The Journey of a Sommelier

November 24, 2015

Posted in Restaurant Management, Industry & Culture

I graduated from Berklee College of Music armed and ready for my next adventure, except  I had no idea what it would be. Here’s what I did know:

  1. I loved working with people
  2. Collaboration was among my favorite aspects of my college education.

My next career move would need to encompass these two elements.

Stepping into the Restaurant Industry

The restaurant industry seemed like a great next step. I loved making people happy with my music, and I knew I could channel that same energy into the hospitality industry (and the steady paycheck was pretty appealing as well). It was the perfect transition.

I scoured, a great resource in Boston for any jobs in the industry, and worked hard to send out resume after resume. Having never worked in the industry before, I knew I’d have to dedicate myself to working my way up fast.

L’Espalier was one of the first restaurants to reply, and after perusing their website for quite some time, I realized I had a real opportunity on my hands. This was not just any restaurant. This was the restaurant to work for in Boston if I wanted to soak in some real industry knowledge. I familiarized myself with their farm-to-table ethic, and, drawing from my own experiences growing up on an organic farm, I quickly gained interest in what this place was all about.

So I decided to swing by, drop off my resume in person and make a face-to-face intro. Right on the spot I had a chat with two of L’Espalier’s managers—Sean Ahern (now the GM of Russell House Tavern) and Cynthia Gold.  

Among Boston’s Finest: L’Espalier

It must have been my small-town eagerness and desire to dive head first into the industry, but they saw something in me, and putting aside the fact that I had zero experience, they hired me as a Backwaiter at L’Espalier.

This opportunity was a mighty high horse for me to jump on and I wanted to make the most of it, soaking up knowledge every single step of the way. I studied my butt off, worked in the kitchen on my days off, joined the professional development group, picked up every shift I could get, and constantly asked for feedback. I was in the right place to learn and did not plan on letting it go to waste.  From food to service, tea to cheese, and everything in between, L’Espalier was the Mecca of it all. I was truly lucky.

I also bought every book out there—one that stands out to me is Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, a bible to the Culinary Institute of America.

Of course, one huge aspect of the restaurant that stood out to me was the wine selection. L’Espalier boasts one of the best in the city, and even has national acclaim. And the wine staff that complements  it is second to none. I’ve always been fascinated by the plethora of knowledge that goes into building a wine list—the regions, the grapes, the food pairings. Alcohol consumption has been a part of many cultures for thousands of years, but the lists of thousands of grape varietals, each made thousands of different ways, boggled my mind. If there was ever going to be a time for me to learn the ins and outs of wine, this was it, and L’Espalier was the place to do it.

Mentors and Role Models

Chris Dooley (sommelier at L’Espalier) and Lauren Daddona  took me under their wings right from the start. They saw my interest and immediately began teaching me the ways of the wine by hosting weekly wine briefings when we would conduct blind wine tastings. Dooley was especially a huge mentor to me, teaching me something new each day and then quizzing me on it the very next. They even invited me to industry tastings, allowing me to further submerse myself into the world of wine.

It was such a rewarding  experience, and to this day, I am incredibly grateful. To show my appreciation, I spent my free time studying, showing them that I didn’t  take my education for granted. The obvious next step for me soon became clear—to expand on my newfound knowledge and continue to move forward, I would pursue my Sommelier certification.  

Resources for Aspiring Sommeliers

The first resource I turned to was the Guildsomm website, an almost infinite source of knowledge created by The Guild of Master Sommeliers about every wine-growing region in the world. I also bought a digital copy of The World Atlas of Wine so I could zoom in on the maps of each region, learning about the best wines from each one.

In studying some of the best wine lists in the world (Eleven Madison Park, Per Se, French Laundry, El Cellar de Can Roca, etc), I visited the websites of some of the greatest wineries featured on these lists to learn about their individual products. These wine lists have been put together by some of the world’s leading wine experts. If they don’t know how to pick em, who does!?

The Sommelier Exams

As a worldwide organization, The Guild of Master Sommeliers travels to different states to administer the exams. Anxious to get it done quickly, I flew to Ft. Lauderdale to take my first level exam, a written test on theory knowledge, wine history, and different regions. It asked about very in-depth wine knowledge such as what the mistral is and the names of various wine-growing regions in South Africa.

I successfully passed the written test and became an intro-level Sommelier. Soon after, L’Espalier promoted me to a Captain level, making me the face of the tables and really allowing me to drive the entire dining experience of the restaurant’s patrons. I also got to taste some of the rarest wines out there—an ‘82 Chateau Margaux sticks out in particular.

It wasn’t too long before I took my second Guild of Master Sommeliers exam and received my second-level Sommelier pin. Passing this test on wine service, theory, and blind tasting, awarded me the certified level and standard qualification for most industry Sommeliers.

I have since left my Captain position at L’Espalier and now channel my industry knowledge and love of hospitality into my Business Development role here at BevSpot. I am and always will be a certified Sommelier and feel proud of achieving this status, and of course thankful to L’Espalier for the incredible experience and knowledge that I possess.

It may not be clear if I will ever go back to a Front of House restaurant position, but either way I know that I will continue to submerse myself in the culture of wine. I’ve certainly learned a lot, but I also know that I’ve only scratched the surface. I still look forward to learning more each day, and luckily I know exactly where to find the resources to do so.

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