Many people dream of making a living by doing what they love, but for most that dream stays a dream.
Huge goals often seem too hard, or too scary, or too farfetched, because the distance between here and there looks impossibly wide.
But it is possible.
Here's another in my series on incredibly successful people who have accomplished something we all strive for: doing what we love.
This time I talked with Aldo Sohm, the Wine Director of Le Bernardin, New York's longest rated four-star restaurant. (Check out my behind the scenes look at Le Bernardin.) In 2014, along with Eric Ripert and Maguy Le Coze, he opened the eponymously named Aldo Sohm Wine Bar, a sister venture to Le Bernardin.
Aldo has also won Best Sommelier of Austria four times, won Best Sommelier in America in 2007, and in 2008 was named Best Sommelier in the World by the World Sommelier Association. Plus he's a brand ambassador for Zalto, the Austria-based premium glassware manufacturer, and partnered with the Austrian sweet winemaker Kracher to craft their own dry Gruner Veltliner.
To say Aldo is highly accomplished is a huge understatement--and as you'll see, so is saying he loves what he does.
People dream of being lots of things when they're young, but I can't imagine being an acclaimed sommelier is one of them.
When I was growing up in Austria, about 20 kilometers outside Innsbruck, I wanted to become a chef. But as a fourteen year-old, how do you know what you want to do for the rest of your life? It's a very hard decision.
So my father guided me a little and said, "Why don't you go to a tourism high school?" Keep in mind that in Europe the hospitality industry has a clear educational path. So I enrolled in a tourist high school because I wanted to be educated as a cook, a waiter, have front desk skills, and learn about hotel management.
My first internship was in a kitchen. I soon realized that what you think you will love is not always what you love: people were yelling, screaming, throwing plates... I thought it was a madhouse. I wanted to quit.
My dad said, "No, see this as a great opportunity. It might not be your thing, but it only lasts two months. Running away would be easy... but easy is not the right way."
So you saw that through even though you didn't like it?
I was going to, but fortunately after two weeks they moved me to the front of the house because they were a person short.
I loved it. I loved interacting with people. I loved the different characters, the different cultures... the more diverse the culture, the more I like it. Moving to the front of the house was a revelation.
Is that where your interest in wine began?
No, I didn't get interested in wine until my second job. I chose to work in a small hotel just to get up to speed. I had knowledge but I needed to get faster and more efficient.
While I was there I met a couple who were always excited about the day ahead. Even at breakfast they were already looking forward to lunch and dinner, they wanted to talk about what they would eat and drink... and that was a major turning point for me. I could either tell them I didn't know or I could do some homework during my afternoon breaks so I could give them advice.
So I bought some books and started reading and realized just how interesting wine really is.
Around the same time my father took me to Italy on a wine buying trip for his cellar. I went into a store there and it was like paradise. I talked to the owner of the shop, I tasted wines, I started reading as much as I could... I was around the right people and the right environment.
That makes a huge difference.
Becoming a sommelier in Europe also requires formal education?
I earned my sommelier diploma in 1998. In Austria the process takes two years and you must have ten years of experience before you even start: you have to know service and the kitchen because how can you pair a wine if you don't know what's happening on the other side?
During that time our trainer was competing for Best Sommelier of Austria. It was almost time for our final exams and he asked if we wanted to come to the competition. It was in Vienna, 500 miles away. I said, "Absolutely." Everyone thought I was crazy. They thought I should stay home and study. I thought that sounded crazy.
I have always been an outsider in that sense. If I see the opportunity to learn something, no mile is too far.
In the current "hack your way to success" environment, that's an unusual attitude.
I'm always surprised by how people will almost always look for the easiest way. If it's hard, they automatically look for another way.
To me, being willing to embrace "hard" is the result of passion. I was hungry to learn and I wanted to be surrounded by the best people. That made anything I had to do worth the effort. And then learning fueled my fire and passion even more.
All my colleagues studying for the sommelier exam said, "You are going to watch this competition instead of studying?" To me, that was reason enough to go: I would get to be around the best people in the industry.
So I went and saw the finals. When the top three were announced I saw the intensity and the pressure and the media and it was incredibly intimidating.
I thought, "I could never do that," and I started questioning myself. Was this really what I wanted to do?
But intimidating as it was, the experience also inspired me.
I can tell where this is going...
Yes. Six months later my trainer came back to me and said, "We need to develop another candidate and you are ideal." I didn't think I was, but what you see in yourself is not always what other people see in you.
He said, "We see how you study, we know how determined you are, you are the perfect person to be successful." And most importantly, he said, "We will train you."
So in 1999 I went to my first competition and finished second. The training itself was so hard. The test seemed even harder. It's a two-day test, you're always under time pressure...
Then when I went back the next year, that was one of the tipping points of my career. When the finals were over I thought I had won, people were congratulating me because they felt I had won... and I came in second.
Losing really hurt. But giving up has never been one of my strong points. When you fail, you need to go through the pain, go through the frustration, and then decide if you want to keep going. If you love what you do you will keep going. If you aren't willing to keep going, that's a sign you don't really love what you do.
So I trained and studied for the next year, and then I won three years in a row.
You were extremely well regarded in Austria. Why come to the U.S.?
I was thirty-three years old and was invited to a wine testing event in Philadelphia. I had been trying to figure out how to move to America, and while I was there I stopped in New York and interviewed and got a job as a wine director at Wallse.
People thought I was crazy to move, though. Even my father questioned my decision. It was a major change but I knew without making a change I would just be stuck.
There's a big difference between people who say they want it and people who do it. It's hard to step outside of your comfort zone but that's when you really grow.
Life will test you when you really want to achieve a goal. We all have setbacks but they are just setbacks. They aren't roadblocks. You can push through.
Many people are just a mile away from their goal after walking thousands of miles, but when they hit a setback they turn around and go home because they can't see the goal any more -- they only see the setback.
So then you won Best Sommelier in America and decided to stop competing?
Yes. I wanted my life back. When you're competing all you do is work and study and work and study.
But as it turned out, never say "never."
I started at Le Bernardin and have been there for about seven months when I got a terrible review from a critic. I offered to resign. I told them I understood that a review like that was unacceptable. But they believed in me.
Then a week later the president of the Sommelier Society of America called and said, "We need you to compete in the world championships." I had just had a terrible review but that made me think, "The one thing you should never do is tell me I can't do something -- because I will show you." I decided that was the time for me to go full power, full blast.
And I won. I can still remember Maguy (Le Coze, co-founder of Le Bernardin) screaming over the phone when I called to tell her.
And that was followed by a fairly famous incident...
Six months later Eric (Ripert, co-founder of Le Bernardin) arranged an event with Food & Wine magazine. He told me people from the magazine were coming and they might want to do a wine pairing... it didn't sound like anything unusual.
Then at 7 o'clock I saw a completely new dish coming out of the kitchen, one I had never seen. That's typical Eric, by the way.
Then who walks in but Frank Bruni, the famous food and wine critic. He had been secretly enlisted by Food & Wine, with Eric's cooperation, to be a "nightmare diner."
He sat down and rejected every single pairing. He asked for this. He asked for that. He asked me to find less expensive options. He questioned every choice. He asked questions about every single wine. He was relentless.
Even Eric played along, asking why I was upsetting such an influential critic...
Of course it turned out to be a setup. The premise was "World's Best Sommelier vs. World's Worst Customer." The article made a huge splash. And to top it off, then I won a James Beard award for Best Wine Service -- all that less about a year after a devastating review.
I went from absolute bottom to the absolute height in one year. That's why I truly believe setbacks are just a part of life. We will all have them.
What matters is what we do when we face a setback. What matters is whether we keep going.
You have a large presence outside of Le Bernardin. How did that happen?
I tested glasses from Zalto and loved them. They're incredible. I was asked to be a brand ambassador in the U.S. Eric thought it was a great idea, so I agreed. I love their glasses so it's a natural fit for me.
In 2008 Wine Spectator took me to Argentina. We met a number of winemakers and they were excited we were there and asked me to criticize their wines... and I thought, "Who am I to do criticize? I don't know how to make wine."
But I thought about it and realized I really wanted to learn more about the art of winemaking. See, I talk about wine... but I don't know how to make wine, and suddenly that didn't feel authentic. When I came back I was having lunch in Queens at a small Thai place with Gerhard Kracher and I told him the story of my trip and he said, "Why don't we do something together?
Our first vintage of our Gruner Veltliner was an immediate success: Wine and Spirits gave us 96 points and ranked us in their Top 100 wines list.
Let's go in a different direction. Wine connoisseurs can be, um, stuffy.
Nothing is worse than an arrogant sommelier.
Ego is never your friend. Ego is always your enemy. The moment you think you're the best, you're on your way down. The moment you have an ego, you lose. You start to be more concerned with yourself than you are with other people.
When you surround yourself with the best people, that automatically makes you humble: You may be good in one area but there are always people who are better in other areas.
Besides, the moment you aren't hungry, it's no longer fun because you don't discover new things. You get bored.
You don't want to be around me when I'm bored. I become unbearable.
Conventional wisdom says the key to success is focus, but over time you've broadened your scope rather than tightening it.
I love wine, so extending that passion gives me so many things to explore. Talking to winemakers about farming is fascinating. Tasting wines as they are being developed is fascinating.
I'm still playing in the same sandbox, but I've just made my sandbox a lot bigger.
Ultimately it all still comes down to that turning point when I was in school and I moved to the front of the house. It was then and it is now still all about people.
Many people are great talkers but a lot less are great listeners. Because of computers and data everything can seem like a number, but no one wants to be a number. We want to be individuals.
To treat someone like an individual, you have to listen.
Tell me about the Aldo Sohm Wine Bar.
A couple of years ago Eric and Maguy said, "Would you like to open a wine bar?" Honestly, that was never on my radar. And then I thought about it.
What typically happens is a sommelier takes a sous chef from a restaurant and opens his or her own place. But sometimes the sous chef is the carbon copy of the chef. Eric is not just the color copy -- Eric is the real thing. So how could I say no?
Then, when it came to deciding on the name, that was Eric's idea. At first I said no. He said he felt my brand was strong enough, and I listened to him. He's Eric, after all.
I was scared but I decided there was no way we would fail because I would do whatever it took for us to succeed.
There's a wall in my home that I can write on. It's coated with Idea Paint. I once heard a line in a movie and I decided to write it on that wall: "Life begins at the end of the comfort zone."
That's so true. The moment I left my comfortable zone in Austria, my career skyrocketed. An old friend once said, "In order to be lucky you have to work very hard," and he's right. I worked hard and I went for it.
The wine bar has been a great success. Le Bernardin, as always, is doing very well. We have a great team, I'm training other people, I trained the winner of this year's Best Sommelier in the World, Arvin Rosengren....
Training people is a responsibility. It's my job to pass on what I know.
I love my job because I get to work with and meet amazing people. I love interacting with people. I love being stimulated and challenged.
Give me an easy job and I will fail. I was never good at easy jobs.
I love hard jobs.