When Dee Dee Kohn, owner of EdgeWild Restaurant & Winery in Chesterfield, Mo., asked my brother, Colby, what kind of wine he would normally drink, it took every ounce of self-restraint I could muster to keep myself from laughing. This was the same guy I witnessed just weeks earlier opening a bottle of $3 wine with a hammer and screwdriver (he had misplaced the corkscrew).
Colby replied that he likes red wine but was willing to try something new. Kohn, a certified sommelier, then ran through a number of wines the restaurant had in stock that Colby would likely enjoy and then asked whether we planned to order an appetizer. Colby enthusiastically held up the menu and pointed to the Pistachio Crusted Herbed Goat Cheese.
“I will start you with something crisp and clean like a Pinot Gris and a Gewürztraminer so it does not compete with the fullness and creaminess of the goat cheese,” said Kohn, who rarely stops smiling when she talks about wine. “It’s always a good idea to move from light to red and from sweet to dry.”
Certifiably Passionate About Wine
While all of this French and German was Greek to a guy like Colby, he was stoked to try something new. This was due in large part to Kohn’s infectious enthusiasm. It is the same passion that helped carry her through the Navy-SEAL-like process for becoming a certified sommelier (som-uhl-yay). For the uninitiated, a sommelier is a wine steward – a person in charge of stocking, maintaining and selling wine on a restaurant floor who acts as a walking encyclopedia about all aspects of wine. Sommeliers also need to understand food and other beverage pairings, including beer, spirits and sake.
Becoming a certified sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers involves the hardest test you have never heard of. By the time a candidate reaches the master level, the exam has about an 8 percent pass rate.
“I took six months to study for the Advanced Sommelier exam,” says Andrey Ivanov, general manager and beverage director at Elaia and Olio, a St. Louis restaurant and wine bar. Of the four levels of sommelier certification, Ivanov has attained the Level 3-Advanced. The others are Level 1-Introductory, Level 2-Certified and Level 4-Master. “With each level, the exam gets harder, and there is greater expectation.”
According to Ivanov, the exam has three components. There is a theory exam that covers fundamental questions about the world of wine, spirits, beer and service. Also, there is a blind tasting exam during which candidates are given a series of wines. Using their deductive reasoning, candidates are asked to evaluate every aspect of the wine down to the varietal, vintage and more. The last part is the service exam that tests candidates’ knowledge of food and wine pairing as well as their communication ability.
Time to Really Smell the Flowers – Really
If the exam seems extreme, it is nothing compared with the preparation time. It’s not as though there is one centralized study program for sommeliers. Many of them have had to find creative ways to train their minds, palates and senses.
Stanley Browne, owner of Robust Wine Bar in Webster Groves and Downtown St. Louis and a certified sommelier, grew up among wine enthusiasts in England and Ireland. His father had a wine cellar, and Browne began to study wine as early as age 18. He thinks the amount of study time necessary depends upon your previous life experiences with wine.
“Your palate is based on your exposure to all the different scents such as fruits, herbs and flowers, so if you grew up eating and trying many things, you’re one step ahead,” he says. “Otherwise you have to go to the grocery and try some new things. Have you had a star fruit before? How can you describe it unless you had it? You have to expose yourself to many new flavors and scents.”
It took Browne one full year of intense study to prepare for the certified sommelier exam that he passed 12 years ago. He says many people start with a tasting group and learn everything about a certain varietal or region and then organically grow their knowledge base from there. Even the most veteran of sommeliers know there is no end to the depth of knowledge about wine. But any real understanding comes only from making an earnest beginning.
“Being knowledgeable enough to pick out a region comes from tasting experience and studying,” says Browne. “Let’s take Napa Valley versus Willamette Valley. Napa is a much warmer climate, so you would expect more tropical fruits like peaches and pineapples. Willamette is cooler, so fruits (in white wines) would be lemon and lime. Also, Willamette is further north and cooler, thus there is more acidity in cooler-climate wines. So many factors give us telltale signs of what and where the wine is about.”
Unlike when Browne passed the exam and had to read through 50 different books on wine, there are now study guides available online, and Browne encourages those with a thirst for more knowledge to join a study group and get going.
The Depth of Wine
To some, this much ado over a beverage may seem excessive. However, those with the passion to become certified sommeliers understand that the context and experience of wine can mean so much more.
“Wine is just fermented grape juice,” says Ivanov. “But a sommelier can share an authentic experience that creates context. When I present you with a varietal from Dominio do Bibei, I can tell you that I have stood with Gerardo Mendez in Ribeira Sacra, Spain, and have seen the 200-year-old vines. I can tell you about what effect that has on the wine. My job is to help you to have an incredible experience.”
Ivanov is no slouch when it comes to wine knowledge. He went to the 2012 National Finals of TopNewSomm, a national sommelier competition for the Court of Master Sommeliers. He was also the 2013, 2012 and 2011 regional finalist at the Best Young Sommelier Competition. The 27-year-old is hoping to sit for the Master Sommelier exam in six months. If he achieves this feat, he will be one of the youngest master sommeliers since the designation began in the 1970s.
Only 197 people worldwide have ever become master sommeliers – none of them in St. Louis. Ivanov says that to be a sommelier requires first a passion for wine, attention to detail and a desire to learn.
“When you really go down the rabbit hole of learning about wine, it encompasses all disciplines,” says Ivanov, who recently went on a tour of vineyards and met with notorious winemakers all over Europe. “It is history, geography, geology, political science, sociology and horticulture. The trick is to translate all of that knowledge into something that deepens and enriches another’s experience.”
People Who Know a lot About Wine are Pretentious Jerks and Other Vicious Lies
Knowledge, however, is a tricky thing. Some would assume that a person with this level of understanding of wine would be a know-it-all. Not so, according to Aleksandar Jovanovic, general manager and wine director at Truffles.
“It is important to not be intimidated by the sommelier,” says Jovanovic, who is also a certified sommelier. “Knowledge is a dangerous thing, and sometimes people think too highly of themselves. But keep in mind that the sommelier is there to be the steward of the wine and to guide you in the selection. He’s there to help you and not the other way around.”
Some report that the level of training involved with becoming a sommelier creates a kind of humility as opposed to a pretense. Shayn Bjornholm thinks so at least. He should know. He’s one of the 197 people who have ever passed the Master Sommeliers exam, and he’s also the examination director at the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas.
“What has to be there first is the passion because that creates a thirst for knowledge,” says Bjornholm, who is based outside Seattle. “Then, once you get all of this knowledge, you realize how much you don’t know. There is no end to knowledge when it comes to wine. That creates humility. And that humble carriage makes it easier to listen to people instead of having to have all of the answers.”
St. Louis, the Wild West for Sommeliers
Until recently, sommeliers were rare in St. Louis, but according to Jovanovic, that’s changing.
“In just the last two years, I have seen a lot of momentum, and I think we are on a path to catching up with the bigger wine cities,” says Jovanovic. “We now have three advanced sommeliers in the market. One of the things we have compared to other areas is our local wines. Many people around the world have not tasted the wine from Augusta or St. James. If things continue to grow, then we could be leading in the domestic wines.”
Being Born Again
Kohn beat the appetizer out of the kitchen with the two wines she wanted Colby to try. She handed him the Pinot Gris and a Gewürztraminer. After allowing him to drink the way he normally would, she took the glass and swirled the wine – letting him know that this releases more flavors.
“Now hold it in your mouth for a while before you swallow it,” Kohn said. “That releases a whole new set of flavors, and you will begin tasting with another part of your tongue.”
Kohn then satiated all of Colby’s questions about tasting new wine. She explained why there were no flowers on the tables (the scent interferes with taste). Why the soil types in Napa Valley result in wines that lead with fruit flavors and how the soil types lead to hints of limestone or chalk characteristics. Why the acidity and the sugar content are inversely related in wine. In general, the simple meal and drinks came to life. The evening took on a richness and fuller flavor.
Then, to top it off, Kohn brought out a 2010 EdgeWild Pinot Noir from Oregon. It is blush in color and behaves like neither a white nor a red.
“This is the perfect bipartisan wine,” Kohn said. “It is loved by both red and white wine drinkers.”
Colby took a sip. His eyes widened, and then he frowned. His head moved to the side. And, possessing the full lexicon of a communications major, he uttered, “Wow.”
And that was the moment Kohn had been waiting for. Inside that “wow” was a new understanding about wine and what it can mean. It was as though Colby was tasting it for the first time. And, for a certified sommelier like Kohn, there is no greater joy.
RESOURCES FOR THE ASPIRING WINE GEEK
The world of wine can be overwhelming. No one knows this better than sommeliers. But all of them had to start somewhere. If you want to sharpen your wine wit, here are some tips and resources from Angela Ortmann, certified sommelier and owner of STLwinegirl.
FOR THE TRUE BEGINNER
Wine for Dummies – Scoff all you want, but if you’re starting from scratch, this book will make you feel comfortable with the common wine words and the basics of how wine is made.
FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT WINE BUT FROM AN EVERYDAY, APPROACHABLE ANGLE
Oldman’s Guide to Outsmarting Wine by Mark Oldman – This book tackles the styles and topics of wine without pounding you with the nitty-gritty details. The goal is to make you feel at ease with different styles and regions as well as pairings and purchasing.
FOR THOSE LOOKING TO TAKE THE NEXT STEP
Windows on the World Complete Wine Course by Kevin Zraly – For years, this has been a go-to book on dipping more than just your toes into the wine world. Each chapter is set up like a class, taking you through regions and styles of the wines of the world. Diagrams, photos and charts accompany the text, and each section finishes with a quiz.
FOR SOMEONE WHO IS IN THE RESTAURANT INDUSTRY OR IS THINKING ABOUT GETTING CERTIFICATIONS
The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil – This is a book geared toward those ready to know the ins and outs of wine, including soil, climate, wine-making styles, labels and laws.
The Wine Merchant
For a nominal fee, you can get in-depth knowledge about certain regions and varietals. winemerchantltd.com
St. Louis Wine Market and Tasting Room
Periodic tastings of wine and other spirits. stlwinemarket.com
Saint Louis Cellars
Tastings that are centered on seasons and holidays. saintlouiscellars.com
The Vino Gallery
Wine classes include Wine 101: An Introduction to Vino. thevinogallery.com
The Wine Center
Interactive learning programs that award Wine & Spirit Education Trust qualifications. thewinectr.com/online-study
AND MORE ...
Study tools from the Guild of Sommeliers
Study through every major wine region and bone up on wine and spirit laws, classifications and appellation systems. guildsomm.com/Study-Guides.aspx
A Tour of Europe
Go on tour with Andrey Ivanov, advanced sommelier and general manager of Elaia and Olio in St. Louis, as he takes a tour across regions of Europe. postphylloxera.com
A documentary, SOMM, is soon to be released and follows five candidates in their journey to become master sommeliers. You can get a taste of what it takes to become one of the elite. vimeo.com/34996725