The Educated Grape

Somm and Substance

Three Triad sommeliers reval the passion — the challenge — of their chosen calling

By Ross Howell Jr.     Photograph by Sam Froelich


Want to know more about wine but were afraid to ask?

Well, there’s a cadre of friendly, articulate and ridiculously knowledgeable sommeliers scattered in our midst.

They’ve been tested by the Court of Master Sommeliers, an educational organization “established to encourage improved standards of beverage knowledge and service in hotels and restaurants,” according to the Court’s credo. Administering its first Master Sommelier examination in 1969, the Court has become “the premier international examining body” for students of wine.

What does a person have to know to pass the Master Sommelier exam?

The brutally candid 2012 documentary film Somm gives you an idea.

If you haven’t seen it, Julia Hunt can tell you.

She’s the director of fine wines for American Premium Beverage, a company established in Winston-Salem in 1973, now owned by the R. H. Barringer Distributing Company and headquartered in Colfax.

Hunt is an Advanced Sommelier. Her next step will be to Master Sommelier, the pinnacle of the profession. She’s sat for the MS examination three times.

“It’s just extraordinarily difficult,” Hunt says. “You have to be in control not only of your knowledge, but also of your emotions.”

Hunt is currently taking a break from preparing for the exam, though of course every day she’s immersed in her subject.

“The goal of the MS program,” Hunt says, “is to prepare Master Sommeliers so they’re able to go anywhere in the world, to any region of the world, and speak knowledgeably about the grapes and the wines produced there.”

There are tough — some might say tortuous — steps along the way to that preparation.

The first is the Introductory Sommelier Course and Exam. Over a two-day period, wine candidates receive an intense review of the world of wines and spirits, including knowledge, proper service and “deductive tasting” — a method for considering the color, clarity, viscosity, smell and other elements of wine. They must pass a rigorous exam.

The second step is the Certified Sommelier Exam, a one-day test with three sections. First, candidates describe and identify four wines (two white and two red) using the deductive tasting method. Next is a written theory exam that establishes candidates’ knowledge and understanding of the world of wine, beverage and the sommelier trade. Last is a service test approximating a restaurant setting, where candidates must demonstrate salesmanship and knowledge while performing a variety of tableside tasks.

The third step to MS is the Advanced Sommelier Course and Exam. The three-day course gives candidates a template for upper-level study and a clear understanding of expectations for both the Advanced Sommelier Exam and the Master Sommelier Diploma. Due to the level of difficulty, the Court of Master Sommeliers carefully reviews all candidates’ experience and qualifications. The exam also covers three days, and, like the Advanced Sommelier exam, includes tests in service, theory and deductive, blind tasting of an increased number of wines: six. Finally, there’s the Master Sommelier Diploma Exam, which is administered by invitation only. This exam is similar in format to the Advanced Exam — though the theory test is oral, rather than written, and the scores required to pass each of the three sections are higher.

Hunt has used her experience to help colleagues prepare for this demanding process.

She majored in psychology at the College of Charleston, and happened into a job as host at a fine restaurant while she was a student.

“The owners were Portuguese,” Hunt says, “and they were really into wine education.” As an employee, she was able to taste and discuss a range of sophisticated wines.

“There were wines I couldn’t afford to buy even today,” she says. She found herself wanting to learn more.

“When I started studying wine seriously, there weren’t many resources here in central North Carolina,” Hunt says.

But she was taken under wing by a wine legend, the first American to serve as President of the Court of Master Sommeliers.

“Fred Dame helped me with the most difficult part of the test, the blind tasting,” Hunt continues. Dame explained that only classically produced wines are used in the tests, and those were the wines candidates must learn.

“You can sit down with a distributor who’ll let you taste a lot of very good wines,” Hunt continues, “but if they’re not the right wines, you won’t learn anything.”

When she’s helping candidates prepare for their exams, Hunt selects wines she knows candidates will need to able to recognize and describe.

“We’ll taste a wine, and I’ll explain, ‘OK, that’s a fast ball down the middle of the plate, a white wine, mid-range acidity.’ What are the characteristics?”

And she always makes a point of reminding candidates the quality of their table service is one-third of the exam.

“I had so much help from mentors,” Hunt says. “I feel it’s important to give back.”

One of the candidates Hunt has coached is Stacey Land, general manager at 1618 Midtown in Irving Park Plaza in Greensboro. She’s a hometown girl — born at Moses Cone Hospital — but got her start in her father’s restaurants in New York, where he had attended the Culinary Institute of America.

“Food and wine have been part of my life since early on,” Land says. Over time, she worked her way up from bussing tables to managing the bar.

“I always wanted to learn more,” she says. “Sometimes my dad and I would butt heads, and he’d say, ‘What do you know? You’re just a kid.’” At those times, she realized her father was right. But she knew she wanted to know more, and worked even harder to learn.

“Being stubborn helps,” Land says with a laugh. “I was determined one day I was going to know as much as he did.”

Land returned to Greensboro to attend UNCG, her mother’s alma mater, majoring in English and earning spending money working at restaurants. She planned to be a writer.

“I even had a job for a while as a copy editor for Greensboro’s News & Record,” Land says. But the writing field was shrinking, and she found herself drawn back to the business she’d learned as a teenager and grown to love.

Recently Land passed her exam to become a Certified Sommelier. When I ask her if she plans to continue her study, she smiles.

“I love a challenge,” she says. “I’ll keep on till it gets ridiculously hard, but I expect I’ll keep going even then.”

Land explains that wine holds a special appeal for her. Customers often have question after question, and she wants to feel she’s able to give competent answers.

“The Introductory Sommelier Course and Exam teaches you to answer, ‘What is wine?’” Land says. Information is basic, but comprehensive.

“The next level, the Certified Sommelier Course and Exam,” she continues, “approaches, ‘How is wine?’” Greater knowledge of the theory viniculture and taste recognition are required.

“The Advanced Sommelier Course and Exam,” Land says, “prepares you to answer, ‘Where is wine?’” And to recognize and describe it wherever it’s produced on the planet.

More than a year ago Land began working with “study buddy” Jacob (Jake) Assaf, who’s owner and — as he likes to say — “chief janitor” at Rioja! A Wine Bar, on Battleground Avenue just north of downtown Greensboro. A relaxed bistro, the place is decorated with the work of local artists. Special offerings include wine dinners and popular “Blind Tastings and Trivia” nights.

Assaf grew up in Charlotte and came to Greensboro to attend UNCG. He majored in economics, and was thinking about studying for an MBA. But his thinking changed when he began stocking shelves and bussing tables at Rioja!. As his responsibilities grew, he concentrated on learning more about wine, exploring wineries in Spain, Portugal, South Africa and the wine-growing regions of the West Coast.

“As I look back,” Assaf says, “I realize I was interested in wine even when I was a kid.” His family attended an Episcopal church that served real wine for Communion.

“I’m sure it was watered down,” Assaf says, smiling broadly. “But I could taste the acid, the tannins, and I thought, ‘This is really cool.’

“Having Stacey as a study partner was really important,” Assaf says. Seeing how serious Land was in her studies helped motivate him. He spent hours studying maps, memorizing wine-growing regions. He never missed a tasting or a study appointment.

“We’re all pretty competitive,” he continues. “You don’t want to think someone else will succeed where you don’t.”

Assaf and Land sat for the entry-level exam at the Angus Barn in Raleigh a year ago, and both passed. Last July they sat for the Certified Sommelier exam — again at the Angus Barn — and both walked away with certificates.

“It was intense,” Assaf says. “I had this guy sitting next to me who reeked of coffee and cologne.” He was concerned the odors would affect his ability to identify the wines in the blind tasting.

Then, when he was about to take the service portion of the exam, one of the candidates banged out of the banquet hall doors where the test was being administered. She was screaming and sobbing, and ran down the hall.

“A Master Sommelier peered through the doors,” Assaf says. “He pointed and said, ‘OK, Jake, you’re next.’”

“You can imagine how I felt,” Assaf adds.

He learned later that in spite of the outburst, the woman had passed.

I ask if he plans to sit for the Advanced Sommelier exam.

“Stacey and Julia have really motivated me,” he says. “But in the end, it’s personal. And I’m competitive. So, yes.”

Sara Guterbock, a Certified Sommelier, is sommelier and wine education director at Mutual Distributing Company, a distributor with locations in Raleigh, Charlotte and Kernersville.

Her parents are from Germany; she grew up in a household “where there was always wine.” But when she was a “starving art student” at Virginia Commonwealth University and started working at a Mediterranean restaurant in Richmond, “I could tell the difference between a chardonnay and a merlot. That’s about it,” she says.

As Guterbock speaks with me, she’s preparing for the annual “Dueling Sommelier Dinner” at Undercurrent Restaurant, on Battleground Avenue in Greensboro.

“The internet has really accelerated customer interest,” she says. “There’s a real hunger for knowledge about wine.”

But professional wine study, especially for an individual interested in educating others, “can be like jumping down the rabbit hole,” Guterbock continues. She tells me it’s taken her nine years to reach her professional goals. Along the way she’s even developed expertise in sake, Japanese rice wine.

“That’s a lot of time when I wasn’t watching shows with my daughter,” she says, “or carving pumpkins, doing the things mothers and daughters do.”

But the effort has been worth it.

“A sommelier explains the dimensions of wine,” Guterbock says, “the grapes, the soils where they’re grown, the art of the winemaker, the culture of a region.”

She nods and smiles.

“When properly made,” Guterbock says, “every wine tells a story.”  

Ross Howell Jr. is asking Santa for a bottle of Merry Edwards Winery 2015 Olivet Lane Pinot Noir.

Suggested Sips for the Holidays Suggested Sips for the Holidays Suggested Sips

“Alsatian gewürztraminer is lovely with the usual holiday fare of turkey and ham,” says Julia Hunt of American Premium Beverages. “Intense exotic floral and spice aromatics are framed by a rich, ripe fruit mouth-feel with a crisp finish.” Hunt also recommends Beaujolais grand cru. Sometimes called “poor man’s Burgundy,” this wine’s gamay grapes, planted in the granite and slate subsoil of the designated 10 grand cru vineyards, “display dark red fruits and layers of complexity.” For Champagne, she recommends “cava from Spain, Franciacorta from Italy, or cap classique from South Africa.” Crafted by the traditional method — secondary fermentation in the bottle    they have “luxurious, fine bubbles and creamy texture.”

Stacey Land says 1618 Midtown is featuring Champagne wines from Laurent-Perrier, a chateau founded in 1812 at Tours-sur-Marne, France. Land recommends the ultra brut, the brut millésimé 2007, and the cuvée rosé. “All three are great with rich holiday meals,” she says, “and of course to celebrate the New Year!”

Jake Assaf of Rioja! A Wine Bar recommends a selection of vintages for an unforgettable holiday season. These wines are dear enough in price that you’ll want to share them with family and special friends. Assaf recommends Louis Roederer, Champagne Rosé Cristal, 2006; Château Latour, Pauillac 1er Grand Cru Classe, 2009; and Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, L’Hermitage Rouge, 2012.

“My favorite red wines for the holidays come from the Southern Rhône,” says Sara Guterbock of Mutual Distributing Company. “These spicy, layered, rich, berry-driven, grenache-based red wines from France are typically higher in alcohol and lower in tannins.” They come in a wide range of prices, from Châteauneuf-du-Pape to Côtes-du-Rhône Rouge. Guterbock also recommends dry rosés from France, Italy, Spain, or anywhere along the Mediterranean coast. “The wine should be redolent of fresh red berries and floral notes — crisp, clean, dry and refreshing,” she says. And Guterbock likes “copious amounts of bubbles” for the holidays. “Go for a well-respected domestic producer that makes sparkling wine in the traditional  Champagne methods,” she says. “You’ll pay a fraction of the cost and reap all the rewards!” —RHJr.

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