Tastings: Taking in Philly while taking a wine test

Earlier this month, I spent two days in Philadelphia preparing for and then taking the introductory-level exam for the Court of Master Sommeliers. It was never on my bucket list of things I wanted to do before leaving this earth, but, after writing a column on John Wabeck. who this summer will complete his journey through the exam process and become a master sommelier, I was curious.

Certainly I have my own ideas regarding what a proper wine steward should know, but hearing Mr. Wabeck tell of his years of study lit a fire in me. Why not experience a piece of what the pros go through to become the kings and queens of wine service?

When I learned that the Court had scheduled an exam in Philadelphia in May, I signed up at once. After paying the $250 registration fee, applicants receive a reading list and a digital copy of the 200-page course workbook. Fortunately I already owned most of the books on the reading list (with the exception of "Sales and Service for the Wine Professional"). However, it had been years since I had opened some of these books, so for a few weeks I felt like a student cramming at exam time.

The wine topics were easy but beer, whiskey and sake were somewhat mysterious. Yes, like wine, they are fermented beverages, but phrases such as "hot wort," "mash tun" and "fore masher" were not part of my vocabulary. When it came to sake and the likes of "Junmai," "Honjozo" and "Ginjo," I was totally in the dark.

The class of about 60 young and gung-ho wine and spirit enthusiasts were primarily employees of bars and restaurants. I would guess most were in their mid-20s and mid-30s. Although the majority were from the Eastern seaboard, from Boston to Florida, there was a ringer from Alaska!

I met restaurant owners and managers, several wine-bar employees, many wait-staff types and even an international lawyer from Washington, D.C. , who moonlights as a waitress and thinks she might eventually give up law and become a master sommelier.

Among my classmates was Nicholas Vale, a 2012 graduate in economics from the University of Pittsburgh. He and I took the Greyhound bus together for the trip back to Pittsburgh, where the New Jersey native lives and works, and on that lengthy ride, I learned his remarkable story.

His fascination with food and beverage began at an early age. Every summer job he ever had was in a restaurant and he wanted to go into the profession after high school. His parents, however, insisted that he get a four-year degree to fall back on if his restaurant dreams should fail. When he was 17, he made a discovery that revolutionized his focus. On the bottom of a wine list was a note that read: "Ask our sommelier for his wine pairing suggestions." He didn't have a clue what a sommelier was, so went home and Googled the word, and then began to read everything he could on the subject. He used all his spare change to buy wine books and has become, in his own words, "a total wine geek."

He attended a two-hour introduction-to-wine class at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, N.Y., a few years ago, which added more fuel to his fire. His passion is "devouring nerdy wine books." And next month he will be attending a class in spirits service in Cleveland. He's a strong believer in education and certification within the food-service industry.

Our instructors were three master sommeliers, two women and a man. From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., they tag-teamed the teaching duties, covering the broad scope of material in the workbook. Very familiar with their subject and strong on teaching skills, the three gently guided us through blind tastings; the essentials of every major wine-producing country in the world; beer; whiskey; sake; and then a short session on wine service. (I'd never noticed that a properly trained sommelier only walks around a diner's table in a clockwise direction!)

After our exam, we all drank a bubbly toast to our faculty and to each other. Most of those who passed -- I did, and have a diploma to prove it -- will return to take the next step of exams leading to a master. Those who didn't can return to repeat the introductory course. There were happy vibes even for those who didn't pass this time, for they surely will be back to try again another day.

Our classroom was at the Penn's View Hotel on Front Street in Philadelphia. The genius of that location is that the hotel bar and restaurant has a selection of 150 fine wines sold by the glass. It's deemed the finest wine-by-the-glass program in North America by Decanter Magazine. In addition, the place has a reserve wine list with hundreds of old-vintage grand cru wines from around the world that attracts a clientele of knowledgeable (and wealthy!) wine lovers. It was a popular hangout for the sommelier students, who could order flights of five wines to test their palates.

The hotel also is perfectly situated close to subway and bus lines that made it easy to get to the New Barnes Collection and the fabulous Philadelphia Museum of Art. Just across Market Street from the hotel, I discovered an amazing ice cream parlor, The Franklin Fountain. Made from all natural and local products, a long list of original flavors are made and dished up in a charming, 19th-century store front with lots of antique memorabilia. Two doors down the street, Eric and Ryan Berley also own a candy store that is equally fun to visit.

One of the nights in Philly, I walked to Jose Garces' tapas restaurant, Amada. Sitting at the bar for two hours, I sipped a wonderful, icy Fino sherry and watched the ballet-like movements of the chefs working just in front of me as they prepared some truly unforgettable dishes.

I doubt that I'll continue in the Court of Master Sommeliers education cycle, but spending those two days in Philadelphia with three masters and 60 young and eager students was rewarding and enjoyable. And now I can tell you what Hanjozo is.

Study materials

The reading list for anyone who would like to dig into some sommelier materials:

"Sales and Service for the Wine Professional" by Brian K. Julyan (Cengage, 2008)

"Perfect Pairings: A Master Sommelier's Practical Advice for Pairing Wine and Food" by Evan Goldstein (University of California, 2006)

"The World Atlas of Wine" by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson (MITCH, 2007)

"Grossman's Guide to Wines, Beers and Spirits" by Harold J. Grossman (Wiley, 1983)

Only 4 of 63 Mastered the exam

On May 22, four more sommeliers attained the prestigious Master Court of Sommeliers Master diploma at an exam given at The Little Nell Hotel in Aspen, Colo. Before being invited to take this exam, candidates must pass the three preparatory exams; Introduction, Certified and Advanced. This year 63 individuals from 19 states and three countries attempted the Master exam. Four passed. They were: Christopher Bates (Hotel Fauchere, Milford, Pa.), Carlton McCoy (The Little Nell, Aspen, Colo.), Emily Pickral-Papach (Chappellet Winery, Napa, Calif.), and Christopher Tanghe (RN74, Seattle, Wash).

Elizabeth Downer: elizabethdowner@gmail.com.


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