Lives take unexpected turns. Alpana Singh, the sommelier at Everest in Chicago and at 26 the youngest person to achieve the title of Master Sommelier, was at one point planning to join the U.S. Air Force. "I love to travel, so it sounded great," she recalls. "But I went for my physical, and the doctor said, 'I just don't picture you in the Air Force.' I asked him what he meant, and he said, 'Do you really want to do this?' I wasn't sure. So he disqualified me and sent me home."

Singh, who grew up in Monterey, California, in an immigrant Indian family of nondrinkers, ended up waiting tables at Montrio, a local bistro with a great wine list. "When I interviewed, the manager asked me, 'What do you know about wine?' I said, 'Well, I know it comes from grapes.'" That wasn't sufficient for her to be hired, but Singh, as she admits, is very stubborn. She bought an armload of books, and two days later knew enough to land the job.

That determination has served her well; only 106 other people have earned the Master Sommelier diploma. Qualifying for it entails a series of exams, including a blind-tasting of six wines for which she had to identify the varietal, district of origin and vintage. "I'd love to be the spokesperson for my generation's interest in wine—a wild dream, but maybe it's possible." Some would even say that it's likely.

—Ray Isle