Somms on the Rise

photo by Stephen Lang

Graciela Gonzalez of Restaurant Martin, Andrew Roy of Il Piatto and Mary Frances Cheeseman of La Casa Sena. Photo by Stephen Lang

Santa Fe may be small but our culinary scene is thriving. Behind this success is a dedicated group of beverage professionals committed to maintaining high standards for wine, cocktails and service throughout our city. These are the sommeliers and mixologists writing your favorite restaurant’s wine list or mixing your drink at the bar. While some have been at it for years, others are just beginning their careers and a few are on the path to become certified sommeliers. These young beverage professionals are excited about what’s new in the world of wine and cocktails, but they’re not just looking to other cities for trends—they’re setting trends themselves. In anticipation of the New Year, I spoke to a few of Santa Fe’s up-and-coming sommeliers about what they’re excited to drink in 2015.

Andrew Roy, the talented young bartender at Il Piatto, discovered the world of wine and cocktails when he worked as a bar back at Secreto Lounge at the Hotel St. Francis during college. “My parents are Southern Baptists and they don’t drink, so I knew nothing about alcohol,” he says. “But I really enjoyed working in the bar, so I started studying everything I could about cocktails, beer and wine.” His studying paid off last year when he passed the Court of Master Sommeliers’ first level exam, and he hopes to continue to the second level, or certified, exam. “From a service standpoint, the more I know, the more I can bring to the table and the better service I can provide,” he says, explaining why sommelier exams are important to him.

So what would he like to see people drinking in 2015? “ABC,” he responds. “Anything but Cabernet or Chardonnay.” While these two grapes produce some of the finest wines in the world, Andrew and other beverage professionals in Santa Fe want to turn people on to lesser known varietals and wine producing regions. Andrew is especially interested in southern Italian varietals like Catarratto, a white grape from Sicily. Lately, he’s been drinking a blend of Primitivo (aka Zinfandel) and Negroamaro, two grapes grown in Puglia in southern Italy. “I’m obsessed with it!” he says. “It’s delicious.” Another benefit to exploring new varietals and wine regions, besides their being delicious, is cost—there’s great value outside the realm of the widely known grapes.

Graciela Gonzalez, the manager and wine buyer at Restaurant Martín, agrees. “This year I’ve been focused on really great quality wines that are more accessible,” she says, also citing Italy as an area of interest. “We have a single varietal Corvina by the glass right now and personally I’ve been into Gattinara.” Gattinara is an appellation for the Nebbiolo grape in northern Italy near Barolo. While Barolo can be very expensive, Gattinara offers delicious versions of the same grape at much lower cost. Graciela is also enjoying Godello, a white grape grown in Galicia in northwestern Spain. The grape is well suited to barrel aging and produces intense, mineral-rich wines similar in taste to Chardonnay but at lower prices.

Traveling to Spain is what got Mary Frances Cheeseman, who works in the wine shop at La Casa Sena, hooked on wine. “In Spain, I found that young people my age were more into drinking wine” she says, “and that the food and wine there went hand in hand.” She decided to become a sommelier and is currently studying for her certified sommelier exam. “I love wine because to me, it’s the pinnacle of what good food is about,” she says. “I like food to be indicative of a place, a culture, a time and wine in particular represents an amalgamation of all the things that make a true artisanal product.” I ask Mary Frances why she feels sommelier exams are important for young people beginning their careers in the beverage industry. “Knowing how to serve wine is important,” she emphasizes. “I also like the idea that there are standards of excellence associated with studying wine. It’s such a deep subject that involves different languages, geography, history and sociology. The topic has such depth and breadth that there should be some sort of standard by which experts and novices alike are judged.”

Mary Frances hits on another trend in the beverage industry, which is that more people are becoming versed in wine and cocktails—knowledge isn’t limited to the sommelier. “A lot of the staff at Restaurant Martín are just as qualified in talking about wine as I am,” Graciela explains. “Every week we have staff tastings where distributors come in and talk to us about the wines,” she says. “I’m doing my very best to get everyone to be a part of the wine program.”

Tastings are requisite for servers and sommeliers alike, in an effort to make sure everyone on the floor during service can talk about wine and cocktails with guests. You could call it the democratization of the beverage industry. Graciela frames this trend as sharing an experience with a guest through wine, as opposed to “educating” guests, which can have the unappetizing affect of making guests feel intimidated or afraid to ask questions. Andrew and Mary Frances both emphasize that great service goes hand-in-hand with wine and Mary Frances points out that in a retail setting trust is a big part of the picture. “I enjoy the ability to connect with people on a deeper level at the shop,” she says, explaining that once you get to know a customer they may be more willing to try something new. “I feel like I’m in a unique position to change how people think,” she says.

Another trend all three of these up-and-coming sommeliers would like to set is turning people on to Riesling, a grape folks tend to avoid because they believe it’s overly sweet. But Riesling is widely considered to be one of the world’s greatest white wine grapes. It can be produced in a wide range of styles, from bone dry to sweet, late-harvest versions. It has a unique varietal footprint, full of captivating aromas and flavors. It is especially adept at expressing site and two vines grown in exactly the same way on different soils will taste completely different. It’s also capable of aging for decades in bottle, just like a fine Bordeaux or Burgundy. “I appreciate the drive towards drinking bone dry wine,” Andrew says, “but a lot of people have gone so far that they won’t accept any residual sugar.” Mary Frances agrees. “I’m really excited about Riesling right now and I wish I could get more people to drink it,” she says. “It’s very affordable and it’s such good quality wine.”

Riesling is a trend in sommelier circles everywhere, but how does Santa Fe compare when it comes to other trends in big cities like New York and San Francisco? “Santa Fe has its own unique set of cultural constraints that give it a very strong identity but that separate it from trends in larger cities,” Mary Frances explains. She points out that geographically, Santa Fe is harder to access and shipping wine here can be more expensive. She also feels that Santa Fe shouldn’t try to emulate bigger cities with its trends. “The food and wine scene here is strong enough on its own and I don’t think it should try to be anything else,” she says emphatically. Graciela points out that Santa Fe cares as much about its culinary scene as any big city. “I believe Santa Fe restaurants care to provide experiences that are on par with big cities,” she says, “and we have the same clientele. There’s a more relaxed atmosphere here, but we definitely care as much to give the same level of service.”

Just how much we care is evident in a trend towards purchasing wines from smaller producers and considering growing practices. Graciela tells me that she is becoming more concerned with purchasing wines she can get behind—she wants to know who’s growing the grapes and making the wines. “I want to know who they are. Are they stewards of the land? Do they take care of Mother Nature?” she asks. “I would like to see more estate bottling, terroir focused wines and small growers and producers,” Mary Frances says. “The food scene in general is trending towards farmers markets and farm-to-table programs and I would like to see that translating into the wine people drink as well.”

Andrew is a great example of a young beverage professional putting this trend into practice. His cocktail program at Il Piatto, although constricted to beer and wine, highlights drinks he’s created using homemade ingredients like his signature spiced shrub syrup, a sweetened vinegar-based syrup made from Balsamic, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and other (secret!) ingredients.

Santa Fe’s talented, young beverage professionals want to set the trends for what you drink in 2015. Lucky for us, their choices are delicious and affordable. They’re also setting the standard for great service because at the end of the day, great service is what being a sommelier is all about. Next time you’re out to dinner or need a bottle of wine to take home, look for one of these faces. They’re excited about beverages and excited to help you find something you’ll love. If you’re willing to branch out, you’re likely to fall in love with a new varietal or region. “Some amazing and beautiful wines of the world are going unnoticed,” Mary Frances laments, but I have a feeling these talented folks are going to change that.

Originally published in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of Local Flavor Magazine.

Cheesemongers of Santa Fe

The small adobe building on East Marcy Street, previously home to an office space filled with cubicles, now houses the very last thing you might expect and something you’ll be delighted to discover: several enormous deli cases soon to be filled with more cheeses than you can name. I’m surprised by the large, open room, saturated with sunlight from rows of windows and skylights that cast reflections off the glass case fronts and light up the pale mint-colored counters. When I arrive to meet John Gutierrez, one of the partners behind Cheesemongers of Santa Fe, he’s moving from case to counter and back again, grabbing different cheeses and expertly slicing them into an array of shapes.

My mouth is watering while I open the bottles of Valpolicella Ripasso and Albariño I’ve brought along. John is putting together a beautiful cheese board with seven different cheeses and an array of condiment dishes filled with fresh persimmon, chestnut honey, grain mustard and pickled beets. Suddenly, he pulls out an enormous leg of jamón ibérico, slicing it by hand to add to the board. In anticipation of the shop’s grand opening in early November, John and I sit down for a tasting to talk about what we each know best, cheese and wine.

Before we dive into our feast, I ask John about his background and how he became an expert in cheese. “In 2006, I was a student at the University of Oklahoma. I got a job at a sandwich shop to help pay for school,” he explains. “I ended up being a regular customer there. I’d come in with my paycheck and sit in front of the cheese case for hours, tasting though all the cheeses.” Eventually he was hired at a cheese shop nearby and he’s been hooked ever since. From Oklahoma, John moved to San Francisco where he helped a colleague open a cheese shop and worked as a cheese buyer. “I fell head over heels into the world of cheese,” John says. “I can read scientific documents about cheese and dairy science more easily than I can sit down and read a novel.” His family is from Taos and John decided to move back to New Mexico to open his own shop. “I’m really happy to be here,” he says, smiling, “because it’s what I’ve always envisioned.”

John believes Santa Fe is a great place for a venue like Cheesemongers because there’s already such a rich food culture here. He explains that the city’s isolated location has been the main obstacle for shops like his. “We’re not along the main distribution paths for cheese in the U.S.,” he explains. “A lot of my work with the shop has to do with logistics. I have to plan orders six to eight weeks in advance.” Cheesemongers will carry about 200 different cheeses during peak season, half domestic and half international, as well as several cheeses made here in New Mexico, including selections from Camino de Paz in Santa Cruz and The Old Windmill Dairy south of Albuquerque. Another deli case will hold a variety of cured meats, pâtés, terrines, galantines and mousses. The shop will also offer crackers, which John plans to source from local bakers, and artisanal mustards, olive oils, chutneys and vinegars.

The integrity and sourcing of products at Cheesemongers is hugely important to John, who points out that farmstead cheeses are the real focus of the shop. “We are really committed to working with smaller producers,” John says. “There’s a big difference between small, farmstead cheese and big, commercial cheese. I’m really big on small cheese and I believe in the power of small farming and sustainable agriculture. I want to be the mouthpiece for the small farmers we represent and tell their story.” Cheesemongers will provide small dairies with venues other than farmers markets and grocery stores to sell their products, as well help local chefs get their hands on cheeses that are difficult to find. “I’ve spoken with several chefs who are very excited,” he tells me. “We’ll be working with local restaurants to get them products that are really hard to find in New Mexico.”

As a sommelier working in the thriving food and wine business in Santa Fe, I believe Cheesemongers will be a fantastic complement to our local culinary scene, especially when you take into account the similarities between fine wine and fine cheese. The amazing thing about cheese is that, like wine, it encompasses a variety of different fields, including science (think mold, bacteria and the process of aging), geography and history. The craft of making cheese begins with the quality of the milk and involves many steps along the way, each of which has an impact on the final style and flavor of the cheese. This, to me, sounds just like the process of making wine, although the main ingredient in wine is, of course, grapes. They are both ancient processes. As John points out, “Some of the cheeses we’ll sell in the shop have been made continuously with very little recipe change for up to 6,000 years!”

In fact, what John does with cheese is very similar to what I do with wine: we both use our knowledge to help customers find something they’ll love. “I want to demystify cheese,” he says. “I abhor the cult of the expert and lording your knowledge over people to make them feel intimidated about the complexity of what’s in front of them. I want people to be inquisitive but to feel comfortable, instead of being afraid and just asking me to tell them what to get.” He points out that although there are tens of thousands of cheeses in the world, there aren’t that many different styles of cheese. “I want this to be a conversation with people. I want you to go home with a cheese that you love.”

That shouldn’t be difficult with the large selection at Cheesemongers and John’s willingness to talk cheese with his customers. During our incredible tasting, he took me through seven very different cheeses, explaining where each one comes from, how it’s made, the aging processes involved and what each cheese might pair well with. We tried a broad range of cheeses from all over the world made from cow, goat and sheep’s milk, including Caña de Cabra, Robiola due Latti, Cabra Blanca, Tomme de Savoie, Comté, Fiore Sardo and the elusive Roquefort, a sheep’s milk blue cheese from the south of France targeted by the FDA for high bacteria levels. Don’t worry, I ate plenty of it during our tasting and felt just fine!

I was surprised to find that the Albariño was very cheese-friendly—Albariño and Roliola due Latti is my new favorite pairing! The two came together beautifully, with the wine bringing out the unique goat flavor of the cheese (it’s made with cow, goat and sheep’s milk), and the cheese highlighting a gorgeous, creamy mouthfeel that wasn’t apparent in the wine at first sip. The Ripasso was pure heaven with a bite of Tomme de Savoie and jamón ibérico. The wine brought out the cheese’s rich texture and the savory, umami flavors of the thinly sliced meat. There were endless flavor combinations laid out before us. Each cheese showed different nuances depending on which wine we sipped and which condiments we added.

I asked John if he believes there’s such a thing as a perfect pairing. He explained that while there are classics like Roquefort and Sauternes, Gruyere and Champagne and Côtes du Rhône with Brie and Camembert, cheese and wine pairing is, like any pairing, ultimately subjective. “There are very few hard and fast rules,” he explained. “You can have a bad pairing that makes you want to pull your tongue out of your face. Then there are pairings that don’t just compliment each other, but bring out flavors and nuances that you wouldn’t otherwise achieve.” The bad pairings can be just as important as the great ones, because they remind you why you’re putting together cheese and wine in the first place.

After making our way through the beautiful cheese board, John and I agree that pairing is less about searching for one fabulous combination and more about the process of trying many different wines and cheeses together, paying attention to all the nuances of flavor. “Tasting cheese is just like tasting wine. It has so many flavors and you experience it with all of your senses.” For a sommelier, introducing someone to a wine they love is a great moment. The same is true for John, who can’t wait to teach people about why cheese is so special. I look forward to attending classes hosted by Cheesemongers, where John will talk about pairing cheese with wine and other beverages. “There’s very little in the world that I value more than food,” John says with a smile. I think he’ll find that many of us in Santa Fe agree.

Cheesemongers is located at 130 East Marcy Street in Santa Fe. 505.795.7878. cheesemongersofsantafe.com. Be sure to call ahead to confirm that they are open!

Originally published in the November, 2014 issue of Local Flavor Magazine. Photos by Gabriella Marks.

Decanter.com “Cork Taint in Wine ‘Suppresses’ Sense of Smell”

Decanter.com “Cork Taint In Wine ‘Suppresses’ Sense of Smell”

If you haven’t signed up for Decanter Magazine’s Daily News Alert, you should: I receive a variety of news articles relevant to the wine world, including the latest purchases of Chateaux in Bordeaux, extreme weather conditions that will affect upcoming vintages, and the latest in appellation laws the world over. Today my news alert included this interesting article about a new study of TCA, the chemical involved in cork taint. This is a pretty common wine fault and I come across “corked” bottles somewhat regularly.

Now, scientists in Japan are claiming that TCA may actually alter drinkers’ senses by shutting down their sense of smell. The musty, wet cardboard odors attributed to TCA may actually be due to the suppression of olfactory receptors. I’m going to be a wine dork and say it: Neat!

Sometimes I come across a wine I believe is corked, but it may be difficult to tell at first. With these bottles, I ask myself the question, do I smell any fruit? If the answer is no, I know something’s wrong with the wine. Even a simple, inexpensive bottle should have something–apples or cherries. Maybe the lack of fruit is due to my sense of smell shutting down.

It will be interesting to see if this finding will have an affect on how we deal with TCA problems in the future.

Great Wines Under $30–Frappato!

As a young sommelier at the beginning of my career, I don’t have any kind of cellar to speak of. There’s the problem of resources–at 29, I’m more concerned with making the mortgage and don’t have lots of extra cash for vino. There’s also the problem of where I would store wine if I were able to buy it in any quantity. I need space and temperature control, and I don’t have either at the moment. So I usually just buy a few bottles at a time, choosing things to drink that are inexpensive and appropriate for any day of the week.

I’ve been honing my skills and am getting better at finding great everyday wines, usually for less than $30 a bottle. I want to share these awesome bottles with you, because who doesn’t appreciate good wine and good value?

Frappato!

Valle Dell’Acate Il Frappato, Vittoria Frappato DOC, 2012. About $23 retail

Matthew Slaughter, a lover of Italian wines who works at Arroyo Vino wine shop, recommended this fun bottle. Valle Dell’Acate’s Il Frappato 2012 from Sicily was perfect for a hot, late summer evening. It was beautifully light and juicy, full of red fruit and a distinct grapey aroma. Think Beaujolais (made from the Gamay grape), Italian style. The wine is made from Frappato, a Sicilian grape often used to add fruit and freshness to the more powerful Nero d’Avola grape. It’s perfect if you want to have a red instead of white wine with fish. If it’s really hot and muggy outside, serve it slightly chilled (57-59 degrees Fahrenheit). I only paid $22.99 for this bottle, so you have nothing to feel guilty about. Sit back, relax, and imagine what Sicily must be like this time of year. Cheers!

For Love of Pinot: In the Sta. Rita Hills

Please check out my latest wine story, published in the Spring 2013 issue of Edible Santa Barbara. I had a great time meeting the incredible winemakers in this story and, of course, drinking great Pinot Noir!

Cover photo by Fran Collin

Cover photo by Fran Collin

For Love of Pinot: In the Sta. Rita Hills

I’m in the rows at Clos Pepe Vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, volunteering for a night shift picking grapes during the harvest. It’s 9pm, the sun is long gone and the Pinot Noir grapes are a sheeny, luscious purple in the light of my headlamp. On my knees in the dirt, I get started snipping bunches of grapes and depositing them into tall orange buckets. A single tractor’s flood light illuminates the swirling dust kicked up by the busy crew.

The experienced pickers fly past me—I can’t fill up a bucket before they’ve overtaken me, gracefully plucking bunches from the vines and removing grapes I can’t even find the stem to. It’s cold. My hands are numb and sticky. My back aches, my legs ache, my arms ache. By the end of the night my knees are bloody and I’m covered from head to toe in a fine layer of grime.

Why put myself through all this, you ask?

A few years ago I fell in love with wine. Since then I’ve spent every possible hour climbing up the sommelier ladder, reading books and magazines, holding study groups and blind tasting sessions and taking wine exams. It was worth every achy muscle to experience firsthand the beauty and promise that this wine region has to offer. My exhausting but exhilarating harvest experience merely piqued my curiosity. So I decided to explore a little deeper and talk to a few winemakers about this unique area.

Back in 1970, most people thought Santa Barbara County was too far south—and too hot—for growing grapes. But winemaker Richard Sanford recognized the area’s potential. After studying a century’s worth of climate records from the cool region of Burgundy, Richard made an important find while driving around with a thermometer sticking out the window of his car: The temperatures in the Sta. Rita Hills are very cool, despite the latitude.

The unique transverse mountain ranges that run east to west (instead of north to south) funnel ocean breezes and fog inland, lowering temperatures and making it a perfect place to plant Pinot. Richard says, “We saw stunning quality in the first harvest, in 1976. It raised a lot of eyebrows as to the possibilities of this area. In Napa and Carneros they thought it was cool, but not quite cool enough.” Turns out, the 100-square-mile plot between Lompoc and Buellton was just right.

Pinot Noir grapes just before picking at Clos Pepe Vineyards

Pinot Noir grapes just before harvest at Clos Pepe Vineyards

“Pinot Noir’s the most difficult grape to grow and to make wine from,” explains Ken Brown, another Pinot pioneer. Brown has spent the last 30 years producing great Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara County. His early days were spent at Zaca Mesa Winery. He went on to found Byron, where he stayed for 20 years until starting his own small, family-run operation, Ken Brown Wines.

“Pinot’s a shy, thin-skinned grape. It’s hard to get good color, concentration and complexity. You have to have a low-vigor site so that you get small berries and a higher skin-to-juice ratio. Site selection is huge—it needs challenged, shallow soil and a cold growing region. It’s so delicate and there are so many ingredients that have to combine to make great Pinot.”

Although it was the middle of the harvest, a time when winemakers and grape growers lose a lot of sleep and endure enormous stress, Ken agreed to meet me for a tour of Terravant Wine Company, a custom winemaking facility in Buellton. Establishing a winery costs a pretty penny so having this custom winemaking facility within reach allows wineries and producers to take their grapes to Terravant for crushing, fermenting and even bottling. Small case productions are affordable this way, without the massive investment required for building a brand from scratch.

Ken guided me through the massive warehouse facility as busy workers shuttled past us with hoses and carts of shiny stainless-steel sanitizing equipment. We cruised the catwalks past fermenting vats capable of holding hundreds of gallons of wine, where I saw one of my favorite Pinots fermenting—Fiddlehead’s Fiddlestix. Ken also showed me his own Pinot, fermenting in much smaller vats (he only produces about 2,000 cases a year). He rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, plunging his arms into the mass of grapes to show me how the cap was forming, and spoke with me about what makes Sta. Rita Hills so special for Pinot, and why this grape is his passion.

Pinots from the Sta. Rita Hills tend to be more elegant and lively than those from other regions in California. Brown’s Pinots, like those of Richard Sanford’s Alma Rosa label and Clos Pepe, are more delicate and full of juicy acidity, while still rich in raspberry and blackberry fruit. They’re also able to improve in the bottle over several years—if you’re willing to wait that long.

Brown has a saying that I believe answers the chicken-or-the-egg question on every wine lover and Pinotphile’s mind: is it the vineyard or the winemaker? “100 % of the potential quality of the wine comes from the vineyard until the moment you pick the grapes. Then 100 % of the potential quality of the wine comes from the winery.”

Wes Hagen describes Pinot Noir as an artistic medium. “It’s like working with marble or acrylic: You can’t cover up your mistakes. Everything you do to it shows. It’s a singular expression of time and place if it’s made properly. I like to think it’s the voice of the vineyard itself.”

Sta. Rita Hills

Sta. Rita Hills

The Sta. Rita Hills American Viticultural Area (AVA) is still relatively new, having been officially designated in 2001. But now that the appellation’s vines are maturing, the wines are gaining more concentration and depth and Sta. Rita Hills is earning increasing recognition and critical acclaim. 2012 is widely to be considered a fantastic vintage. When I ask Wes what it means for the area to have appellation status, he explains that it’s up to the winemakers and growers to define its future. “Now we’ve told the world we exist, it’s up to us to make our AVA meaningful, to show typicity–what it is about our place that makes it so special. We are responsible for our own reputation by what we put in the bottle.”

Growing the best-quality grapes is crucial to that, as is maintaining a respectful relationship with the land. Richard Sanford’s wife, Thekla Sanford, has been in Sta. Rita Hills since her husband’s first vintage from the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. She explains that great wine is all about balance.

“Wine has to have balance and the winemaker has to have balance, being conscious and aware of what you’re doing and how it’s all connected. In every step of the process, in every decision you make, you should be thinking about how to do it in a sustainable way. To me, that’s the future.”

She reminds me why this is such a fantastic place for winemaking: The quality of the wines is just as much about the dedication of the people responsible for them as it is about the unique qualities of where they’re grown.

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For more information about Sta. Rita Hills, please visit these websites:

Clos Pepe Vineyards

Ken Brown Wines

Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyard

Terravant Wine Company

Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance

The Test, or Why You Haven’t Seen Me Around Town in Awhile

How many notecards? 800?

So…many…notecards!

They say when you love something, you should let it consume you. I love wine, but that doesn’t mean all I get to do is drink it. Sommelier exams involve not only blind tasting but “theory” as well, which means I’m required to know important facts about wines from all over the world. For the last five months I’ve been studying for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust Level 3 Award in Wine & Spirits. When I sit for the exam, I’ve got to taste two wines blind (one red, one white) as well as pass a written portion where I’ll be tested for knowledge of wine laws, appellations, soil compositions, climates, winemaking techniques, maturation processes, fermentation, grape growing, vine training and pruning, grape varieties, styles of wine, and even some of the basics for spirits…there’s so much to know!

Of course, that’s part of the reason I love wine: there’s no end to it, there’s always something new and exciting to learn and taste. But it also means that studying for these  exams is hard! How will I remember everything? How will I become good at this? I think it’s true that in order to become a master at something, you have to let it totally consume you. I can see why people who go on to become Master Sommeliers, or Masters of Wine, spend years studying…people’s relationships are taxed, they lose sleep, the stress of exams weighs down on you, your whole life becomes wine, wine, wine! It’s sort of a beautiful thing though, and something not everyone is lucky enough to find in their lives–an all-consuming passion for something they love and a willingness to go after it. It could be anything: music, cars, painting, writing, math, whatever. But I think this is where greatness comes from. When you really love something and you dedicate yourself to it, you’re going to get really good at it. Success seems to come from passion and a lot of hard work.

And so, I study. This month alone I’ve made about 800 notecards. I’ve taken practice exams. I read wine magazines exclusively (I will admit, I’ll be happy to sit down and read a good novel one of these days). I write articles about wine. I think about wine. I dream about wine. And I’m only at the beginning of my journey. When I peer into the future, I feel really excited and happy and nervous. I can’t wait to travel more and see all these regions I read about in books for myself. I can’t wait to keep writing, and interviewing, and meeting awesome folks in the business. It’s going to be a long road, but they also say that life is all about the journey.

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

S O M M E L I E R

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.