Former Lakers cheerleader readies for master sommelier exam

Super proud of my amazing wife! this is an article by Robin Leach for the Las Vegas Review Journal.


It’s tough enough guessing if the red wine is a pinot noir from Oregon or a merlot from Santa Barbara. But try and decide if the red is from Argentina or Italy. Then pronounce the year, reveal the region and name the soil content. Impossible you say? Not for the handful of master sommeliers around the world who have passed the hardest examination in the world. And, you can’t ask to take part in it — you have to be chosen for the test.

It’s not called the toughest examination in the world for no reason. Vegas is blessed with just a few of these wizards of wine — even though we probably have more of them than any other city. It’s the most prestigious challenge in the world, and now, an unlikely former Lakers cheerleader is about to face the ultimate contest.

Raquel Jacobs, the sommelier at STK in The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas is finalizing her attempt at November’s master sommelier examination. It’s a tremendous story of courage, dedication, determination and an insane commitment of long hours. It’s also rare for a Vegas girl to attempt pulling off the toughest exam in the world, which has already been the subject of two movies.

Check out the Master Sommeliers of America at

Q: I asked why the one-time Lakers starlet chose the superior knowledge of wine over the bright lights of Hollywood that lured so many of the past lineup.

A: It started off with my parents. My parents were really into wine and I was cracking bottles and kind of helping them pull bottles at a young age. But It really wasn’t until I started off working in the industry, when I was 18 and a hostess, and started kind of moving up the ladder. My previous restaurant, Mastro’s, was kind of persistent on wine education. And as soon as I took those classes, it just really, really peaked my interest.

There’s one in Crystal’s at Aria I actually opened (and) a few different locations in Southern California, Costa Mesa , Beverly Hills, Thousand Oaks and Newport Beach.

Q: How old were you when your interest in wine first piqued and did you have any idea how difficult, how tough it was going to be?

A: I was 18 years old and had no idea. It was something that I was interested in, so it was easy to dive into it, and as the process started to take off and (I realized how in depth it was), then I knew. It was the more I dove in(to) (it), I started to realize, oh yeah, this isn’t gonna be easy. But I like the challenge, so.

The first memory that I really have, as far as getting into it, we had a mandatory class at Mastro’s, and I didn’t really know anything about wine, and I realized as a server or a bartender or cocktail server, or to even move up, you had to have a certain amount of knowledge. So, I actually pulled a friend aside, who I thought was extremely knowledgeable, and she took me to the Starbucks. We spent about an hour, and I still have those notes to this day, and it was the process of Champagne, actually. That was what really, really interested me, and I just couldn’t believe how intricate and how complex and how beautiful Champagne could really be.

Q: I described it as the most difficult examination in the world. Is it? How tough is tough?

A: I believe it is. I think that it starts to test your mentality and it starts to really test you as a person and it starts to get inside of you. I tend to second guess myself a lot and I start to really. … When it starts to affect everything around you, I kind of realized, oh, this is not just a test that I need to pass. It’s more than just a test. It’s about really understanding wine and what goes into it, and not only that, but the business.

Q: What is the toughest part of being a sommelier, in terms of this examination?

A: There are three parts to the examination. There’s the theory part, there is a service part and there’s the tasting, and I think the tasting, for me, personally, is something that I’m constantly learning. So, I find that the most challenging, but I’m starting to find ways to help me get better. But, for me, it’s the tasting part of the exam would probably be my hardest.

Q: That’s where I joked with you about picking any bottle and tell me where in the world it came from and what year the grapes were harvested. Have you had people tell you that you’re insane?

A: Yes and yes! All the time. I think people start to underestimate me, just because I’m a little bit younger and a female and it’s not the typical mold for a sommelier. Especially for a professional dancer to go from the entertainment world to this profession. So, I’ve been told that many times. I was a cheerleader all my life from middle school all the way through professional. So, I actually taught around UCLA and universities in Southern California, and then I became a Laker Girl from 2009-2010, and that was my long-term goal, the childhood goal and dream of mine to become. A dancer. And I wind up in Vegas, yep. Instead of being a showgirl on the Strip I become a SOM on the Strip.

Q: How many of there are you?

A: I’m certified, so as far as my level and where I’m at — there are four levels to the horde of master sommeliers — there’s quite a few of us. But, as you progress for the certification, the number starts to dwindle down. As far as certified, I would say there’s, maybe 50 or so in town, but that’s just a guess. I wouldn’t know exactly how many certified sommeliers. I think we’re now up to 15 girls. It’s starting to increase. We’re starting to take over!

… Last year I took the exam (to be a ) certified sommelier, so, as of right now I’m certified. My next step is advanced, and in order to proceed to the advanced level for level three, you have to complete a course, in which you have to apply, and I’ve already completed the course this past year in Dallas. Now, my next step is to apply for the exam, and I have to be accepted to even take the exam. Not everybody can take the exam. I’m waiting to apply. They haven’t opened the doors up yet to apply sometime in the next week or so. I will submit an application and take an online exam, and then I think they will probably tell us by the end of November or December, maybe, hopefully. I am anxiously awaiting, but I think I have a good chance. I hope I do.

Q: What has it taken you, so far, to prepare for this?

A: I have a really good support. Structure. My husband’s super amazing at allowing me to take the time to study and to do the things that I need to do. I have a study group, we meet at least once a week to taste, and we all blind(fold)each other. I’m constantly doing classes in town. Certain people will hold tastings. So, I’ll try and attend anything (when) I can — at this point — and then I pretty much study every single day at home.

Q: Does it consume your life?

A: I try not to let it, but it does. I think I have a good balance because I do have family at home. I think as the exam starts to get closer, it starts to consume my life, and I think that’s where my husband, Chris, really, really is supportive and he kind of picks up everything for me and he allows me to just do that.

Q: Do you have flash cards all over the house. Is there even one space in the house that is not covered with flashcards?

A: My husband is in the craft beer industry — completely the opposite, eh? We definitely have a good time between both of our cellars but I keep the flash cards out of his office. There everywhere else though all over the house.

Q: Do you even admit that it’s very unusual to find a girl who set out to become Lakers cheerleader being this studious? This educated?

A: I think definitely from an outside perspective, I can definitely see how one could imagine that. The girls that I’ve interacted with, as far as on the team and Lakers and … they’re a very particular bunch of girls, or ladies, I should say. They’re all either in college or working full time, and a lot of the women that I’ve met have really gone on to do wonderful things, besides dancing and being in entertainment. They’ve gone to get master’s degrees, so. In this field, though I’m the only one that I know if.

Q: Your reaction from seeing the SOM movies? Didn’t it frighten you?

A: No, it actually inspired me. I looked at my mom and I remember telling her, and I said: “You watch. I’m gonna do that.” And she does tell me that all the time, actually. She said: “I remember when we first watched the movie, you told me you were gonna do it and you’re doing it.”

Q: I have such respect for you and it. What is the most difficult part of this whole project for you?

A: I think the hardest part is taking the time to understand that there’s more to wine than just what’s in the glass. There’s so much more than that, and I think it’s understanding where it comes from and how it’s made and remembering everything. It’s constantly evolving. So, for me, it’s keeping up with the evolution of wine and just remembering every little detail about every single region and wine that’s out there.

But there are thousands of bottles of wine. There are hundreds of regions. How do you possibly remember where a bottle of a 1935 something came from, and what flowers were growing in the region on that day when they picked the grapes?

That’s where those flashcards come in handy. I have an app on my phone, and it’s a memorize app, or it’s a voice recorder — and in my car, I’ll play it through the speaker and I record myself with whatever it is that I need to memorize, and I’ll listen to that. I won’t even listen to music while I’m doing my studies. That’s all I’ll listen to, is myself, and repeating everything that I need to remember. If this is a pinot noir, where is it from, what was the climate, what was the soil, if that year was a sunny year, they got ample sunshine. So, I kind of just try and do that, as well as my flashcards, and I do a lot of maps. I draw a lot of maps.

The exercise is both for self-satisfaction and guest interaction.I definitely am doing it for myself, because it is something that I want to achieve, personally, but I think something that I bring to the table for the guest is … it’s up to me to let them find, to explore something that they maybe have never tried before. Not doing it in such a pretentious way, but leveling with the guest and finding something that they like. That’s the biggest satisfaction, with me. When a guest tells me: “Raquel, I’m looking for something that’s big and robust, but still feminine and has silky tannin,” and they’ll just describe this wine, and it’s my job to find something for them, and I think I really look forward to doing that, because now I’m up for a challenge and now it’s up to me with my knowledge and everything that I’ve studied and everything that I’ve tasted. OK, let’s take you here. Let’s get you to this wine.

Q: Is it Sherlock Holmes over James Beard? Literally, can I pull a bottle out of my fridge and ask you about its heritage?

A: I should be able to tell you that. It just depends. I think it’s … my husband’s always told me that I need to dive into the background a little bit more. I could tell you everything about how the wine is made, about the year and what kind of year it was as far as the climate and the conditions, but sometimes I forget a little bit about well, how did this winery come about? I know the big ones, but sometimes those little producers, that have really great wine but they may not get distributed to us, that I haven’t tried, I think I can dive into that. But, I’ll be honest, with the tasting — the tasting is what really drives me nuts sometimes.

Q: Do you drink a lot of wine, yourself? Do you try to drink different wine every day?

A: I do. Or what I’ll do is, if I’m having trouble identifying, let’s say a sauvignon blanc, let’s just say, from France, and I didn’t get it on one of my tastings, I’ll go and I’ll do that for a whole week and that’s all I’ll drink, until I’m sick of it.

Q: And what’s the correct way for Raquel Jacobs to drink a glass of wine?

A: I think just using that deductive method, that grid that The Court of Master Sommeliers provides for us — and they provide this tool — and they allow us to go through this grid, they call it. You have to look at the wine. You have to kind of assess the color, and you can tell a lot about the wine through the color. You can tell maybe its age, whether it’s youthful, whether it’s developing, whether it’s matured. Then, I would go to the nose. Look for any flaws. Think about the aromatic intensity and how vibrant it is in the glass. I would go through the fruit components. There are non-fruit components. There are so many elements there. I would assess, they call it structure, and so, you would go through the essence, you can go through the tannin element.

Then I would taste it. Kind of reassess what I did on the nose, those fruit components, structure. And then I would come up with a few different potential varietals. I would hone down on whether it’s Old World or a New World climate. Whether it’s either from France or Italy or Spain, or am I going to U.S.? then I would assess the age. Then I would decide from there. I would say this is a 2015 William Fevre Chablis, from Burgundy, France.

Q: So, it’s a little bit like being a detective, backwards?

A: Exactly, and I think that’s why I like it. I think that’s what really excites me about it, is that I have to figure something out, like a puzzle. It takes a few glasses of wine just to enjoy it rather than think about it. I think when I take my first sip of wine for the day, I’m like, just automatically thinking and racking my brain, and then after a few glasses, I think I loosen up and I’m just enjoying the wine.

Q: You ‘re getting so close now to the toughest experience in the world. What frightens you most?

A: I think the only thing that would frighten me is, I don’t like to lose, and I know it’s the journey and it’s not how quickly I get there, but I’m just afraid of failure. I really am. Everyone is probably thinking it and doesn’t want to say it, but I’m afraid to fail. I don’t like to fail. I really like to succeed and just … and I really want … I don’t want to disappoint a guest. If there’s anyone that I don’t want to disappoint, it would be a guest.

You know it’s a three-day test for the master! So, there are three parts to it, and actually, it’s over a course of quite some time. You have to take the theory first. You have to actually be invited to sit for the master diploma. But, when you first get accepted, you have to take the theory part, and the theory part, once you complete that or if you complete that, then you’re asked to sit for the practical, which is like the wine service and salesmanship, and the tasting. Then, you kind of just have to … then they kind of assign you a time, and a few months after that. So, it takes some time to … it’s quite a process. I would say it’s about, within the year.

Q: You’ve already taken the advanced course which permits you to call yourself a sommelier

A: Yes, I am certified. But, yes, an advanced … the jump from certified to advanced, Robin, is absolutely insane. It’s, I would say, the jump is quite vigorous. It’s very, very difficult, as far as the increase in knowledge that you have to know. And then from advanced to master is quite a bit after that. It’s very intense.

I’d love to wind up an educator. I think that’s where my heart is. Teaching people how to enjoy and appreciate wine. It’s quite a journey for a Laker cheerleader. If you had asked me 10 years ago, I’d be like “Wait, what? What am I doing?” After I passed my certified, I think it was 80 people in my class, and about 40 people passed and I ended up receiving the highest score for the certified exam, and so I think it was after that. It really gave me that boost of confidence that I really wanted and needed to move forward because a lot of people stop after certified. They get that recognition, they get that title and then they’re done. But, after completing with top honors, I just knew this is something I have to go forth with.

Q: It’s cruel, it’s backbreaking, it’s time-consuming, it’s everything that you would imagine is the worst in life, and yet you revel in it, yes? What does it say about you?

A: Yes, and I love it. I don’t settle. That I always want what’s the impossible. And I don’t think it’s impossible. I know I can do it. I’ve seen the movie 80 times. No joke, 80 times, probably throughout the years. Oh, yeah. Even when I’m doing laundry, I’ll just throw it on, just to listen to it.

Q: All for a bottle of plonk! Do you have anybody in Las Vegas giving you coaching, teaching?

A: Yes. There’s a lot of people (who) have definitely contributed. Especially people who are above me and mentoring me. There’s a couple of master sommeliers in town (who) have really helped me. People who are studying for their masters and people who are on the advanced level that mentor me and I’ll go to their restaurant or we’ll set up a tasting and they’ll critique me and they’ll really help me. There’s only one other girl in my tasting group but I know about 20 women in Las Vegas that are definitely a force to be reckoned with. And a lot of my mentors are women.

Q: And they gave up everything in their life for this, too?

A: I think a lot of them are. I think I’m one of the few women who have a family. I have a husband and three step-children. So, it’s definitely not the norm to be a step-mom and a wife … kind of do this and go through this process.

Q: Do you ever stop for one second and scratch your head and say, “why?”

A: No, I actually don’t. Someone had just asked me that recently, too. I said, “I don’t even think I have time to think, to be honest.” I’m just going. I’m always going.

Q: In a quiet less studious moment what is it you like about wine?

A: I love boutique wines. I love wines that people have never heard of. I love grape varietals that people have never heard of. That’s kind of what I look for when I’m not drinking to study and I’m just drinking to enjoy, that’s what I’m drinking. I’m drinking Guava or something obscure. I can’t even remember the last time I went out. If I’m going out, I’m usually drinking a bottle of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Champagne or Ruinart Rose. My favorite — Champagne. I just love bubbles.

Bubbles can go with anything. Bubbles can go with an appetizer, an entrée, you can do a whole flight with Champagne, and really you can do it with Sherry that I’ve discovered. Sherry is kind of my new go-to right now.

There’s a lot more to it than just wine. We have to know spirits, sherry. We have to know beer, now. We have to start learning how to make the cocktails. So, it’s definitely more than wine. It’s a whole beverage program

I just got accepted to go to SOM camp in November. That’s the first step. SOM camp is something that the SOM foundation actually allows certain people who apply and who get accepted, who are intending for the advanced exam for the following year. So, I have the intent to apply for the advanced exam next year, so I applied and I had to answer a series of questions, send my background and my resume. It’s three-day wine trip to Napa and Sonoma, all expenses paid, and we get to go into the vineyard and go into the wineries with the winemakers and dive into what goes into the wine, and it’s a pretty prestigious collection of wine.