Get to Know Julie Dalton and Rachel Speckan, Wilson Daniels x SommFoundation Scholarship Winners

Every year, Wilson Daniels and the SommFoundation honor one amazing individual who is tirelessly working towards becoming a Master Sommelier. With the support, we hope they can go on to become leaders in the industry and help others along the way. This year we had two amazing candidates who stood out among the rest, and thus increased our award to give TWO individuals the help they deserve. Congrats to Julie Dalton and Rachel Speckan! Get to know the sommeliers who will both receive $2,000 towards their CMS Master Exam, and make sure to apply next year should you be on the same path.

Julie Dalton 

Growing up in Winfield, West Virginia and graduating from Texas A&M University with a BS in Marine Biology and Entomology before graduating with a Masters of Science in Biotechnology and a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University (whew!), Julie Dalton was always interested in wine after working in hospitality, but is taking the next step towards her MS. “The path to Master Sommelier involves sacrifices. A lot of them. I wouldn’t be here on this path without the generosity and sacrifice of so many others,” says Dalton. “That includes Wilson Daniels in providing me this scholarship. I am truly grateful and honored to receive it.” [Edit note: We’re happy to help, Julie!]

Get to Know Julie Dalton:

What got you into wine? Have you always had a passion for it? 

The first time I got interested in wine was while working at Gaido’s in Galveston, Texas as an undergrad. We had a wine training by Mary Kay Gaido, the wife of owner Paulie Gaido, who was the acting sommelier for the restaurant. That’s the first time I ever heard that word used and because my first exposure to a sommelier was female, I never knew it was a male-dominated industry.  But the real reason I got into it was the salesmanship for it. I knew if I learned a tiny bit about our wine list (by reading Wines for Dummies) I could speak to our wine list in a way that no other server could, so I could build trust with my guests and make more money. But once I started reading, I kept wanting to taste everything I was reading about. The passion grew from being thirsty for knowledge.

What’s something most people don’t think about when deciding to become a Master Sommelier? Or something you think others should know?

Everyone thinks it’s so glamorous. I get it. And if I had a dollar for every guest I waited on who said, “When I retire, I’m going to have your job, I’d be rich.” [laughs] So many people think if you have money and can afford the exclusive bottles of Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne that that makes you a wine connoisseur.  Once they start truly delving into the details, then they become more respectful of our profession. Also, I wish more people who get into this business were more passionate about hospitality. There are so many sommeliers out there who just want to be a sommelier and pontificate at tables instead of taking care of their guests. I remember when I worked at Gaido’s, and everywhere after that, how much I absolutely LOVED waiting tables and making our guests happy.  And I remember thinking, “If I didn’t care about what people thought about me, I’d be a waitress for the rest of my life.”  And…well…I eventually grew up and decided it didn’t matter what people thought about me.  How many people can say they’re truly happy with their work?

What’s your favorite wine right now? Why?

I can’t get enough of Austrian Riesling or Weissburgunder. Minerally whites are so refreshing and I’ve been on a white kick for years. When I spend money on wine it’s almost always on white wine or bubbly. These wines just make me happy.  Their acidity make me tingle from inside out. Plus, when I think about the foods I want to eat, these wines are perfect for them.

What do you think the ultimate mark of a good sommelier is?

Hospitality first. Learning when to drop your knowledge and how best to do it.  The best ones listen to the guest without pushing their own agenda. Don’t be insufferable. Decipher the guests’ language without undermining their choice. Smile. Always. The world of wine can be so intimidating and people can get defensive with regard to their knowledge or lack thereof. A smile can go a long way to disarm and bring everyone to an even playing field and establish trust.

What do you hope to accomplish in your wine career?

Leaving a legacy of genuine hospitality and humility. It’s important for me to rise the tide of young sommeliers to lead with hospitality first. I don’t think you can MAKE someone truly humble. That comes from their own experience. I see the lack of humility everywhere and it breaks my heart. They’re doing a disservice to our profession and giving us a bad reputation.

Who would you consider your mentors?

I’ve been very lucky to have had many mentors through the years.  My first mentor was Mitchell Pressman, the owner of a wine shop I worked at in Baltimore, MD.  He taught me so much without me feeling like I was being “schooled.” The Master Sommelier that was my first inspiration to pursue this role was Ron Edwards. Then enter Kathy Morgan, John Wabeck, Andy Myers, and Keith Goldston. But I’ve had many instrumental people help me along the way, including Andy McNamara, Reggie Narito, and Virginia Philip.

What’s your favorite thing about this industry?

The sharing. The passion. The stories. The families.

What do you wish would change about it?

A little less ego…from both guests who are insecure in their wine knowledge and from fellow sommeliers.

What’s been the biggest challenge of your wine career thus far?

The Master Sommelier Diploma is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to accomplish. It took me five years just to pass one section. Grad school at Johns Hopkins University in Biotechnology was a cakewalk compared to this. Thank goodness I’m a stubborn tenacious relentless individual. If it takes me 50 years to pass then so be it.

The number one place you would want to vacation after you take the exam?

I’d like to go home to Baltimore and visit family and friends who have been supporting this crazy endeavor of mine since the beginning. I’ve been in Houston almost a year and I miss them terribly. I’d like to cook for my sister and her family, teach my 16-year-old niece how to drive stick shift, and watch my 14-year-old nephew play basketball.


Rachel Speckan 

Rachel Speckan is interested in all aspects of wine, but hospitality has always held a big place in her heart. With a plethora of mentors, friends, and support, she’s getting ready for the exam in stride, but knows when to let off some steam: “For stress-relieving purposes, and for living a full and rounded life, I have been continuing to play ultimate frisbee and also joined a martial arts gym to learn kickboxing and Krav Maga as an outlet and funnel for anxiety,” says Speckan. “It also helps me focus and get physically strong.”

Get to know Rachel Speckan: 

What got you into wine? Have you always had a passion for it?

I grew up on a rural farm in Arkansas, wandering the woods and the dirt roads, springs, and streams with a collection of cousins and friends. We ventured and adventured, tasted rocks and smelled the seasons, physically felt the shift in weather, created stories, and imagined. This is the foundation for observation and development of senses that directly play into my proclivity for the stories, tastes, and places of wine.

In school, I studied people and culture, arts, and history. But I was always drawn toward high intensity, high anxiety situations through which I could calmly triage and create memorable moments. And, travel! Adventure! Winemakers and wineries, vineyards, and oceans, mountains. Thus, wine and hospitality were an amazing fit. I absolutely am passionate for it. On fire.

What’s something most people don’t think about when deciding to become a Master Sommelier? Or something you think others should know?

Although I am unable to speak directly to other folks thoughts or motivations, I am driven by the opportunity to be the best hospitality professional that I can be. For me, that also included mentorship, education, and providing guidance and opportunities for sommeliers and service professionals in the industry. I am not certain that I will ever feel like this quest ends, I believe it will push the drive into a higher gear, to provide encouragement, champion learning, and continuing my own education. Endlessly. But, also, this pursuit is intertwined with hospitality, sales, and service. Providing a real, measurable experience for the client; seamlessly creating an immersive adventure in culinary and beverage.

What’s your favorite wine right now? Why?

My favorite wine(s) right now are classic. I am particularly enjoying older Riesling from Germany and Chablis. Although, the other answer to the question is always Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley.

What do you think the ultimate mark of a good sommelier is?

A solid sommelier is marked by the ability to listen to the guest and sink into their experience without standing out or making a show. Moving quickly, quietly, and like a ninja through the venue. Teach and learn. Create a dialogue or discussion rather than a sales pitch.

What do you hope to accomplish in your wine career?

Learn, study, inspire. Experience. And, adventure through the glass. Create, cultivate, and nurture relationships across the world. Ideally, I would like to become adept at winemaking and viticulture, too, in addition to understanding the theory, sales, and service techniques.

Who would you consider your mentors?

I have so many mentors, friends, and colleagues that have been pivotal to my career and path through the Court of Master Sommeliers. The Chicago MS community has been the foundation…Joseph Spellman, Fernando Beteta and Serafin Alvarado, Jesse Becker, and Alpana Singh. Jim Bube, of course. Also, Madeline Triffon and Melissa Monosoff, Matt Citriglia. Doug Frost. James Tidwell, June Rodil, and David Keck. And, Thomas Price. Michael Jordan.

As for inspiration and support beyond the Court, Jill Zimorski has been incredibly amazing, as well as Jane Lopes, Erin Drain, and Kelly Cosgrove. Elaine Chukan Brown.

But, I can also share that I utilize the village and the network extensively. I call and tap into the network of professionals in the industry and beyond to ask hard questions, bounce ideas off of, and, push push push to be better, faster, stronger and well-rounded.

What’s your favorite thing about this industry?

This industry attracts a spectrum of characters, experiences, and backgrounds. It is so endlessly amazing to delve deeper. Certainly, an incredible, exciting and fluid industry in which to be involved. And, there is always more to learn!

What do you wish would change about it?

Equal pay. Equal opportunity. A seat for everyone at the table, with a turn for every voice to be heard. Also, a more inclusive, accessible, and encouraging atmosphere.  

What’s been the biggest challenge of your wine career thus far?

Breaking through set expectations and limits, pushing for more and better. Integrity in business, professionalism.

The number one place you would want to vacation after you take the exam?

By my first inclination, you can tell how wrapped up in the exam and pursuit I am…Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Austria. For wine.

However, the real answer should be that the location matters not. I would like to adventure with the kids and focus on the entire experience, fully. And, I would like alone time with the husband without technology or influence of parenting, to be together with no distractions and have the chance to actually talk about not kids or test or work or tasks at hand. I would love to let go of responsibility and a checklist for a few days with no set plan or place to be or people to call.

Samantha Leal, September 24, 2018
Download file

September 24, 2018

Share post