
HM: What’s one thing you hadn’t expected about your job?
PO: There’s a lot of driving and traffic. It’s very unglamorous. It’s stressful—that’s the part that ages me the most.
HM: Are your friends intimidated to bring wine to your house?
PO: My friends that I’ve been friends with for a long time, it’s not always about wine. An old friend came over last night and we drank beer. But I have friends in the wine business, we have fun drinking each other’s wines.
HM: What’s the most memorable wine you’ve ever had?
PO: It was with Roberto Viernes, another master sommelier. I went over to his house and he had opened up a bottle of something and it was good. I bought a Thierry Allemand Cornas, which is Syrah, my favorite kind of wine, and it stole the show. But then he pulled out Jaboulet La Chapelle Hermitage half bottle from 1978. I thought they don’t age as well because the larger air pocket [in the smaller bottle] will oxidize it quicker, but it was the most amazing wine. It was a tribute to that being an iconic wine.
Check out the June issue of HONOLULU Magazine on newsstands this month—it’s our annual All-Island Restaurant Guide, and we've got 51 amazing international dishes that you can try, right here in Hawai‘i! We’ve also got stories about sommeliers and wines from around the world. Pick up a copy this summer.