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My Life as a Sommelier (July 18, 2012)

I was a sommelier – for one night and never again. Torontonians who dined out in the 1980s may recall a restaurant on Carleton Street called Parkes. It was owned by my friend David Rowlands, now long-gone from the food industry. At the time I was writing the wine column for the Toronto Star and I thought it would make an interesting column – finding out what diners drank with their meals and how much they knew about wine.

When I asked Parkes' chef what to expect on that Saturday night, he said, gloomily, "Shrimp cocktail, steak medium-rare, ice cream, a bottle of house wine and a $2 tip."

Well, I was going to change all that and get the patrons to trade up to a good red Burgundy or a Classed Growth red Bordeaux. Rowlands knew his wines and his list reflected his taste. (We were both members of a dinner club called The Saintsbury Society, named after George Saintsbury, a Professor of French at Oxford in the 1920s who wrote a seminal wine book, entitled Notes on A Cellar Book. We would meet in each others' homes and the host would cook.)

Four hours of my waxing lyrical about the wines in Parkes' cellar had little effect on the clientele. But I did succeed in selling more house wine than on previous Saturday nights, a record I put down to pity.

That was then. Now Toronto diners are very sophisticated in their appreciation of wine. And gone are the days when the sommelier was a formidable apparition in a black jacket and apron with a silver tastevin around his neck – a man who would hover over you and smirk at your wine choice. Sommeliers today are young and passionate about their calling. They have taken exacting and expensive courses in the service of all beverage alcohol, buying practices, cellar management, inventory control and sales psychology.

The PhD for wine servers is to become a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers. Currently 118 professionals in North America have passed the exams and can call themselves Master Sommelier and use the honorific MS after their name. Three of them are Canadian and all live and work in Toronto – John Szabo, Jennifer Huether and Bruce Wallner. Five Canadians are currently about to take their final exam. Bruce Wallner, incidentally, just won the Best Ontario Sommelier Competition in May, beating out 15 other local wine experts. He will go on to represent Ontario in the national competition in Halifax in September.

And just what does it take to become a Master Sommelier? According to Bruce Wallner, "The cost is astronomical; the time commitment is completely not feasible for anyone wanting to have a balanced life. If I had to put a cost to it I would say it would run to $250,000 and your commitment in terms of time would be about ten years." And where did all that money go? "Travelling and buying books, course fees, buying wine. You buy so much wine and throw it away it's disgraceful. You have to find a friend who likes to drink left-over wine, otherwise it's going to break your heart."

For two months before his final blind tasting exam Wallner sampled six wines every day at the exact time when he would be sitting the exam – "to build up your endurance. So every day it's six new bottles you're throwing away."

There are four steps to the MS degree. First you must have had three years of wine service before you can take the two-day introductory course and the exam. Level II is the Certified Sommelier exam. Level III is the Advanced Sommelier Course followed by an exam and Level IV is the Master Sommelier Diploma exam. Total fees for completing all four levels are $2,745 US.

There are three parts to the Master Sommelier exam – blind tasting, theory (a panel of three Master Sommeliers fire questions at the candidate), and finally the service portion, at which there are three or four tables and the candidate has to show his or her skill at decanting, opening and serving champagne and matching food and a wine. In addition to wine management, aspirants must be on first name terms with cocktails, beers and spirits. "Basically, you come in and run a restaurant floor," says Wallner, "and they observe you and see how you do things."

A far cry from me peddling house wine in the 1980s.




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