Hitting the bottle
'You're a sommelier? No way! What do you really do?' If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me that, I'd be able to afford a bottle of 1982 Le Pin.
My calling to the corkscrew came when I was treated to my first dinner in a high-end French restaurant. It wasn't just the perfect food, service and movie-set atmosphere that made it such an unforgettable experience. I was awed that a wine list could be so much more substantial than a dinner menu.
I met my first sommelier that evening - an incredibly patient Frenchman who spent time at our table explaining what to expect when tasting the wines that were chosen with our dishes. It was a revelation to me that a sip of wine could have such an effect on what one was eating.
I was hooked. I signed up for a wine class soon afterwards, having decided that wine was much more interesting than studying law. My parents thought I was nuts and that I would return to my studies after having my 'wine' break. I am studying - but now, it's to be a master sommelier (MS).
To be an MS, one needs to have a solid background in the hospitality or wine industry. I started by attending wine classes and tastings, and asking lots of questions while working in my first job at a French bistro.
I met my first MS, Evan Goldstein (author of Perfect Pairings and Daring Pairings), more than six years ago, when I was working as a wine and food consultant. He inspired me with his depth of knowledge.
An MS is a professional wine expert, qualified taster and is, to quote from the Court of Master Sommeliers, 'committed to the very highest standards of customer care and to helping others achieve the same levels of excellence'. In short, you're expected to know it all and be willing to share that knowledge.
The better-known master of wine (MW) qualification covers wine, spirits and fortified wines, and their theoretical, technical and business details. A master sommelier should be expert in all of those fields as well as food pairings and the guest experience.
An MS is expected to excel in: service and salesmanship (including knowledge of cocktails, spirits, beer, tea, coffee and cigars, as well as glassware and other accoutrements); theoretical knowledge about wine and the grape, vinification methods and terroir; and practical tasting - rapid-fire thinking, tasting and talking on your feet skills, which are tested in a blind-tasting of six wines in 25 minutes or less.
The sommelier you meet in a restaurant is not likely to be an MS (only 192 in the world have earned the title since the qualification was established, in 1969). But he or she should be a passionate wine expert, able to enhance your experience of food by helping you pair the right wine with a dish while being sensitive to your tastes, desires and budget.
In my upcoming columns, I'll tell you how to make the most of a sommelier's knowledge when dining at restaurants.
Nellie Ming Lee is a freelance food stylist and part-time sommelier, and is studying with The Court of Master Sommeliers. [email protected].