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Don Chapman

This Is Not A Wine Story

It’s a story about overcoming a handicap – a ‘bad nose’ that required surgery as a boy – and dedication and hard work, and failing before succeeding. That’s what it took for Patrick Okubo to earn the Master Sommelier certificate, which makes him one of just three in Hawaii, and one of 195 worldwide over the past 43 years

When you’re one of only 195 people – worldwide over the past 43 years – to achieve a respected professional certification, it’s big news. When you’re born with a condition that requires childhood surgery and still leaves you with what amounts to a handicap, and you overcome, it’s a heart-warming human interest story. When you work for years against the odds, literally dedicating every waking moment to your seemingly quixotic quest, and when at first you fail the big test but later succeed, it rises to the inspirational.

All that is Patrick Okubo’s story, and that is why this is not a wine story. The expensive wines and the high-tech stemware, even the gold Court of Master Sommeliers lapel pin he gets to wear, are mere props upon this stage.

Along with flash cards, hand-written wallpaper and good walking shoes.

“I have a bad nose,” Okubo, 29, says across a conference table at Young’s Market (formerly Better Brands) headquarters, located in the warren of warehouses behind Costco in Waipio, where he works as head of The Estates Group. “I have a very poor sense of smell. When I was younger I had surgery to shrink my adenoids. It’s kind of an obstacle I had to overcome.”

Indeed, when he inhales deeply, the nostrils do not flare out, but rather compress and flatten, limiting air flow. So his earning the Master Sommelier certificate is akin to being born with a club foot and growing up to win the Olympic 100 meters.

“Don’t let something stop you, is what I’m saying,” says the Kaimuki native who attended Waialae Elementary and Kaimuki Intermediate, and graduated from University Lab School and the UH Travel Industry Management school. “It’s not a matter of talent. It’s about hard work and dedication, the drive in wanting to gain it. Anybody can do anything. You don’t have to be gifted. It’s work”

If you live in or transit the Diamond Head area, a year ago at this time you’d likely see a young man out walking. And walking and walking – while reviewing endless flash cards. That was Patrick Okubo.

He’d quit his job as general manager at Formaggio to focus entirely on passing Master Sommelier testing. In 2010, he’d passed what seems to amateur oenophiles the most daunting – blind tasting of wines from around the world, in which you must identify not just the grape, but the country, region, winery, vintage and phase of the moon at harvest. (Just kidding about that last one, but you get the idea.) Having spent $5,000 out of pocket to taste hard-to-get wines, and working endlessly with Master Sommelier Roberto Viernes, he sailed through the blind tasting.

But he came up short in the other two categories, service and theory. Service is a live test as if you’re a sommelier in a restaurant, and one table wants champagne, another table wants an older red wine that needs decanting, another table wants mixed cocktails and yet another wants wines paired with each course, and everybody has questions. Theory is more esoteric: name all subregions in a wine-growing region, what is the minimum sugar level for Sauternes, what is the maximum yield for Alsace Grand Cru.

Failing those tests, Okubo says now, was a shock that inspired him to study harder.

“I mean, I’d been working in restaurants since 2000 — waiting tables at the Spaghetti Factory, 3660 and L’Uraku when I was in school. And then after college I went to Lanai to be a restaurant manager at the Manele Bay Hotel … They were in the process of rebranding to become a Four Seasons hotel, and we were working 110 to 120 hours a week – it was chaos. During all that, I was asked to run the wine program, and I said I don’t know anything about wine. My boss said, but you know how to read a spread sheet – just look at it from a numbers standpoint. So that’s where I started learning about wine.”

He ended up running the wine program for both Manele and Koele resorts, and managing Ihilani, the fine-dining restaurant at Manele. It was there he learned the importance of knowing your wines.

“On one of my days off, the manager served a ’96 Burgundy that cost $800 a bottle but charged just $110 – and then served the wrong bottle twice. So in one night we lost $1,600 in revenue from one little mistake.”

It was about this time that he started tasting with Roberto Viernes, familiar to MidWeek readers as our Vino columnist, who encouraged him to take the level one sommelier test.

“Then I passed level two, but I still wasn’t entirely hooked yet,” Okubo says.

In 2008 he first tested in Las Vegas, “and I think I got about five of 50 right. Sitting there, I decided that I wanted to prove that I belong in that room with those guys.” (Of the 118 MS in North America, 101 are men, 17 women.)

Moving back to Oahu to open Formaggio, he kept learning and tasting, and was the Pacific-Hawaii region winner of the Chaine des Rotisseurs Young Sommelier Competition from 2008 through 2010.

So after failing to pass the MS testing in ’10, he came home and crammed.

“I don’t know if my memory is that good,” Okubo says. “But when I have to learn something, I try to learn in many ways – flash cards, lists on walls, cell phone images. I throw it into my head over and over.”

Waking up in the morning, on oversize Post-it Note sheets on the wall he saw lists of wine-growing regions in Italy, for example, and the valleys within those areas.

“Brushing my teeth, I had a list of cocktails beside the mirror,” he says.

“And I’d take long walks, up to eight hours, so I was exercising as well as studying – so I lost a lot of weight during that time. You know, you try to study at home and you fall asleep, or you take a break, and pretty quickly five minutes turns into half an hour. So I walked.”

Not that he was out of shape before. This past December, Okubo completed his second straight Honolulu Marathon, this one in a very respectable four hours and 27 minutes.

The testing happened in Las Vegas last July over two days (he was not required to retake the blind taste test).

“The last day of testing was July 28, my 29th birthday – and I passed!” Okubo says.

All the work had suddenly paid off, and celebratory wine flowed that night.

“What it really means is that I’m finally the best at something,” Okubo says. “I’d always been kind of good at things. I played golf and basketball through high school – hoops was a big part of my life, I made ILH honorable mention, but nobody was expecting me to get any college offers. I was a pretty good clarinet player, made Honor Band and still play in the National Guard band (he joined the Guard as a senior in high school), but nobody was looking at me like, oh, I want to be him. I was like a 3.0 (GPA) student, but not the best.

“I’d always been a jack of all trades, never been regarded as best at anything. But being a Master Sommelier is my opportunity to finally be one of the best in the world.”

So now he is one of just 186 MS’s in the world (and the second youngest), and one of three in Hawaii along with Viernes, his mentor, and Chuck Furuya. (In the 1980s, Honolulu actually boasted five then or soon-to-be MS: Furuya, Richard Dean, Nunzio Alioto, Eddie Osterland and Ronn Wiegand.)

“Watching his growth was terrific,” Viernes says. “Patrick is an extremely intelligent and cerebral guy. He approaches things very academically. He worked very hard to attain the certificate, at one point taking time off completely from working just so he could study for the exams – he’s dedicated, to say the least. I think his real strength is as an educator because of his academic mind.”

Adds Furuya: “Whole-hearted congratulations to Patrick for his incredible commitment, hard work, perseverance and diligence to achieve what he has accomplished. It is amazing and terrific to see another home-grown local guy pass the Master Sommelier examination.”

Okubo says his goal is to “inspire people about wine, help people fall in love with wine. I want to help people understand what makes this 25 ounces of grape juice different from that 25 ounces, when they’re both from Sonoma and from the same grape.”

He did that to a packed house at the Honolulu Design Center’s Cupola Theatre on a recent Thursday evening. Wines were from Sonoma – sparkling, white, reds – and he gave attendees lots of good information about the valley, its soils and weather, the wines, the people who make the wines, and why they taste the way they do. It was an informative and entertaining presentation, Okubo mixing the professorial with a bit of standup comedy.

This middle child and only son also is trying to make some headway at his parents’ Kaimuki home – dad Allan is an attorney, mom Mabel a paralegal.

They’ll drink wine, he says, “but only if I bring it. My dad likes martinis, my mom only drinks a quarter glass of wine.”

As for advice for people who are unsure about the dizzying number of wines on the market (and that’s before you start drinking), he says, “Drink what you like. You don’t have to listen to me, Chuck or Roberto. Drink what you like, but remember what you like. With tech now, use your phone to take a picture of the label. Maybe I don’t have that particular wine, but I can find something similar. I once had a lady tell me, I had a wine five years ago I really liked, it was red … I was like, uh, can we narrow it down some more?”

He’s often asked, what is a good wine? “It’s like guitars,” he replies. “It depends on what kind of music you want to play.”

And while he’s busy educating wine aficionados as well as restaurant staffs, Okubo says his own education did not end with passing the Master Sommelier tests.

“Far from it,” he says. “Learning never ends.”

Now, however, he doesn’t need flash cards and hand-written wallpaper.

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