Ashley Hausman didn’t set out to establish a career in wine. She didn’t grow up in a wine-drinking family. In fact, just ten years ago, she was pursuing a master’s degree in literature at NYU. Still, “wine was always something I appreciated, even if what I was drinking wasn’t very good. I had a curiosity about it,” she says.
One of a handful of women in the world, and the only one in her home state of Colorado, that have earned the title Master of Wine, Hausman romanticized pairing food with wine, especially once she learned to cook. She befriended an employee at Sherry Lehmann, one of New York City’s most prestigious wine shops, who agreed to host an informal wine tasting seminar for a group of her friends. While most of the party-goers lost interest after the first few tastes, Hausman says it was a Lopez de Heredia from Rioja that changed her life forever.
A Lightbulb Moment
“I was never exposed to anything like that,” she says. “It just took things into another dimension. Then I learned the story about Lopez de Heredia, and thought I really wanted to know more about wine.” She found a part-time job at a local wine shop, digging in deeper to expand her wine knowledge. She was lucky to work with a great crew, and credits them for expanding her horizons by sharing their own knowledge and experience with her.
This unfolded during the financial crisis in 2009, and Hausman opted to return to Colorado rather than pursue her PhD in New York. She shifted her focus from literature to wine. Hausman found the opportunity to manage the wine department at Little’s, a local Denver shop, even though she felt at the time that she didn’t have the experience she needed. Her new job kicked off a path of study that would take her eight years to complete. She pursued her Master of Wine while working her day job andconsulting.
Hausman parlayed her good study habits into tirelessly learning about wine and the wine world. “It just really took off for me,” she says. She started with Society of Wine Educators Certified Specialist of Wine program, followed by the Court of Master Sommeliers’ level two sommelier certification and then began work on the Wine and Spirit Education Trust diploma. Hausman started working toward her Master of Wine (MW) certification after being accepted into the program in 2014.
The Masters of Wine: It’s a Big Deal
There are 380 people in 30 countries that hold the MW title. 131 of them are women. Only 46 people (20 of them women) in the U.S. have completed the program. Both the Master of Wine and Master Sommelier programs are based in London, are academically rigorous, and are the highest level of distinction awarded in the industry. The difference is in the focus: Master Sommeliers are geared toward the hospitality side of the business. They concentrate on managing wine cellars, serving wine, and other sides of the business pertinent to life on the restaurant floor. The Master of Wine program specializes in wine theory, the wine business, and requires writing a research paper.
The MW exam is three-fold. Candidates must first pass an extensive theory exam, which covers viticulture, the handling and business of wine, and contemporary issues. Then they undertake a tasting which includes three 12-wine blind tastings in which they must identify variety, origin, quality and style. If these two go well, the candidate writes an in-depth research paper. In other words, it’s a daunting proposition.
Hausman credits the stories told in books by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson for sparking her interest in the stories behind the wine. Those stories were the thing that propelled her towards such a challenging goal. “I always need to find the pinnacle of something and make it a personal challenge for myself,” she says. “The second I think I can’t do something, it makes me want to give it a try. It gave me something to work towards and focus on. I had a career change (from literature) and wine opened up a lot of things for me, but it was important for me to have a goal.”
Hausman is currently working at Metropolitan State College of Denver, teaching oenology courses to wine students. She thrives on intellectual pursuits and recognizes her need to have a challenging academic component in her life. “I started to find it important to give back, to make all that information I have understandable to others as they follow their own educational paths.” She also revisits the things she studied—teaching makes her feel like she is putting the MW title to good use. “It’s a big title—I don’t want to just rest on it,” she says. “I’m re-learning a lot of things. Of course, you have to maintain it and keep learning and feed that thirst for knowledge.”
Continuing to Learn & Discover
Hausman continues to feed that thirst. She is planning trips to Napa (the topic of her research paper), Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and to visit winemakers in Chile and Argentina. She’s exploring American wine regions that she thinks are exciting, like New York’s Finger Lakes.
What excites Hausman in wine right now? Natural winemaking is really taking off around the world, with Spain’s Galicia region and Sicily at the forefront. Really, though, she seeks what the French call ‘glu glu,’ or slang for ‘glug glug,’ which means wine that is easy to drink and leaves you coming back for more. One of Hausman’s favorite ‘glu glu’ choices is Beaujolais. Hausman says “If people haven’t already fallen back in love with those Rhone/Loire wines, they should revisit them,” she says. “They’re lively, easy drinking, pleasurable without being aged, and affordable.”
In the end, though, for Hausman, it all goes back to sharing the story behind the wine.
“Winemaking is really just another version of storytelling.That’s the whole reason I do this,” she says. “Someone has worked really hard to make these wines, to pair it with food, to prepare the food and to carry on a cultural tradition. That’s the most important part to me—it always has been and always will be—that the wines are just a part of the human story.”
Rebecca Treon is a Denver-based freelance food, travel, and lifestyles writer who has written for publications like 5280, DiningOut, American Bungalow, Reign, Denver Hotel, The Coastal Table, the Huffington Post, Tasting Table, Food 52, Time Out, BBC Travel, Livability, The Cape Cod Travel Guide, Edible Cape Cod, Edible Denver, Edible Lower Alabama, Alabama Journey, The Denver Post, and DRAFT magazine. She is the proud mother of two tiny globetrotters.