Tastings: Spoon, and the city, get a sommelier

What is a sommelier?

At the basic level, a sommelier is a wine steward and cellar master who is trained in wine service, wine tasting and wine and food pairing. Unfortunately, who may use the title of sommelier is not clearly defined and most often the title is self-bestowed by an individual who feels comfortable in his or her wine knowledge.

There are no rules regarding who can drape a silver chain holding a tastevin around their neck, don a black canvas apron and perform the duties of a sommelier for an upscale restaurant. That, in fact, is the most common type found in Pittsburgh restaurants.

There are, however, formal sommelier education providers who certify professional-level sommeliers who complete their curriculum and pass the exams. Some local restaurants have wine professionals who have begun the long, arduous and expensive process of becoming a certified Master Sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers, the top certifying organization, but until now, none have been certified as masters. There are only 129 such professionals in the entire United States.

John Wabeck of Spoon Restaurant, the latest addition to the sommelier ranks in Pittsburgh, soon will qualify for a master certificate. He began his wine studies in 1992 as a student at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, N.Y.; its six-week introduction to wines of the world stirred his enduring passion for wine knowledge. Working as a chef in such highly rated kitchens as Red Sage, Nora and 1789 in Washington, D.C.; Brix in Yountville, Calif.; and Eve in Alexandria, Va.,; Mr. Wabeck continued to enlarge his wine knowledge. Most recently he was wine director of Society Fair, an Alexandria food emporium that encompasses a bakery, butcher, retail food and wine, and a wine bar.

He has taken every opportunity to enlarge his tasting experiences and to visit wine-producing regions in Europe.

He came to Pittsburgh with Melissa Horst, a woman (with family here) with whom he worked in Washington and Alexandria. She trained as a pastry chef at the New England Culinary Institute and is working in management at Salt of the Earth in Garfield.

They both were well-known in the D.C. area. Says longtime colleague of Mr. Wabeck's, Craig Erion, service director of Eve, "John is widely recognized and respected for his encyclopedic knowledge of both wine and food and he is beloved for his wonderful sense of humor."

The road to Master Sommelier is long. Mr. Wabeck began working on the master certification in 2002. He has only one exam (service) remaining and expects to fulfill all the requirements by summer.

Besides directing the wine service programs at the restaurant, his sommelier duties include advising guests on interesting pairing for menu items and managing the buying, storing and inventorying of wines.

One of the great attractions of having a highly qualified sommelier is that it can give the restaurant an exciting wine list -- one that introduces some undiscovered new wines to patrons' palates. The more knowledgeable the sommelier, the better the wine list. Sadly, in Pittsburgh, too often lists are composed by the salesmen for wine distributors.

Mr. Wabeck has a special interest in Burgundy and hopes eventually to add more small Burgundy producers.

He says he's looking for "wines that are ready to drink and that are priced at a comfortable level."

I can't wait to see what he produces.

Spoon, at 134 S. Highland Ave. (15206), is open 5 to 9 p.m. Sun., 5 to 10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs. and 5 to 11 p.m. Sat. See spoonpgh.com.

Elizabeth Downer: elizabethdowner@gmail.com. First Published February 21, 2013 5:00 AM


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