Where wine and religion meet
In the same year, David Yoshida earned his divinity degree and was certified a master sommelier
To become a master sommelier is to make a significant investment in time (many years of study) and money (to buy the wine needed to study). Most who achieve this ultimate recognition of wine knowledge have jobs making, selling or serving wine.
David Yoshida, a newly minted master somm, ministers to prisoners, and not with wine. Yoshida, 34, a 2002 graduate of ‘Iolani School, passed the final level of the Court of Master Sommeliers exam in 2017, the same year he earned his Master of Divinity degree from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif. He was back in Hawaii for several weeks to visit his parents in Mililani and plans a permanent move home later this year. This would make him only the fourth homegrown master sommelier living and working in the state, after Chuck Furuya, Roberto Viernes and Patrick Okubo.
His next step is to gain ordination locally in the United Church of Christ, and he hopes to continue a prison ministry begun last year in the California correctional system as a volunteer with the Catholic chaplaincy.
“Then there’s the wine thing …”
YOSHIDA FIGURES he’ll eventually have a second full-time job outside the church, as he is also is a partner in Pollux, an online retailer that promotes small California wineries. While he doesn’t plan to go into restaurant work here, he does hope to teach through winerelated events.
He says the worlds of wine and faith offer many points of convergence.
“First, the aesthetics,” he said. “Beauty.” Then, not to put too mystical a point on it, Yoshida talks about completeness and proportionality as goals of spiritual growth, but also as marks of good wine making. Some degree of faith is necessary to each, and completion often takes years, as a person matures and a wine ages.
“Both can look at something unmade and see something beautiful in what is yet to come.” He also sees parallels in the concept of reclamation. Wine grapes are often grown in areas unsuitable for other types of farming, he said, with marginal soil and terrain. These stressful growing conditions, though, tend to produce the best wine grapes, as yield is controlled so ripeness, flavor concentration and acidity are optimum.
“It’s the story of useless land being reclaimed and made useful,” he said. Substitute “person” for “land” and you’ve got religion, “to find value where it’s not likely to be found.” Yoshida grew up in a religious household in Mililani, faithfully attending Kalihi Union Church. After high school he earned a degree in physics at Columbia University in New York but then changed course, entering Yale University to pursue a master’s in divinity, working nights as a hospice chaplain.
In the midst of all this, he discovered a love of wine, detouring to study, lead classes in wine appreciation and work as a restaurant sommelier. Eventually he took five years off to work as a harvest intern in vineyards in France, Spain and Washington state.
As a result, “it took me nine years to get a three-year degree.”
He credits his mom and dad with infinite patience in their only child. “I had very understanding parents who didn’t expect their son to be a success — yet.” Instead they had a son who was basically a farm laborer at age 30, “with an Ivy League degree in physics.”
REGGIE NARITO, a master sommelier who served as Yoshida’s mentor for two years, said Yoshida was in the top five of the 53 candidates he coached last year, and the only one who passed.
“When I first tasted with him I thought he was already a master-level taster,” Narito said. That Yoshida was able to earn his divinity degree while juggling the demands of sommelier study is a tribute to his instincts, focus and dedication, Narito said.
Yoshida noted that his harvest internships provided an unshakable foundation. He learned everything from how to choose a harvest date — “the single most important vineyard decision” — to juicing the grapes, fermentation and barreling.
Making wine is an all-encompassing profession, he said. “You have to know economics, history, chemistry, how to drive a tractor, how not to hurt your back; you have to know how to put on a nice shirt and sell your wine in a three-star restaurant.”
As a master sommelier who also preaches and works in a prison, he might not find a use for all those skills, but Yoshida sees the value of knowing them.
He’s the kind of guy who might approach, say, pizza making by first learning to grind wheat.
No, he said, “I would learn to grow the wheat.”
David Yoshida reaches for a bottle of 2014 Descendientes de Jose Palacios “Petalos” Bierzo, a selection he chose for a fundraising event for the Moanalua High School or chestra held Jan. 20 at Moanalua Gardens.