Published in California Wine and Food, May 2004
Why I Became a Sommelier
By Mark Storer
It wasn’t easy. The whole transition into what I just became just wasn’t easy. But it was entirely necessary. I had to respond to this passion that drove me and I felt that there was no better way than to go to school, as it were—and get certified. In wine, that is.
*Most people have never even heard the word sommelier, let alone have the *ability to pronounce it. I may have first heard the word during our honeymoon on *an Alaskan cruise ship where our beverage steward, as she was called, was a *sommelier. She brought us Champagne and we sat and watched the midnight sun as we cruised through the Inside Passage.
*My interest in wine has grown over the last 10 years, and finally crossed paths with my freelance writing career.
*In between time, I got a teaching credential, a Master’s Degree and a post-graduate degree in teaching, all the while writing political and social features for *various newspapers and magazines. When I finally started doing food and wine reviews two years ago, I found my niche: wine, food and writing—and best of all, most people don’t write angry letters to the editor when you write about food and wine. My wife is a clinical dietitian whose own fascination for food puts mine to shame. We’ve made a vocation of sharing good food and wine. It’s as romantic and sensual as it sounds—and it continues to evolve, grow and become something more than what it was, sort of like wine itself.
*Then I met Adam Mahler, a Certified Sommelier himself, and in writing about him and the places he haunts, I decided that I too wanted to gain the certification and learn as much as I could about wine. For over a year, I bought books like Wine for Dummies, The Windows on the World Wine Course and The Oxford Companion to Wine. I read Wine Spectator and The Wine Enthusiast and I continued to taste, at least twice a week, and write about food and wine.
Finally, feeling that I was as ready as I could get, I contacted the Court of Master *Sommeliers, an international organization based in London. They have an *American chapter which offers the sommelier testing in the U.S..
*So, on April 27th, I kissed my wife and daughter goodbye and headed north to Paso Robles to spend the night with my father and get a jump-start on the drive to Monterey. I slept on his couch, or rather; I got horizontal on his couch, *because sleep wasn’t really possible with the three dogs and three cats, all fascinated by my presence. But hey, if it weren’t for bad sleep, I wouldn’t have gotten any at all.
*Waiting for the class to start, I sat gazing out a picture window on Monterey Bay. *As I finished my McDonald’s breakfast burrito, I became aware that such a heresy was being gawked at by the croissant and latte crowd. I was ashamed. But I ate it—and even enjoyed it.
Doug Frost was the main instructor for our session. Frost is both a Master Sommelier and a Master of Wine. There are only three such persons in the world and that makes him impressive. His pronunciation of words in Spanish, Italian, *French and German was flawless and he also did a fine impression of Mr. Burns *from The Simpson’s. I pride myself on a similar talent, so he impressed me further. He was down to earth and funny and at the same time he, along with Fred Dame, President of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Jay Fletcher, MS and a couple of others, put us through the most intense academic environment I’d seen since before grad school. Lecture, notes, memorization and learning the deductive tasting method over 21 wines were almost more than my little brain could handle.
We were introduced to a Pinotage wine from South Africa that for the entire world smelled like orange-pekoe tea. I was asked to give my impressions on the nose of a Burgundian Chardonnay that smelled like fresh ripe peaches and apricots. I was being tested on my ability to use the deductive tasting method. I smelled the fruit, but I missed the oak entirely and I crashed and burned—named the wine something it was not, and felt embarrassed. We tasted an Italian Nebbiolo and the first impression my mouth sent to my brain was that of mellow herbs and fruit.
*We learned about the steeply-pitched vineyards of Germany. They’re so steep *that in some cases the Eastern and Southern European harvesters–known for *their ability to navigate such slopes–fall down and don’t stop rolling until they hit the road at the bottom, dead.
We learned about the Napoleonic Code of France and how it drastically changed the way vineyard estates were inherited, allowing daughters to gain possession *of property previously obtained only by first-born sons.
We learned about South Africa and how its wines, while still in their infant stages *of popularity, are gaining market share and how the end of Apartheid signaled a change in the workers and the working conditions in the vineyards.
*We learned about Australia, whose capitalist approach to wine puts America’s to shame by simply being driven by consumer tastes and not a more ethereal approach to wine-making. The result is highly drinkable and fruit-driven wines that pair with foods so beautifully, it’s almost religious.
The deductive tasting method was fascinating and it involves looking at, sniffing and tasting the wine using different sensory abilities that, well…. that God gave you but that you may not know you have. This was the most interesting part of the entire two-day affair for me for a number of reasons. However, what I noticed *as I drove home, a newly minted sommelier, were the smells along the 101 that *frankly I never noticed before–the grasses, livestock, fruit and vegetable farms *and, even occasionally, the eucalyptus trees and other such stuff that my brain had not recalled. In two days, the course taught me to experience sensory delights, and not-so delights, that I never had before. That’s what wine does for me.
So, I let myself be driven by this passion and then I took it and formed it into something more tangible, something more formative and something that I can *share. That is, after all, the point. Wine is no good when you’re alone, at least not for long. It’s best shared in company and in friendship. The certificate I have says I passed the introductory level sommelier class—but when I read it, it says that I can share what I know about wine with people. And that’s why I became a sommelier.