Santa Fe Sommeliers love Wine & Chile

Want to know why Santa Fe is one of the best culinary destinations this side of the Mississippi? Check out this article I wrote for Local Flavor magazine’s annual Wine & Chile issue, all about the dedication of the young folks in our town who are studying to become sommeliers (see below). And if reading about the hard work of our wine professionals isn’t enough to convince you of Santa Fe’s culinary potential, take a peek at this year’s Wine & Chile Fiesta lineup–there is a wine seminar led by Master Sommeliers Tim Gaiser, Melissa Monosoff and Joe Spellman; a vertical tasting of Ridge Monte Bello with Paul Draper; and a Spain masterclass with Eric Solomon Selections and Gerry Dawes. What other town of 70,000 or so can offer these kind of events or be occupied with so many trained professionals? If you haven’t purchased tickets now’s the time (or time, at least, to start planning for next year…)

The Grand Tasting at the Santa Fe Opera


from Local Flavor September 2012

The way I drink wine is different than the way others drink it. When I pour a glass of wine, I angle the glass against a white napkin, in order to really see the color of the wine. I swirl the glass and watch the way the alcohol evaporates from it. I take deep inhalations and try to pinpoint all the fruit and aroma descriptors I can (vanilla? cherries? chocolate?). Finally, I taste the wine and try to savor each layer of flavor, noting the levels and character of the alcohol, tannin, body, and acid. Just as a classically trained musician hears all the fine details of one of Beethoven’s symphonies differently than someone who doesn’t play an instrument, as a sommelier I taste wine in a very active way, paying attention to all the tiny details and nuances.

This is because I am part of a generation of burgeoning sommeliers and wine professionals who are helping transform Santa Fe’s culinary community into one of the best. You may not know it, but our city is full of young professionals who have set out to make a career in wine. We are the servers, bartenders and wine reps that you see in establishments across town, whether you’re at the Compound or Blue Corn Café. We are the well-meaning but possibly annoying folks at parties trying to talk to you about the latest Bordeaux en primeur campaign. Steve Dietz, who works at Susan’s Fine Wine & Spirits, jokes, “When I first started studying wine it’s all I talked about at every social occasion.” Each of us has had a “moment” when we tasted a certain bottle and simply fell in love. For me, it was when I worked as a bar back at Geronimo and the bartender let me have a glass of Darioush Viogner. For Laurie Catizone (Southern Wine & Spirits) it was a bottle of Stag’s Leap Artemis Cabernet that a bartender opened for her after she told him she didn’t like wine. His response? “You’re just not drinking the right wine!”

Santa Fe is no New York or San Francisco, but the dedication of our young, wine-loving professionals is certainly setting our city apart. In an effort to push our careers forward and broaden our expertise, dozens of people from across the culinary community are taking exams with the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), one of the most respected organizations testing the knowledge and service skills of professionals in the food and beverage industry. CMS gives four levels of exams, all of which are self-study with the exception of the first level, which is preceded by two days of lectures. The fourth level Diploma exam is the stuff of legend: you have to be invited to take the exam, which consists of an oral wine and spirits theory test, a service exam where a candidate must wait on several tables of Master Sommeliers, as well as a blind tasting of six different wines—taking this exam is about the equivalent of fighting a Jedi Master, and winning! The pass rate is a meager ten percent. For aspiring sommeliers and wine professionals, earning the letters “MS” is like getting a doctorate and becoming, “Miss so-and-so, PhD.”

Any of the exams is difficult enough. Imagine taking the second level, for example. Your stomach’s in knots. You’re standing in front of a table of some of the highest-ranking wine professionals in the world. First you’ve got to open a bottle of sparkling wine making less than a whisper of sound, and pour it for them without drizzling on the table, all the while answering their questions like, “Could you please recommend a dessert wine with Botrytis that’s not from France?” If you successfully answer the questions and carry a tray loaded with glasses without your hands shaking, then it’s on to a written theory exam and after that, blind tasting two wines. Despite the pressure, students are lining up to participate. Julian Paiz (SantaCafé) recently passed his first level exam and says he will absolutely take the second level. “It’s a great way of expressing to my employer and colleagues exactly where I am in the process of studying wine. The exams ensure a level of education among professionals that benefit all parties involved, especially the customer.”

The dedication and commitment of the young people in Santa Fe taking these exams is indeed helping our culinary community to become better and better every day. In our city, it doesn’t matter what the price range of a given restaurant is—you are just as likely to find someone who can talk to you about wine in a moderately priced establishment as you are at Geronimo or Restaurant Martín. With so many young folks taking CMS exams at all levels, you won’t be getting a blank stare when you ask your server to recommend a bottle of wine to go with your salmon entrée. Laurie Catizone points out that Santa Fe has a unique culinary community already. “It’s a small town but a famous food town and it’s what drives our economy, so if you’re a part of that industry you should know what you’re talking about, and we have a lot of savvy people in town.” The fact that our famous food town is filled with young people dedicating their lives to the study of wine will only strengthen the amazing culinary community that already exists here.

The Santa Fe Wine & Chile fiesta, the most awesome food and wine event this side of the Mississippi and itself a part of what makes Santa Fe so unique, recognizes the potential of the younger generation of wine professionals in our city and has responded by sponsoring CMS exams each year for several lucky individuals. Proceeds from Wine & Chile are given back to the community in various programs (including the Cooking with Kids program, where local chefs teach 5th and 6th graders about the art of cooking—how cool is that?). Since 2010, Wine & Chile has paid for around 110 people to take exams. This is pretty amazing from the point of view of those of us in the industry—the cost of the exams is prohibitive for some of us, ringing in at between $325-$995, depending on the level of exam. Greg O’Byrne, Executive Director of Wine & Chile, thinks that Santa Fe may just have the highest number of first level exam graduates for a city of its size. He says, “These exams are an important challenge for students. It inspires them to raise the bar and gives them something to run for.”

He’s certainly right about that. All over town, groups of us are getting together to study, exchanging note cards and surprising each other with quiz questions—name the five First Growths of Bordeaux! We are pouring each other blind tastes and following along on tasting charts (you forgot to mention viscosity). We are part of a culture of professionalism that is transforming servers to sommeliers, bartenders to wine specialists and wine reps to directors of food and beverage programs. Steve Dietz says, “If you get high enough in your exams, you can have any job in the world. You can write your own ticket.” Our generation of dedicated wine professionals is climbing up a culinary ladder, and we’re taking Santa Fe with us.

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