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.


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