Masters of Taste
Orlando’s four master sommeliers passed a rigorous test to reach the top of their profession.
You see them mostly in upscale restaurants, the places with white tablecloths, flatware next to the place settings and not rolled up in the napkins, and crystal stemware waiting to be filled with fine wine.
They’re wine stewards, or, to use the French term, sommeliers. A sommelier (soh-mehl-YAY) is an expert in all things wine. The purpose of a sommelier is to guide the diner through the process of selecting an appropriate wine to enjoy with dinner. (As far as the restaurant owner is concerned, the purpose of a sommelier is to increase wine sales, but that’s a topic for another time.) Sommeliers can recite the nuances of aroma and flavor of a particular wine and can explain why one vintage is better than another. They know the hundreds of grape varietals and how the characteristics of, say, a wine made with cabernet sauvignon grapes grown in a particular region of France would differ from one made with the same type of grape grown in a particular region of California. And why one would be better than the other with the steak au poivre. They are the Geek Squad of wine.
Now, anyone can claim the title of sommelier, just as anyone can claim to be a chef. But to claim to be a certified sommelier, one must complete a rigorous course of study and pass a test sanctioned by a recognized organization such as the Court of Master Sommeliers, a Great Britain-based society. To attain the title of master sommelier is a goal that few of even the most dedicated wine geeks will ever realize.
The path to a master sommelier certification can take more than a decade. Candidates must have encyclopedic knowledge of every wine-growing region in the world, plus be versed in attributes of spirits, beers and cigars. And the final exam, administered by invitation only to those who have demonstrated their worthiness, includes a blind tasting of six wines.
So difficult is the task that only 100 Americans have achieved the title. (There are 171 master sommeliers worldwide.) In fact, New York City—with its pantheon of fine-dining restaurants like Per Se, Le Bernardin, Daniel, Jean Georges—only recently added its fourth master sommelier.
Which means New York finally caught up with Orlando.
Orlando has had four masters since late last year when Andrew McNamara left his position at The Breakers in Palm Beach to head the wine education department at the new Orlando campus of Professional Culinary Institute. The area’s other masters are Brian Koziol, a specialist with VineOne, a wine distributor; George Miliotes, director of hospitality and wine for Seasons 52; and John Blazon, former manager of wine sales and standards for Walt Disney World.
McNamara has one distinction that sets him apart from his fellow Orlando masters—and most masters anywhere: he passed the final exam on his first try, only the 10th person to do so in the 30-year history of the Court of Master Sommeliers’ American chapter. (Yes, it’s really that hard.)
The reason it’s such an elusive achievement, says Blazon, is that “with wine, nothing is constant, and you have to stay up on it.” You can study like crazy and cram your head with all the facts about geography, climatology and the laws each country places on its winemakers, but every year there will be something different about the wines they produce. And you have to know the answer, he says, “when someone hands you a bottle of wine from anywhere in the world and says, ‘Tell me what’s in this wine.’ ”
New York’s newest MS also has a distinction: she is one of only 18 women to earn the title. She passed the three-day exam in Sonoma County, California, in February.
Orlando almost had a fifth master from February’s exam, and we could have had our first woman master, too.
Bridget Sherren, an area manager at Disney’s California Grill, which was on an early James Beard Awards ballot this year for its wine program, traveled to California to take the exam. It’s offered only once a year in the United States.
The master sommelier exam is divided into three parts—service, theory and tasting—all of which are conducted by already-certified masters.
For the service section, the candidate must prepare and position glassware (and it had better be properly polished); discuss and recommend aperitifs and wines to pair with menu items; properly present and decant a wine; and handle questions and complaints with skill and diplomacy.
To pass the theory section, the candidate must stand before a panel of masters and answer wide-ranging questions on topics such as the wine-producing countries of the world and which varietals they offer; differences in labeling laws among various wine-producing countries; various methods of distilling spirits and liqueurs; and the process of making beer.
The tasting exam, lasting only 24 minutes, is the shortest but most harrowing, and it’s the section that most often trips up would-be masters. The candidates are presented six wines—three whites and three reds—and have four minutes per wine to describe and identify.
I had a little taste, if you will, of what it’s like to be in that position. I sat in on the introductory sommelier course and exam when it was administered in Orlando last fall. The
introductory course is the first of four levels that lead to the master’s exam. Over two full days, approximately 95 students went through a whirlwind tour of the wine-producing countries as the four local masters delivered a dizzying array of details.
In between the talk of soil types, vine trellising and microclimates, we tasted wines; some were sampled as early as 7 a.m. And each time there was a wine to taste, the students, all taking turns, were made to stand up to address the masters and fellow students and describe one aspect of the wine.
This goes beyond the simple swish, sniff and sip that most of us do with a wine at dinner to appear knowledgeable. Here you’re expected to fully describe the wine’s appearance. Is it cloudy or clear? What’s the brightness—day bright, star bright, brilliant? What about the color? Simply saying white or red won’t do. White wines are, of course, really yellow. So is the wine straw, golden, tawny? And if it’s red, is it deep red, purple, garnet?
What about the concentration? When you swirl the wine and watch how it dribbles down the inside of the glass, what does that tell you about the wine? Is it low alcohol or high alcohol?
Now smell the wine and name at least three fruits that describe the aroma. Be specific: if you smell cherries, are they red cherries or black cherries? Don’t say citrus—is it grapefruit, lemons, oranges? Now identify three non-fruit aromas. Can you smell flowers? Spices? Minerals? Don’t say you smell oak because oak has no scent. Instead, maybe you smell vanilla, which may be an indication that oak was used in the fermentation.
Now taste it. Are the same fruits still there, or does something else come through? Is it dry, moderate or sweet? What’s the alcohol level? What about acidity? What do you taste in the finish?
So then, based on what you’ve seen, smelled and tasted in the wine, tell the class what grapes were used in making it, the country of origin, the district within that country and the year it was produced.
Bridget Sherren nailed the service and theory sections of the test, but she did not pass the taste section. She doesn’t know which wines tripped her up. “They never tell you what the real wines were,” she says.
Though disappointed, Sherren isn’t devastated. “I’ll get there one day,” she says.
And when she does, Orlando could once again surpass New York in total number of masters. But it still would have a long way to go to be the U.S. city with the most master sommeliers.
Las Vegas has 15.