Message in a Bottle

A new guard of advanced and master sommeliers is changing the way wine is talked about and sold, and  snobbishness is—mostly—off limits.

In a restaurant, guests sometimes fear the sommelier. They cringe at betraying ignorance or indecision before the wine expert or worry they’ll be shamed into spending too much for a bottle. Sommeliers know they’re stereotyped as intimidating know-it-alls, and indeed the masters are far ahead of the masses in the depth and precision of their wine knowledge.

Thus the conundrum.

To become a master sommelier, you must be invited to show that you know more about wine than almost anyone, and then pass the world’s toughest tests to prove it. Only one in 10 candidates gets through dozens of deduction-method tastings followed by written and service exams. The survivors join an elite international group, 220 so far (three are Virginians), who must promise not to flout their knowledge—and to never put a guest in the position of being wrong.

The Court of Master Sommeliers, the industry’s premier governing body, which was established in Great Britain in 1977, makes its expectations for its members clear: They must show a “quietly confident but not arrogant” attitude that doesn’t alienate others. They agree to explain wines “without dumbing down, but also without unnecessary verbiage,” and listen actively. When in doubt, they should (and this is important) undersell. Above all, “attention should ALWAYS be on the guest and never drawn to the sommelier.”

But there are circles—some with tasting grids, maps and wine flash cards, and always with mystery wines—where attention is solely on the sommelier. These are the province of a growing vanguard of competitors who are studying their way through the Court’s four-level battery, devoting years, if not lifetimes, to the art and science of knowing, loving and selling wine. And not just wine, but spirits, sake, beer, even cigars—it’s all on the tests for the holy grail of credentials.

Jen Saxby graduated from college with a sports broadcasting degree, but in the past few years she has transferred her team-spirit tendencies to a marina restaurant in Virginia Beach that once was an unlikely spot for a sommelier. The wine list she curates at Thirty 7 North has grown from one page to nine and is strong on pinot noirs and other grapes from small domestic vineyards.

Saxby passed the Court’s first two levels (earning her the title of certified sommelier) and is studying for advanced certification with five fellow candidates who meet each week in Hampton Roads. They taste three reds, three whites, and deduce where they were produced and in which style, with what flavor qualities and other details. “Our group is informal,” Saxby says, “and we’re all on the same path—to educate ourselves as much as we can, to act as a team and a community. A huge part of it is passion. You can’t just blast through the program; that’s just not possible.” They’ve heard of the comrades who have quit their jobs to spend six months cramming, or the ones who think they can wing it, only to fail miserably. Second chances are limited, and candidates must be invited to continue.

“You have to be part historian, part geologist,” says Michael Avery, a beverage manager for three Boathouse restaurants in Richmond who is in line to take the third-level exam. “Getting a wine that you don’t know in front of you and identifying what the grape is, is it young wine, old wine, is there oak—I don’t know if it’s like an athletic competition, but it’s a way to say you’ve made it this far. In the end, there’s a sense of accomplishment moving up through these levels.

 “Being a sommelier is ultimately about the guest and to be sure they have the best experience,” Avery says, “but there’s a lot of business involved, too. The ordering, making sure the numbers are right—in the end we are a business, and we make money by having people in the restaurant enjoying our product and our service.”

Achieving master sommelier status is all consuming—some say 10,000 hours of study might not be enough—and potentially devastating, even for the well prepared. Students pay their own way unless sponsored by an employer, as in Avery’s case. Prep courses, wines, exam fees and travel can be an investment close to college tuition levels. Marc Sauter of Zoe’s Steak & Seafood in Virginia Beach is working toward the final levels and mentoring others on the rigors involved. “The blind tasting is something you have to be able to do walking in your sleep,” he tells them. “You have 25 minutes to evaluate six wines, about 40 questions on each. In levels three and four, you’re sitting across from the judges, no sheet of paper in front of you, so you have to memorize everything,” and go from one wine to the next and the next with the clock ticking.

Wine service testing, where the student serves a table full of international master sommeliers at the hotel exam site, “is definitely stressful,” Sauter says. “You are pouring Champagne or decanting wine, and they’re peppering you with questions, and they’re trying to mimic any scenario you might have in a five star-level restaurant. You may be pouring wine and they ask you to suggest a grand cru, and to name a house in every single grand cru region, and then which vintage year you suggest and what price it would be, and what wine pairings would go with their dinner, and on and on,” balancing the cerebral and the physical tasks with the goal of ultimate hospitality.

“They will try to knock you off your feet,” Sauter says of the examiners, “but they are not all brutal about it.” Still, some master sommeliers admit they’re afraid of certain masters, and the candidates tend to be terrified of them all.

They’ve watched the recent documentary film Somm, which shows the arduous testing process, and know some of the players because it’s like a fraternity, Sauter says—it’s a small world among sommeliers. There are rock stars, including one man who purportedly passed the test by smelling, not tasting, each wine. Keith Goldston of Reston, a D.C.-based somm, is called a wizard and wunderkind for passing the top test in his 30s, a feat that gives him legendary status. A dean among Virginia master sommeliers is Fran Kysela, whose talents are described by Wine Advocate magazine as “one of the finest palates” anywhere. Kysela owns an award-winning wine import business in Winchester and is a frequent mentor to others. To enthusiasts who simply want to know more about wine, he suggests, “Be confident, don’t be afraid to ask questions. You’re there to learn, not to be intimidated. Joining a tasting group or getting involved with wine dinners is a great starting point.”

Lest anyone think all wine tasting is delightful, Kysela says he has tasted plenty of bad wine over the years. “When the expectation is high and the wine is not good, that’s disappointing. It does happen.” Corking and oxidation can ruin a bottle, and it is the sommelier’s job to quickly replace it and to maintain quality and trust. “That’s another thing to learn—what bad wine tastes like,” Avery agrees. “That’s not pleasant but you have to know—you can tell by the cork if it is oxidized slightly. It’s going to happen. It’s not really anybody’s fault. The amount of work that goes into producing wine, it’s a difficult thing to do. Once it’s packaged and corked, there are other obstacles that can make the wine bad.” But that’s a rarity, and overall these sommeliers say quality is up and choices are more robust than ever.

Guests are also more knowledgeable. “There’s something to learn from everybody,” Saxby says, and sommeliers realize that it’s best to assume guests know as much as they do. “The world seems to be growing exponentially with its knowledge and interest in wine, so you have to keep on top of things,” Sauter says. “My assumption is [that] whoever I’m serving will be an expert. And I have learned from people who are novices. You have to be prepared that wine is always evolving, and there are always new things to learn.”

And there are more students than ever attempting the Court’s first-level certification. Its introductory class offerings have jumped seven-fold in the past 10 years, attracting a diverse group of students, from Alabama to Abu Dhabi, who hope to join the ranks of sommeliers.

The field, even to a veteran such as Kysela, remains fascinating and worth the commitment of perpetual study. He has planted an experimental vineyard in Winchester to learn more about viticulture first hand. “I think that the topic of wine is such a rich human experience,” Kysela says. “It’s a culturally rich material; it’s a landscape that’s very rewarding. You can learn about people and culture and the whole experience of the human condition. Most of all, wine shouldn’t be intimidating. It is a beverage of pleasure.”  

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