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Arts & Life

Colorado Wine Lovers Have A New Hero: The State’s First Master Of Wine

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Matt Bloom
Ashley Hausman Vaughters, 34, is the first Colorado resident in history to receive a Master of Wine certification. She spent 9 years studying for the certification, which she received at a ceremony in London in November 2017.

It all almost seems like a fluke to her now.

One night about a decade ago, Ashley HausmanVaughters stumbled upon Little’s Wine and Spirits, a small liquor shop on the south side of Denver. At the time an unemployed NYU graduate student, she’d just faced a flurry of rejections from summer jobs in Colorado – including one from a takeout Indian Restaurant. The frustration sent her on a quest to drown her sorrows.

 

A glass of wine would do the trick, she remembers thinking.

 

 

So, she walked into the store where a woman was pouring samples of Malbec, surrounded by customers holding wine glasses. She was hosting a free tasting.

 

Curious, Hausman Vaughters walked up to the group, introduced herself and took a sip.

 

“I just really connected with them,” she said. “This was back when I knew nothing.”

 

During that tasting, the store’s manager offered her a job on the spot and HausmanVaughters accepted. That point – as she describes it – was the beginning of a new life.

 

 

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Credit Matt Bloom
Ashley examines a bottle of wine in the basement cellar of the Denver restaurant Matsuhisa. A typical day of work as a wine wholesaler involves half a dozen in-store visits with wine buyers.

 

Fast forward nearly a decade to November 2017 and HausmanVaughters’ has ascended to the highest ranks of the wine world.

 

After nine years of trying, she became the first – and only – Master of Wine in Colorado’s history.

 

The certification, awarded each year by the Institute of Masters of Wine in the United Kingdom, is held by an elite international group of winemakers, buyers, journalists, shippers, business owners, academics and wine educators. There are just 369 Masters of Wine worldwide. Of those, 46 live in the U.S.

Aspiring Masters of Wine must first pass a weeding-out test to graduate to the institute’s rigorous exam process. HausmanVaughters spent a year working at Little’s after finishing her master’s, studying wine in all its forms before entering the testing room.

 

Questions on the entrance exam can come from any of 140 different, wine-related areas of study. Once a candidate passes, the real work begins. To become an “MW” candidates must make their way through five wine theory exams, 36 blind tastings and a 10,000-word research paper.  

 

“The most difficult thing I could compare it to — that still was not as difficult — was training for a marathon,” HausmanVaughters said.

 

While working toward her MW certification, HausmanVaughters worked full time at a variety of jobs in the industry. First, she ran Little’s as the store manager. Then, she worked as a wine buyer for several years. Finally, she took her current job as a wholesaler for Old World Wine Imports in Denver.

 

Ashley's favorite wines for this holiday season:

 

Colorado Wine Lovers Have A New Hero: The State’s First Master Of Wine
Colorado's Master of Wine shares the stories behind some of her favorite selections.

  •   Francois Chidaine Estate Brut
  • 2015 Knoll Riesling Federspiel
  • 2014 Talenti Rosso di Montalcino
  • 2011 Genatet Pansoit Gevrey Chambertin
  • 2013 Domaine du Collier Rouge

During that time, she studied how Cabernet Sauvignon became the best wine to drink from California’s Napa Valley. She traveled to vineyards in California, France and Italy. But most of her time working toward the MW certification was spent sitting at her dining room table, slaving over a Microsoft OneNote planner.

Masters of Wine don’t get paid just to be MW’s. But the perks of the title carry a lot of weight in the wine world, according to Hausman Vaughters.

Those with the title are often asked to judge wine competitions around the globe, lecture at wine courses, lead tastings and advise private cellars of wine collectors, according to the Institute of Masters of Wine. MW’s also advise governments and heads of state, hotels and airlines.

As the first MW from Colorado, Hausman Vaughters says she plans to work with the state’s Wine Industry Development Board as it monitors the local wine market. In 2016, Colorado winemakers produced and sold more gallons of wine than they have in the state’s entire history -- more than 350,000 -- according to data collected by the board. That number is expected to continue growing in the years to come.

Now that she isn’t studying 20 hours a week for her MW exams, Hausman Vaughters says she hopes to dedicate that time to promoting Colorado wine more at competitions and events around the state.

KUNC listeners share their favorite Colorado wines:

 

The Master of Wine lugs a heavy, gray tote bag full of bottles over her right shoulder. It’s almost 6:00 p.m. on a Wednesday and Hausman Vaughters has one last stop to make before she heads home for the night.

Her days at work are hardly glamorous or laid back – two qualities one would associate with the MW title. She’s spends most her time selling cases of wine to restaurant and retail clients and picking checks up from customers, all while filing last-minute holiday orders for wine on her iPhone in between stops.

She often puts more than 400 miles on her car during the week traveling from place to place – this week’s total is probably more than that, she says. To fill the time, she listens to audiobooks.

“I just listened to this one, ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F---,” she quips, laughing and listing off all the other titles she’s consumed during the hours spent driving from Denver to Colorado Springs to Fort Collins and back again.

Fiction and self-help are her favorites.

 

For her day job, the 34-year-old maneuvers her way around the state, selling wines from Colorado, France and beyond. It’s something she never thought she’d be doing – much less for this long.

“I think a lot of people were waiting for some massive change when I got my MW,” she said. “That was never the goal. The goal was the journey, the rigour, the exam and so, I’m just happy.”

 

 

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Ashley pours a sample during a wine tasting at The Vineyard, a wine shop in Denver. Tastings are an important part of her job, keeping touch with buyers at restaurants and shops around the state.

Now that she’s finished with her certification, Hausman Vaughters is still figuring out what exactly the MW title means for her life and career. MW’s are tasked with mentoring other aspiring candidates in the program. She also has a competition she’ll judge in Kansas City coming up later this month.

The Vineyard, a wine shop in Denver’s Cherry Creek neighborhood, is Ashley’s last stop for the day.

The Master of Wine walks into the store. Bottles of red, white and sparkling wine line the room like wallpaper from floor to ceiling. At the front, she sets down her tote bag and lines up six bottles of wine. Through her work and studies to become an MW, she’s memorized the stories behind every bottle, every winemaker.

The store’s buyer, Nathan Gordon, comes over to greet her. She opens a bottle of Italian Rouge and pours him a glass. As she does, a distant, but clear memory flashes through her mind of the woman pouring a glass of Malbec at Little’s all those years ago.