1 of 4 Black master sommeliers in world, Napa Valley man wants to expand access to wine education
The story of how Vincent Morrow became one of only four Black master sommeliers in the world begins improbably in a Phoenix suburb where wine was served, if it was served at all, from cheap bottles and jugs.
Morrow was a soccer kid, the middle of three boys born to an Italian-American mother and Black father who met in the military and later moved to Arizona seeking new opportunities in the desert.
The family considered themselves working-class. Nevertheless, other kids taunted Morrow and his brothers for attending school “by the tracks.”
“There were definitely more affluent sections,” Morrow said recently of Peoria, Arizona. The town has a population of over 190,000. “Whenever we'd play some of the other schools, like that was just kind of the consensus about us.”
One of only a few Black kids in his class, Morrow found he could level the field by playing soccer, often under his mom’s tutelage. While working as an accountant, Joanna Morrow founded a youth soccer team and was, for a time, her son’s coach.
That special relationship carried Morrow to Sonoma State University, where he played soccer for the Seawolves. When his mother visited him in Rohnert Park, Morrow drove her to wine tasting rooms. The outings changed the course of his life.
Morrow went on to earn a degree in wine business from SSU. At 35, he is now the wine director at Press Restaurant, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Napa Valley, and one of only 273 people worldwide to hold the prestigious title of master sommelier.
Award-winning work, recognition
“I’m just proud as who knows what,” Joanna Morrow said from Manteca, in California’s Central Valley, where she and her husband, who is also named Vincent, now reside. “I know how difficult it was to attain that title and all the education that goes into it.”
As a board member of the Court of Master Sommeliers — the nonprofit organization that administers the Master exam — and member of the organization’s diversity committee, Morrow is spearheading efforts to open up the often rarified wine world to a more diverse audience.
He is doing so in part by helping to bring the Court’s $700 introductory wine course for free to Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) students at colleges and universities across the country.
Thomas Price, who became the world’s first Black master sommelier in 2012 and founded the Court’s diversity committee, said Morrow is a “mentally tough son-of-a-gun” whose exceptionally strong leadership skills are making the organization's future shine brighter than its past.
Chris Gaither, a close friend of Morrow’s and the world’s fourth Black master sommelier, said Morrow is the “epitome of hospitality. And as a friend and meeting him in a very relaxed setting, he’s very, very kind and also very generous with his time.”
Becoming a master, twice
On a recent Thursday afternoon at Press Restaurant, Morrow discussed his meteoric rise in the nation’s food and beverage industry while he relaxed in the restaurant’s Harvest Room prior to the dinner rush.
He wore a blue suit and gray tie, and around his left wrist was a designer watch, one of five he owns to match outfits. His facial hair was trimmed with precision.
On his suit jacket, a tiny red and gold lapel pin adorned with the words “Master Sommelier” and the image of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine, was the only outward display of his special status.
Concealed by his white dress shirt, however, was a much more revealing detail — a tattoo of an asterisk, about the size of a half-dollar, situated at the base of his throat.
The symbol of cheats and scoundrels — Morrow, in fact, referenced baseball’s steroid era in describing it — is one of his defining features, a curiosity for a man who by many accounts has led an impeccably moral and ethical life.
He got the tattoo at a Rohnert Park establishment shortly after he passed the master sommelier exam in 2020. But in the moment, he was focused on one of the darkest periods of his life.
In 2018, the Court of Master Sommeliers stripped Morrow and 22 other newly minted master sommeliers of their titles following a cheating scandal that rocked the global wine establishment and garnered international headlines.
The court took the unprecedented action after a proctor overseeing the blind-tasting exam was discovered to have leaked information to an unknown number of the candidates.
To be clear, Morrow was not accused of cheating. But he, like the others, fell under suspicion as a result of the proctor’s actions.