Wine doesn’t always get better with age – especially not to a new wave of vino pros slinging bottles of Château Margaux older than they are.
“Wine is bigger than ever. It’s more of a part of our younger generation’s lifestyle,” said Justin Amick, 29, sommelier - or wine steward - at Parish restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia. “Food culture is just so popular right now – and wine definitely goes along with the foodie culture.”
According to a recent Nielsen survey, the majority of millennials (age 21-34) are purchasing relatively more wine (and spirits for that matter) than older generations did at that age.
“I turned 21 on January 31, and I took the introductory [sommelier] course the first week of March,” said Desi Echaverrie, 29, who runs the wine program at Julian Serrano in Las Vegas, Nevada. “So basically a month had passed, and that’s because it was the soonest I could take it.”
Echavarrie is currently an Advanced Sommelier and a Masters Sommelier Candidate – he had previously won the 2004 Young Sommelier Competition at the ripe age of 22.
And if tasting wine all day sounds like all that and a box of corks? It’s not. It’s more like living in a perpetual college exam season – except there is no curve or extra credit. There's just lots and lots of Sangiovese.
There are four stages of sommelier accreditation, with the top qualification being Master Sommelier, says Kathleen Lewis, the Court of Master Sommeliers Executive Director. Before that, there is the Introductory Sommelier Course and Exam; the Certified Sommelier Exam; the Advanced Sommelier Course and Exam; and the Master Sommelier Diploma.
Although the pass rate of the Introductory Exam is 75 percent, the average drops to only 3 percent at the Master level and is “one of the most difficult challenges one will encounter” according to Lewis.
There are only 112 professionals who currently hold the title Master Sommelier in North America. Of those, 17 are women. The youngest current Master Sommelier is Laura Maniec, 31, of New York City, New York.
The Master’s Exam includes three parts: an oral theory examination, a blind tasting of six wines and a wine service examination. A candidate must pass all three parts during a three-year period - if not, they must retake all parts of the exam.
Candidates study – a lot. And in the true spirit of their generation, more and more aspiring young wine professionals are turning away from books and toward online resources like the Guild of Sommeliers Web site for their education.
“The second books are printed, they’re out of date. Most young sommeliers, myself included, utilize Web sites,” said Echavarrie.
Amick studies at least an hour a day – reading and making notecards. Echaverrie goes so far as to record his own questions and listening to them on his iPod in the car or before bed.
“What is the alcoholic percentage of Chartreuse? What are the regions of Vinho Verde?” Those, he admits, are actually the easy questions.
Most aspiring Masters, including Echavarrie and Amick, agree the blind tasting is the most challenging part of the exam.
Echavarrie explained the general process:
The tasting is of six wines – three red, three white - and have 25 minutes, (that’s roughly 4 minutes 15 seconds per wine, for those that are counting), to determine its country, larger region, smaller appellation, grape variety, quality level and age through sight, smell and taste.
In the sight portion, Echavarrie says the candidate looks at the wine’s color, clarity, brightness, concentration, viscosity and any evidence of gas or particles.
During the scent segment, the aspiring sommelier searches out the intensity of aromatics, primary and secondary fruit characteristics, non-fruit aromatics, oak, minerality and other facets that have evolved or changed.
Next, the palate is assessed. The candidate tastes for alcohol, acidity, tannin and any evidence of oak – they'll also confirm any fruit, earth and oak that had been processed in the nose, or scent portion.
Once the candidate has verbally expressed all that information, ideally he or she should be able deduce the single wine they believe it to be.
All in a hard day’s work.
So if a customer is intimidated by wine, they shouldn't be - says Amick. “The sommelier is there to help educate you and steer you in a direction that you haven’t gone before or that direction you’re comfortable with.”
“Engage them. That’s what they’re there for. To educate and help guide you through that wine-purchasing experience.”
As for any sense of ageism from clientele at work, “it doesn’t help that I probably look like I’m 16,” jokes Amick.
“Guests sometimes kind of look at me, like ‘is this bring your son to work day?’” added Echavarrie.
But both agree, those instances are few and far between - and any sign of skepticism from customers tends to dissolve once these young professionals start pouring out their vino know-how.