Archive | October, 2011

Using a Sommelier to Best Advantage – Lessons Learned at the Daily Review Cafe, Houston

31 Oct

          I attended a wine dinner  a few weeks ago at The Daily  Review Café in Houston.  The  dinner featured “Not  Forgotten” wines – what I  gathered to be a distributor’s  odd lots, as many were older  and the distributor indicated  they were not available for  sale, except through  collections.  We were told the  distributor took the wines to the chef, who tasted them and designed the dishes to complement each wine. Here was the menu:

Course 1

Pan Seared Diver Scallops with shaved fennel, oranges, baby arugula, crispy potatoes tossed in a pineapple truffle vinaigrette

Tre Serre Cortese 2008

Course 2

Duck Confit Cake with mushrooms, gruyere cheese and dried cherry reduction.

Bacasis Crianza, (Pyrenees, Spain) 2002

Course 3

Roasted Pork Tenderloin topped with a chimichurri sauce and  a potato puree

Bacasis del Planta Bonarda (Mendoza, Argentina) 2010

Course 4

Smoked Short Ribs finished with a blackberry coffee barbeque sauce with grilled cornbread and asparagus

Starry Night Zinfandel (Sonoma County, California) 2007

Course 5

St Barthelemy Carbernet Sauvignon Port (Napa, California) 2001

            The dinner was amazing.  And at $54 per person, wine included, for 5 courses, it was also, to me, a great value.  Unlike many wine dinners that are hosted by vintners and/or their distributors, there was not a lot of education offered about the individual wines.  Even so, I Iearned some things, simply through participating with an alert mind, that I think will be very helpful to me in the future.  I didn’t love any of the wines at first blush.  Several, the Tre Serre and the Crianza in particular, seemed woefully lacking in aroma.  But what I found was that each wine and the dish it was served with, worked so optimally together that each was enhanced.  The meal was simply terrific.

            I have eaten at some of the world’s best restaurants, but as I reflect back, I realize that I’ve always been too intimidated to really take advantage of what well trained sommeliers could do to enhance my dining experience.  As I think about why that might be, I guess I was worried that I would feel foolish, or somehow inadequate, if I tried to talk shop with an expert.  I am familiar with pairing basics and know many wines experientially.  I thought that was enough.  Now I understand, with much increased clarity, that much can be gained through seeking particular flavors present in wine at a particular time in its life to enhance the specific characteristics of a dish.  Restaurant sommeliers are well suited to this because they are trained to know even an extensive wine list well. But they also know the food that is served.  They have tasted it and know what would complement its unique attributes.

            While I’m looking forward to increasing my own skill in understanding wine through my sommelier training, I’ve also made a commitment to myself.  I’m going to leave my ego at home the next time I am out for a special meal and I’m going to have a real conversation with the sommelier.  I think it will enhance my experience.

photo from


The Chameleon Potential of Chardonnay

28 Oct

            As part of our first sommelier class, we studied, then tasted two varietals, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.  I enjoyed the exercise with the sauvignon blanc, as it is a wine I know well and its pungent aromas were easy to identify.  It was a confidence builder and a great place to start.

            I enjoyed the chardonnay, as well, for the same, but also a different reason.  I learned that part of the chardonnay profile is that it is a “neutral” grape.  As I thought about it, I realized that while I’ve certainly experienced this, I had never really distilled those experiences into a generalization about the grape itself.  But as I tasted the lightness and freshness of a Chablis next to the weight and bolder tastes of an oaked California chardonnay, the truth hit me front and center.  Chardonnay is a chameleon grape.  It has a wardrobe of style possibilities to carry it to any occasion, from ball to barbecue.  Winemakers, like fashion designers, can put their individual mark on chardonnay wines and make them their own.

            As a woman in her 40’s, enjoying a career shift after the full-time “Mom” thing, I love thinking of chardonnay as a symbol for my own chameleon potential. It feels liberating and exciting to visualize myself as the winemaker of my own “chardonnay” life, fermenting my past experiences, strengths and skills in a way that will allow me to forge new paths and explore undiscovered potential while still remaining true to myself.  I’m grateful that I’m not locked into my past, that I am “neutral” and that I can choose to develop in new and exciting ways.  So will I become, metaphorically, a light and fresh Chablis?  Or will I decide that I need a little oak ageing?  I’m not yet sure.  But discovery is half the adventure.

Complexity of Aroma – How do We Train our Noses?

27 Oct

            After my first day of sommelier school, I was feeling a little intimidated….so I have made a plan.  Somehow the mere act of making a plan to deal with a situation that isn’t entirely comfortable acts like a balm on my negative feelings.  Since I made my plan I am ready to face the wine world with restored confidence.

            My lack of confidence stemmed from something I learned about myself that first class.  I’m usually able to sense and aptly describe flavors and aromas in wine.  But I generally only sense a single smell or taste.  We learned that a component of the value of a wine is its complexity.  A good wine should proffer an array of scent sensations.  My instructor and some of my classmates seem able to detect an array of scent nuances easily.  But me – I smell it, label the smell and I’m done.  I’m not yet able to break down and describe the secondary aromas.  So here’s my plan.  Before my next class, I’m going to do some research and create a list of aroma descriptors.  Then when I smell the wine, I can run through the list and ask myself which, if any, of the descriptors are present.  I don’t have any reason to think I have a substandard nose.  I think I just need to train my nose to be more discerning.  With my plan, I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ll get where I want to be.

Aroma vs. Bouquet

26 Oct

            While I am just beginning my official education in wine, I have loved and studied wine, through drinking and discussing it with others for many years.  While I’m far more interested in enjoying wine than in talking about it, I do find that over time, the conversations increase my understanding and my enjoyment.  These conversations so often refer to the terms aroma and bouquet.  And, over time, I have found that even amongst professionals, the terms seem to have varied meanings.

            I recall a wine maker that was kind enough to give us an in-depth tour of his operation when we first became seriously interested in vinification in the 1980’s.  He referred to “aroma” as the fragrance of a white wine and “bouquet” as the fragrance of a red.  Similarly, I have, on occasion, heard “aroma” used to describe smell sensations experienced through the retronasal passage (though the mouth) and “bouquet” used to describe those experienced through the nose.  Yet a third definition seems to be that an “aroma” is a scent derived from the grapes themselves, while a “bouquet” is a scent derived from the process of making wine (i.e., fermentation in oak)

            At my first sommelier class earlier this week, my instructor used the term “aroma” to describe wines that are young and the term “bouquet” to describe the fragrance that develops as a part of the aging process.  This week, as I’ve contemplated these differences, I’ve decided that I prefer my teacher’s definition.  One, my teacher will grade my progress and I want to do well.  But personal ambition aside, research seems to show that this is the way these terms are used by the elite of the winemaking world.  I discovered that “winemaker of the century”, Emile Peynaud, discussed this exact ambiguity and concluded that “to me it seems best to use aroma to designate the sum of odor elements in young wines, and to use bouquet for the smells acquired through aging, which develop gradually over the course of time.”  If it’s good enough for the winemaker of the century…..I dare say, it’s good enough for me.

* Penaud, Emile, The Taste of Wine (1987 The Wine Appreciation Guild ) p. 54.

Sommelier 101 – The Adventure Begins

25 Oct

          After weeks of anticipation, we had our first class last night.  I think I’m going to love it.  It’s funny how we make assumptions about things without really even realizing it.  The class is smaller than I expected, only 14.  We come from a wide array of backgrounds and ages.  Our respective goals in taking the class include becoming more educated as a wine consumer, preparation for a career in the wine service industry and education to enhance other wine related business opportunities.  For an introductory level class, my classmates seem far better prepared than I expected.  Many seem to have much to contribute to the learning experience.  Also, lucky for me, I have 2 friends sitting on my row:  my brother-in-law, Matt and my mah jongg friend, Suzie.

            We meet from 4-11 every Monday for 12 weeks.  7 hours is a long time and it’s been a long time since I was a student.  I was a little nervous about how it would feel.  But the class, at least the first day, had nice rhythm.  We had about an hour of lecture, followed by a couple of hours of structured tasting.  We have a break for dinner, then repeat.  I really liked the group interaction as we tasted.  We have tasting sheets which provide a methodology designed to quantify, to the extent possible, a purely qualitative analysis.  This has obvious benefits when it comes time to compare results between different wines tasted at different times.  But to me as a student, the sheets have a second advantage.  They structure my taste experience and guide me to be disciplined and intentional about each element that my senses can perceive about each wine.

     We blind tasted flights of wine independently and filled out our sheets.  Then we shared our notes.  Our teacher guided our discussion.  Each person’s impressions were valued, but she gently provided feedback about which perceptions are common markers for the wine being discussed and which were more unique to the individual taster.  My ego felt a little bruised when I realized that many of my classmates are more facile in identifying aromas and tastes than I am.  I felt very experienced when I walked into the class and now I feel like a real beginner.  But beginner or not, I love what I’m learning and am ready to embrace the experience and see where it leads.

Haunted by a Memory – Zelko Bistro, Houston

24 Oct


          Ever hear the phrase “haunted by a memory”?  It’s not even Halloween yet and I’m being haunted by a memory.  Not a memory of lost love, or even a memory of a person at all.  I’m being haunted by a memory of food…..

            Jay and I have 3 kids.  The elder 2 have entered the adult world and William, our third, is just easy.  We’re treasuring this time with him but we are catching our first glimpse of the empty nest.  We’re committed to entering that phase of life, when it’s time, with vim and vigor.  So we’re practicing now, so that we’ll be fun  and adventure fit when William leaves for college .  We’ve started exploring Houston’s restaurants again with reckless abandon.  Last week, we tried Zelko Bistro in the heights…..and WOW.

            The dish that’s haunting me is their Shrimp and Grits.  Here’s the menu description: “Sauteed shrimp, bacon, white cheddar polenta, green onions and soy agave nectar”.  That description, while accurate, simply fails to do this innovative dish justice.  The shrimp seemed more grilled to me than sautéed.  They were beautifully seasoned and the texture was perfect – without the  lingering moisture of a typical saute.  But the piece de resistance was those grits!  I’m not a grit lover, but I am in love with those grits.  As the menu describes, they are polenta, corn that is more finely ground than most grits.  They were creamy and the bacon and cheddar were lovely, if common additions.  What set the dish apart was the way the grits were served on a pool of divine inspiration:  a reduction of soy, agave nectar and vinegar.  The way the sweet, sour and umami flavors combined perfectly with the shrimp and grits to create a dish far more engaging than the sum of its parts is, in my opinion, culinary genius.

            Kudos to Chef Zelko.  My hope is that my act of homage to your wonderful dish will cause the spirits to rest in peace.

Wine Education – So Many Options

21 Oct

         When I decided to attend sommelier school, the biggest question that I had was where.  I’ve spoken with winemakers, winery owners, wine buyers and sommeliers and asked their opinions.  Three options were repeated over and over again:  The Court of Master Sommeliers, The International Sommelier Guild and The Society of Wine Educators. *

         The first certification that I learned about was the Court of Master Sommeliers.  It was first described to me as the European approach to beverage education and service.  The designation of Master Sommelier seems to be the most prestigious certification in the wine service industry.  The certification program appears to rely heavily upon practical experience and independent learning, which is supplemented by relatively few hours of classroom instruction.  It is a 4 part certification program and the upper levels are explicitly geared to working professionals with extensive hands-on service experience.  Master Sommeliers are relatively rare- only 168 persons have successfully earned the designation worldwide.

         The International Sommelier Guild was first described to me as the North American approach to beverage education and service and that their emphasis is on blind tasting.  The Guild has a two part certification program, both of which involve substantial hands-on classroom instruction.  Its Fundamentals class provides 72 hours of classroom instruction while its Diploma course provides an additional 188 hours of classroom instruction.  Courses are available in many cities across the US and abroad.

         The Society of Wine Educators was first described to me as wine education, without the burden of service education.  As I understand it, the Society’s certifications are self-taught with the use of provided study materials.  Additionally, the Society offers an interactive online Wine Academy, which is partial preparation for its CSW (Certified Specialist of Wine) exam.

         I ultimately decided to enroll in the Fundamentals I/II courses offered by the International Sommelier Guild for the following reasons:

  • I like classroom instruction and prefer a structured format to an unstructured format.
  • I like the hands on nature of the ISG program, and the opportunities provided for tasting.
  • I like that the ISG program is available in Houston, so no travel is required.
  • As I am a winery owner, wine collector and wine lover, as opposed to a service industry professional, I feel I need instruction that I am not expected to derive independently through my employment.
  • I inquired about “placing out” of the Fundamentals courses and proceeding directly into the Diploma course.  After several conversations, I felt as though I was not ready to skip Fundamentals II, and that it was just easier and more failsafe to go ahead and take both Fundamentals courses.

         I am excited about my choice and look forward to sharing my experiences in my blog.

*  Since I registered, I’ve learned about the Wine & Spirit Education Trust which also has classes available in Houston and appears to offer a curriculum quite similar to the ISG.

A Seed From the Russian Winter

20 Oct

         My decision to go to sommelier school was a little like an elephant’s pregnancy – the “baby” took a long time to develop, but once it was born, it was really big.  My love affair with wine started in 1986 when my husband, Jay, had what I thought was the cockamamie idea of buying a winery in the yet largely undiscovered Barossa valley.  We had a fabulous trip and those passionate Aussie winemakers opened my eyes to the magnetic force that seems to draw people to their industry.  I was hooked.  We didn’t buy a winery – it was my decision and Jay has not yet fully forgiven me, but I was hooked.

         While my passion for wine never dissipated, it also, to borrow a phrase, lacked structure.  I loved exploring the sensations in each new bottle; I loved collecting, I loved meeting industry professionals and learning about their various niches and I loved spending time in wine regions, absorbing their almost magical ambiance. I knew I wanted to move from avocation to vocation, but wasn’t sure how, or in what direction.  I became interested in becoming a sommelier purely by happenstance.

         We found bargain flights to Moscow a few years ago in the dead of the Russian winter.  The days were short – very short, and cold – very cold.  But still, old Moscow is mesmerizing.  Red square is beautiful at night and the sight of St. Basil’s, washed in light against the darkness, took my frosty breath away.   We strolled the square and window shopped until the cold pressed us to an early dinner.

         We had chosen a restaurant with traditional Russian fare, nice but not too pricey, close to the Kremlin.  As we walked in that direction, I was shocked to see a sizeable demonstration urging return to communism.   I remember the contrasts so clearly – the beautiful relics of tsarist rule abutting the architectural austerity of the communist era; a communist political demonstration against the literal backdrop of those haunting hallmarks of capitalism – Gucci, Bulgari and Rolls Royce storefronts.

         It was early and the restaurant was almost empty.  We sat at a small table and ordered a bottle of Russian red.  We had our doubts about the local wine, but found it pleasant and quite drinkable.  As we enjoyed our wine, we heard the gentleman at the next table order his meal in English.  It’s funny how something as small as a common language can bring people together when they’re so far from home.  We spent the next several hours in deep conversation – much about what quickly emerged as a common passion, wine.  He worked with the Court of Master Sommeliers in London and shared his views on the benefits of sommelier training and the differing emphases of the major European and North American educational organizations.

         As he talked, I felt a pulse deep in my gut.  It didn’t seem to be a great fit, because as he described it, courses were available in New York and London and I was raising three kids in Houston.  But I was viscerally intrigued and filed the information away in my head.  It was strange, but as a mother, I knew a seed had been planted and that something was growing inside me.  And as a mother, I was also comfortable waiting.  I would nurture my new dream until it was ready to be born.

Pragmatist or Dreamer?

19 Oct

          When I felt myself needing a challenge and pressed “send” on my sommelier school registration, I smiled and breathed that sigh of relief that only comes when we transcend the inhibitions that separate us from pursuing our dreams.  But even after that satisfying sigh, I faced the inevitable question – “Why.”  Two distinct personalities live in this head of mine: the pragmatist and the dreamer.  While the dreamer reveled in her momentary victory, the pragmatist pushed her way front and center and started asking questions:  “What am I hoping to gain from this experience”; “How will this be worth my time and interest”; “Am I naive or just plain crazy”?

            At this point, I felt so proud of the dreamer.  She pushed right back and, refusing to be daunted, defended her choices.  First, while I am not at this point interested in pursuing a career buying or serving wine in a commercial environment, I love great wine, I love great food and I love the way those two things work in tandem to foster relationship.  I love to learn and intend to stave off the potentiality of age related dementia by keeping my 40 something mind engaged for the duration.  I’m passionate about both Italy and the small winery my husband and I started there five years ago.  I want to learn to convey my passion about our wine, and its unique characteristics, adroitly.  And lastly, I want to put my palate to the test.  I want to see how far I can go with this.  I want to see if I have what it takes to excel.  I want to know myself, my gifts and limitations better.  And what can the pragmatist say to that?

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