Drink to your youth
March 23rd, 2011
05:50 PM ET
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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.

But in order to officially be deemed a certified sommelier, one must get approved by the Court of Master Sommeliers – the governing body of the trade.

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.

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Filed under: Sip • Wine

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soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. Chynna

    You've really captured all the eessintals in this subject area, haven't you?

    November 15, 2011 at 12:49 am |
  2. David O'Connor

    Even though you may not pass the final part of the MS exam you will have gain much information. So much that it may indeed change your life. Wine has a way of opening a lot of doors.
    By the way I was the 4th American to pass the MS exam in the UK a few years ago. It's great to see the continued interest by the following generations.


    March 31, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
  3. Winemaker

    I too would have like to major in enology; however, being that you start college well before your 21 birthday this option doesn't present itself as viable until you have already put in 3-4 years in college. I ended up getting a degree in Food Process Engineering and decided to take online winemaking courses (which I am sure are not nearly as good as if I was actually at the college.) I defenetly make good money at my current job, but my passion is for wine.

    My winery will be opening this summer on weekends only. I am 30 and my husband 34, so we can relate to this article about wine and "millennials". If you're in the Buffalo/Niagara Falls, NY area stop by A Gust of Sun Winery (make sure we have opened first). You can find us on the Niagara Wine Trail.

    March 25, 2011 at 8:21 am |
  4. Frederica

    Drink to your youth and destroy your life and others.'

    March 25, 2011 at 1:35 am |
    • samadams

      Huh? Some people actually drink responsibly. Not everyone drinks to get smashed. Some actually enjoy the taste.

      March 25, 2011 at 8:58 am |
  5. Yakman2

    And that's all that matters!!!

    March 24, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  6. me@EG

    Do you think your minions can deal with you gone at night working? LOL

    I admit, I like wine, but really don't know much about it. I know what I like.

    March 24, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
  7. Evil Grin

    I did a lot of experimenting when I first turned 21 because I didn't want to be 23 or 24 and not know the difference between brandy and scotch or chardonnay and pinot grigio. I wish I'd thought to go into it professionally, though. Would have been fun.

    March 24, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • Sarah LeTrent

      It's never too late, Evil Grin!

      March 24, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
      • Evil Grin

        Too true. And it would make a great alter ego. Sommelier by day, evil overlord by night. I like it.

        March 24, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Tom

      LOL@Evil Grin actually Evil Overlord by day and Sommelier by night would be more fun!

      March 24, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
      • Evil Grin

        Oof, right you are, Tom, right you are. Ever thought of a career as an Evil Adviser?

        March 24, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  8. cvguy

    Charles Shaw...perfectly good for 98% of the people in the world who are not pretentious lops and just want a decent wine to drink with dinner. About $4.25 at your local Trader Joes.

    March 24, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • bellaoenophile

      Pretentious lops? You don't have to be pretentious to appreciate a great bottle of wine (or the people who work hard to produce it)- no matter what the cost. Forget Charles Shaw, go support your local wineries and the people who slave away to produce wine for anyone's enjoyment- no matter what their walk of life. Wineries in all 50 states, folks!
      -Virginia winemaker, 27 years old.

      March 24, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
      • Popeye

        Name your vineyard or label and I'll visit.

        March 25, 2011 at 1:25 am |
      • The Witty One

        Virginia Wines rock!

        March 25, 2011 at 9:26 am |
      • Nick

        There is a vineyard here in Butler County, Pa about 30miles north of Pittsburgh

        March 30, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  9. Popeye

    Nice overview. Still a little precocious.

    March 24, 2011 at 9:08 am |
    • Popeye

      I retract the precocious part.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:12 am |
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