Cristie Kerr an expert on the course and in the vineyard

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — On the morning of Feb. 7, 2017, as master sommelier Randall Bertao scanned the list of 79 students who were set to spend the next two days taking the Court of Master Sommeliers introductory exam, one name jumped off the page.

He wasn’t expecting to see Cristie Kerr, seeking her third major championship at this week’s rescheduled ANA Inspiration at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California, among those taking the first step toward earning that fabled sommelier pin identifying them as some of the world’s foremost experts in wine.

Even though Bertao had yet to meet her, he knew exactly who Kerr was — but not for her success on the course, where the 20-time LPGA Tour winner is third all-time on the tour’s money list.

Rather, he knew Kerr as a vintner.

Kerr had started making wine in 2008 under the Curvature label, and five years later unveiled Kerr Cellars. By the time she was sitting for that test, Kerr Cellars had already been named a “Winery to Watch” by Wine Spectator, and some of her wines had already received ratings into the 90s by the industry’s most respected names. Bertao, the general manager at Los Altos Golf and Country Club in northern California, was among those who had high praise for Kerr’s wines.

Nine months before proctoring Kerr’s introductory sommelier test, in May 2016, Bertao was asked by Golfweek Magazine to taste and evaluate wines by professional golfers. Among them were three of Kerr’s wines: a 2013 red, a 2014 chardonnay and a 2013 cabernet sauvignon. He said the chardonnay, “though long on oak, had the body to carry it well,” and the cabernet was “a serious cab for serious cab lovers.”

So, when Bertao, who has been a master sommelier since 2005 and was one of four instructors for that class, walked into the ballroom at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, there was Kerr, sitting among the rows of tables, four wine glasses in front of her, ready to learn, taste and test.

“It showed her commitment to wanting to be more than just a name on a label, that she really cared about what was in the bottle,” Bertao said. “So, that was pretty special, and I think her wine showed that.

“It had that extra level of concentration and flavor and care.”

For two days, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with her husband, Erik Stevens, and caddie, Brady Stockton, waiting outside the room, Kerr listened to the instructors lecture about regions, grape varietals, wine laws and tasting, among other wine-related topics. After every three lectures, wine was poured for a blind taste. Learning and consuming every bit of knowledge about wine was one thing, but tasting wine was its own separate challenge.

The class concluded with a 70-question multiple-choice exam — which also included questions on beer, spirits and sake — and an oral tasting test that was done in groups of usually four or five. Each member of the group was responsible for a different part of the taste test: the wine’s look, smell, taste, grape varieties and country of origin, and, finally, a specific guess. For example, a chardonnay from the 2017 vintage from the Carneros region of Napa Valley, California.

It sounds daunting, Bertao said, because the breadth of possible questions requires a broad knowledge base of wine from around the world. But a passing grade on the introductory test is 60 percent and the pass rate was between 80 and 90 percent.

“It was incredibly stressful,” Kerr said. “I can make a six-foot putt. I know it’s in my control and I do what I can, and I putt it. It either goes in or it doesn’t. But I’m in the wine business now and I’m probably the only person in there that is actually a vintner studying and grinding away and trying to pass this massive test.”

Kerr was one of the first to turn in her test. Then the waiting began.

The students were brought back into a room and handed a glass of champagne. Then the names of those who passed were read aloud, in front of everybody. It was an experience like Kerr had never been through on the green after the 72nd hole.

As more names were read, Kerr was convinced she didn’t pass.

“I was thinking the whole time, ‘Oh, my God, if I fail, he’s going to think I’m a fraud,'” Kerr said of Bertao.

Then she heard her name, one of the last to be called.

Afterward, Bertao approached Kerr and asked what motivated her to spend two days on the introductory exam when she already had burgeoning wine brand.

“I really just want to learn,” she told him. “Some people get interested in politics, some people get interested in whatever it be, but learning about wine is interesting to me.”

She also wanted to be challenged.

“Just like golf,” she said, “you’ll never master wine.”

But Kerr has been trying, and it has taken a toll. Over the past 12 years, wine has become as much a part of Kerr’s life as golf. But lately, it has nearly become more.

“It’s taken a little bit of time away from my golf, for sure,” Kerr said. “It has, but you have to sometimes give a little to get a little.”

Seeking a balance, and a win

Kerr was starting to find a balance between golf and wine in early 2019 but had already decided then that she wanted to spend less time on her wine and more time on her game with one goal in mind: a win.

Kerr hasn’t won in almost three years. Her last victory came on Oct. 26, 2017 at the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia, her second that season. It was a run of six missed cuts in her last eight events — and eight of her last 11 — of 2019 that propelled her to refocus.

All those unexpected free weekends got to Kerr, who also tried her hand as an on-course commentator for the Golf Channel in February at the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic.

“It was like, I’m either going to go forward or I’m going to maybe do some more TV and phase myself out, but I fell in love with the game again,” Kerr said.

A driving force for Kerr, 42, is the LPGA Hall of Fame. As the tour continues its restart following a nearly six-month break because of the coronavirus pandemic, Kerr sits five points short from induction.

The first few weeks of quarantining in March was tough on Kerr as she mulled her golf future while watching her wine label face a future of uncertainty.

When the pandemic first hit the United States, Kerr, like many other small-business owners, had questions: How could her company sustain itself? Was it going to go out of business? How long was the shutdown going to last?

However, Kerr Cellars was unique to some degree. There weren’t many overhead expenses that Kerr had to worry about that other larger wineries did, like a cellar door — or a tasting room. The largest expenses were Kerr Cellars’ winemaker, Helen Keplinger, and its grapes, but Kerr said those expenses don’t hit until December. She did have to furlough one employee, though. Live tastings and other events were put on hold, which slightly impacted sales, said Stevens, who’s also the president of Kerr Cellars. Because Kerr Cellars was essentially already a virtual business, it actually saw an uptick in online and in-store sales, and the winery started doing virtual tastings.

Overall, Kerr Cellars will not grow its business this year because it’s not getting the type of growth in restaurants and through live events that it would have in a normal year. However, Kerr received a major boon to the business in August when Constellation Brands, one of the largest beer, wine and spirits companies in the country, bought a minority stake in Kerr Cellars through its Focus on Female Founders company.

After not playing since the ISPA Handa Women’s Australian Open in mid-February, and feeling like she was “going stir crazy,” Kerr got the itch in late April and was back on the course, playing 18 holes a day, knowing she couldn’t afford to take two more months off.

That got her ready for the LPGA’s restart, but heading into this week’s ANA Inspiration, Kerr has yet to find the groove she had early in the season when she had a T-11 and T-6 sandwiched around a missed cut. She hasn’t finished higher than 38th in her past four tournaments.

Going all in

Kerr and Stevens had long been consumers of wine but evolved into oenophiles through years of traveling the world thanks to Kerr’s career.

But it was annual trips to the now-defunct Samsung World Championship of Women’s Golf, when it was played at Hiddenbrooke Golf Club, just outside Vallejo, in the early 2000s that sparked an attraction and fascination with Napa Valley. She fell in love with the rolling hills of Napa, and the lifestyle and culture that came with the terroir — and the idea of making wine.

When she decided to enter the wine world, Kerr had a very specific wine she wanted to make: “a very expensive super high-end Cab.”

When Kerr told people she wanted to get into the wine business, she pretty much received the same response: Don’t do it with your own money.

Yet, Kerr persisted.

She paired with Pride Mountain Vineyards in 2008 to make about 150 to 200 cases of high-end cabernet. Kerr had a caveat: She wanted to donate 100 percent of her proceeds to the Cristie Kerr Women’s Health Center at Jersey City Medical Center, which screens, treats and does diagnostic testing for breast cancer. Pride Mountain Vineyards co-owner Suzanne Pride Bryan, a two-time cancer survivor who lost her father to bladder cancer,was the Vintner Ambassador to the V Foundation’s Wine Board in 2018 and a two-time honoree of the foundation’s Vintner Grant. She initially turned Kerr down despite loving her idea. But 10 minutes later, Bryan reversed course. Kerr’s first wine, Curvature, was born.

She was hands-on from the start, visiting Napa Valley several times a year, tasting and blending the wines — a cabernet and a chardonnay — which rated in the 90s and were served in the White House in 2009 at an affair honoring Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel. In the 10 years that Kerr and Bryan partnered, they donated more than $150,000. In all, Kerr has raised between $1.3 million and $1.5 million for her health center.

From the onset of her journey into the wine world, Kerr didn’t want to be just another professional athlete whose named was slapped across a bottle of expensive wines. To those well-established in the industry, that was “very refreshing” and separated her from most celebrities in wine, said Fred Dame, one of 73 master sommeliers in the United States, and one of the most respected in the world.

Kerr found some success with her wines, especially recently. Sales have doubled in the last three years and after starting with just a cabernet sauvignon in 2008, Kerr Cellars’ 2018 vintage will have nine different wines.

In 2016, after eight years of learning the inner workings of the wine business while traveling the world for her day job as a pro golfer and three years after starting her own label, Kerr decided to start preparing for the introductory sommelier exam.

“I’m trying as many wines as humanly possible to learn about wine — and I’m not a big drinker,” Kerr said. “I just like trying wines, whether I spit or I don’t. Like, I enjoy my one or two glasses of wine at night, or if we’re doing a tasting, you taste a bunch of different wines in a very small amount. And I just became kind of obsessed with learning about it.

“I don’t do anything halfway. We’re making a very fine product and I feel like this is kind of part of my DNA. And I said to myself, ‘I want to start learning and studying about wine.'”

Studying for the test filled a long-ago vacated void in Kerr’s life.

It became the college she never attended.

Kerr knew from 10 years old, growing up in South Florida, that she wanted to be a professional golfer. She said she had a 4.3 GPA at Miami Sunset High School, and her father, Michael, was a teacher. After graduating, she was faced with a life-altering decision: Go to college, where a full academic scholarship was awaiting her, she said, and get a degree, or play professional golf as an 18-year-old. She chose golf.

When she began studying for the sommelier exam, Kerr found a piece of her that was missing for almost 23 years.

“I never got the opportunity to go and study and be part of that culture,” Kerr said. “I feel like knowledge was a discipline of mine growing up, even though I had golf. So, I feel like not getting to go to college was … I felt like I was missing something. So, yeah, I feel like it has started to fill a void for me.”

For the six to eight months before taking the test in February 2017, Kerr was as studious as time allowed.

She had a 330-page manual that was her main source of studying. She also started reading magazines like Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate and Decanter; and books like Secrets of the Sommeliers and the World Atlas of Wine.

It wasn’t easy, Kerr said, to balance her personal life with her golf life with her studying. She didn’t have time to get much studying done when she was back home in Scottsdale with her two young children. When she could, she’d read before bed, her husband said. He helped when he could, too, and usually that meant opening a bottle, either at home or at a restaurant, without telling her what it was to help prep her for the blind tasting.

The bulk of her prep took place on the road during the LPGA Tour season, often in her hotel room at night or alone in restaurants. It wasn’t rare for her to read her books and magazines during a solo dinner in places like Thailand and Singapore during tournament weeks. However, Kerr had a limit. She never brought her study materials to the course.

“I have never read this much of my life,” she said.

The more she read, though, the more she learned.

And there was plenty to learn.

There was the winemaking process, which includes which grapes make which wines, or the basics of winemaking that includes the fermentation process and techniques, or how different strains of yeast affect the wine. Then there was the history of wine, which wines were Old World or New World, the regions where grapes are from, and the history of vintages.

“To understand pinot noir, I think you have to understand how it encompasses everything,” Kerr said. “There’s a complete abyss of knowledge that is out there.

“I don’t feel like you can make great wine unless you study past and present, and what kind of style of wine you want to make.”

Kerr can step on a golf course and, just by looking at the grass, know what kind of grass it is, how it’s going to affect her game that day, how she’s going to chip out of it, what the temperature does to it.

She wanted to look at wine the same way.

A special blend

All of Kerr’s studying paid off. She passed on her first try. By time she walked into that ballroom in the Beverly Wilshire, Kerr was already an anomaly in the wine world: a female athlete with a wine label.

There aren’t many.

Besides Kerr, Olympic figure skater Peggy Fleming and Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin — all retired — have wine labels. Fellow golfer Annika Sorenstam used to be in the wine business, as well.

After February 2017, Kerr was in even rarer air: An athlete with their own label who’s also a sommelier.

Marvin Shanken, editor-in-chief and publisher of Wine Spectator since 1979, is one of the few who can put Kerr’s resume of vintner, athlete and sommelier in a long-term perspective.

“There are very few golfers that are connected to wine and certainly coming to the sommelier route is rather unusual,” Shanken said.

How far Kerr will take her desire to learn about wine is yet to be seen.

Even before COVID-19 ground the world to a halt, Kerr wasn’t sure if she would take the next sommelier exam, the second of four, to become a certified sommelier.

For now, she’s focused on golf — and winning. Kerr thinks she has about five years left on the LPGA Tour, but spending more time on her game, and less time on her wine and pursuing a sommelier pin, may be easier said than actually done.

“Golf has always been that first love for me,” Kerr said. “Nothing, obviously not comparing it to my marriage or my family, but I sit and think about the golf swing all the time. I sit and think about, ‘I’m going to try these new wedges, I’m going to try this new shaft and driver.’ And I think wine’s been a nice other career for me.

“But I am [42] years old and I’m five points away from the Hall of Fame, and I’m obsessed, obsessed with trying to figure out a way to get there.”

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