I never liked school as a kid. Rather than count the days until summer – I counted the days until I would turn 18 and emancipate myself from educational oppression. Why then – shortly after my 41st birthday – was I sharpening pencils, straightening my tie and hoarding flash cards like they were plane tickets to Cabo? The answer lay hovering a few inches above my desk – 9 glasses of wine, neatly arranged on a white shelf that stretched before the other students in my row. Wine, in all its wondrous varieties, called me forth from my well insulated comfort zone to confront my education phobias. That and the formidable cunning of two women who were easily able to exploit my own middle aged vanity.
The Sommelier program at Campbell’s Professional Culinary Institute had only been in operation for a few semesters before my wife got wind of it. She and an uber-foodie friend of ours thought it would be the ideal program for me and my superior pallet. The new PCI Sommelier program in Campbell, located over the hill from my home in Santa Cruz, is one of a kind in the world. Its the first to be certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers ( http://www.mastersommeliers.org ) and run by a Master Sommelier. In addition to receiving a world class wine education students taste $12,000 worth of wine. Perhaps PCI could hone my extraordinary palate into a tool for good in the world. After all where would Luke Skywalker be without Yoda and the Jedi Academy?
Middle age has made me wildly susceptible to compliments, something that must be obvious to people when they look at me. It certainly was obvious to my wife and our friend because they had me believing I was born to be a wine expert in no time. Of course I had an incredibly talented pallet! How long has the world suffered without the ripe pearls of wisdom buried deep in my latent Sommelier soul? How selfish I’ve been to only share my phenomenal talent with family and friends! I wonder what a super-hero Sommelier costume would look like? Would I look good in purple tights and a cape?
Oh yeah, by the way, what the hell is a Sommelier? This was one of the many questions I failed to get answered before I signed up and paid for the program. Blame it on my wife or blame it on KTEH. When an idea pops into her head you know there’s bound to be some internet trolling soon to follow. Shortly after learning about PCI she discovered that the local PBS station was auctioning off the program as a part of a fundraising drive. Starting bid was $1,500 – not bad for an $8,000 program.
Ever bought something not because you needed it but because it was on sale? Well this was like that only with a dash of gambling fever tossed in. Bidding was fierce (not really). Throngs were hurling in their bids at a fevered pace (we bid against one other person who gave up after 2 rounds). We got the program for $1,750. It was like winning the lottery, only we spent money instead of getting money! Surely this was destiny knocking at my door, delivering a free pizza with extra toppings and bottle of swank Cabernet. Success and celebrity were just around the corner!
For those of you who are as ignorant of wine and the cult-ure of wine as I was, let me bring you up to speed on a few things. There are a number of credentials having to do with wine that are designed for people who love wine, work in the wine industry, but do not grow grapes or make wine. Masters of Wine and Wine Educator are two well known examples of academic certifications for the would be wine guru. The Court of Master Sommeliers was formed as a kind of wine guru degree with a focus on restaurant service. A Sommelier is knowledgeable about wine (this includes viniculture and viticulture), has an educated palate (more on that later) and is able to serve beverages in the most skilled and appropriate manner (see the Court of Master Sommelier guidelines for appropriate service … no I’m not kidding.)
There are currently 4 levels of Sommelier: Introductory, Certified, Advanced, and Master. The PCI course is designed to prepare students to take both the Introductory and Certified exams as well as to generally expose them to the world of wine. For those working in the service industry a Sommelier certification can vastly increase earning potential. You can also use it to beat and humiliate customers who are convinced Burgundy is a grape, not a wine region of France: “really [slap], I’m a Sommelier,[slap, slap!] see…look at this pin in my lapel.”
In the world of wine having an Introductory certification is like graduating Junior High, Certified is equivalent to High School graduate, Advanced have received their BA’s and Master Sommeliers have PHD’s. I know I just offended a few PHDs (two of my own family members included) but there is a reason there are only a few hundred Master Sommeliers in the world. Lawyers have noted passing the Masters exam is more difficult than passing the Bar, and it is rare for someone to pass on even the 2nd or 3rd attempt. Most take at least a decade to prepare. To be a little more specific – a Master Sommelier is like being a PHD who recited their dissertation (including references) from memory, can tell you the grapes, region, year and producer of just about any glass of wine you put in front of them, and could perform impeccable champagne service on the Hindenburg as it touched down on its final fiery voyage. If cork screws are the weapon of choice you don’t want to meet one of these people in a dark alley.
Now I know what some of your are thinking, “its wine, how complicated can it be?” Two truths can clear this up quickly.
1. The French set the standard for wine and winemaking worldwide. This does not mean French wine is the “best” or the most popular, however the French were making fine wine centuries before most of us pulled our heads out of the mead jug. Therefore regulations, techniques, and perspectives on wine are heavily influenced by the French. That in and of itself should tell you enough. The French love to create bureaucracy, entangling philosophies, and radical nuvo trends – they will then do whatever they can to undermine everything they have created. Sommeliers have to understand all of their bad craziness – ’nuff said.
2. The British are to wine knowledge, wine service, and wine appreciation as the French are to wine production. The Court of Master Sommeliers is a professional guild started by and for the most part overseen by the British. If you ever wanted to know how to serve a several hundred year old bottle of port to the Queen, the local Head Magistrate, AND the Pope without offending any of them, these are the people you want to talk to. Of course you must also be able to quote all of the laws impacting that port as it made its journey through the centuries along with the usual stuff about the village the grapes were pressed in, the weather that year, the grape varietals, their origins, what bugs lived in the soil they grew in and why this vintage is appropriate to serve during the holidays. Those Brits can be a little bit uptight about the whole education thing – I don’t think the education we “U.S. Americans” receive really counts to them, its considered quaint learnin’. Thanks for that Miss Teen South Carolina.
Sitting there my first night in class, wearing my old dot-com kahki pants, trying not to look like the bedraggled Santa Cruz middle aged hippie that I am, I had no idea what was in the back of the wine truck heading my way at 70 mph. My wife would pay, oh how she would pay. How cruel she was to exploit my fragile middle aged ego! Perhaps this was a money saving tactic, if I didn’t do this perhaps I’d want to buy a red motorcycle, or get hair follicle transplants. This was at least cheaper and would get me out of the house 3 nights a week.
There were about 15 of us that first day, the numbers would fluctuate as students moved to the day class, took breaks or sat in for a refresher. I think we did a fair job of reflecting the diversity of the bay area. Young and old, some of us on our 2nd and 3rd careers, many of the colors of our ethnic and cultural rainbow and certainly a wide range of wine knowledge. We had several wine geeks who could challenge our instructors from time to time. Only a few were as ignorant as I – after all I grew up in Utah, we’re not known for our fine wine.
Some of us were there just to enjoy learning about wine, ignorant of the impending certification test frenzy that awaited us at the end of our program. Others were banking (literally) on success at certification. For most this program was an important investment in a career in selling, serving, making, or teaching about wine. Some were wanting to open wine shops, others to enhance their food knowledge as critics, and some wanted to get involved in production.
Regardless of what level of interest we began with all of us would get caught up in the testing drive. Like an obsessed tribe of mearcats we’d scamper from one lesson to the next, picking over each bit of information to make certain we’d gotten it just right. We’d compare notes and scores, cheering when one of us nailed a wine in blind tasting, bitterly arguing over why one test answer was “more” right than another. We would regress to grade school antics. Time to get to know your inner Hermione Granger.
next chapter: “101 Wine Foundations”