Meeting the master
February 20, 2008
It was pure serendipity that my elevator stopped on the fifth floor of San Franciscos Palomar Hotel one morning last week. The restaurant, called The Fifth Floor (coincidence? I dont think so), located there was closed for renovation so I had no reason to get off. But drawn by something, I got off the lift and standing before me was a neatly dressed young woman with a pin on her lapel. Instantly, I inquired Whats that? Brightening with pride, she caressed the pin and said Its a master sommelier pin. Youre a master? I asked breathlessly. Um, yes, I just passed yesterday, she replied, glancing to the floor with a humble shrug of her shoulders.As I generally stand in awe of those who have passed the exam to become master sommeliers, a designation awarded by the Court of Master Sommeliers to those who have exhibited extensive knowledge of wine theory, superior tasting ability, and a knack for professional wine and spirits service, I instantly began to fawn in a way that a fan of, say, Alicia Keys, might in a similar situation. Obviously not yet used to her new status, she took a step (or even two) backward.Emily Wines (I promised I would not make the obvious pun) has been at the acclaimed Fifth Floor Restaurant for eight years helping to oversee a wine program that features more than 1,400 selections. Bitten by the bug, she began to study to become a master of wine more than half a decade ago and passed her advanced test in 2005. Since that time she has been studying all aspects of wine and spirits with a nearly religious zeal. The study has included an addiction to flashcards (digital of course), participation in a weekly wine-tasting group and the creation of dozens of acronyms to help her memorize the names of towns in Burgundy, the grapes of Bordeaux and the various sized bottles that hold the wine all while working the floor and the back room full time at the Fifth Floor.The Court of Master Sommeliers was established in Great Britain in 1977 as a way to improve the overall quality of service in restaurants and hotels and to establish standards for professionals. In 1987 they established the testing qualifications that are in use today. There are four levels of accreditation with the masters obviously being the most difficult to attain.All who quest for the lofty title of master sommelier take a three-part exam over three days. Emilys was held at the Hotel Healdsburg in the heart of Sonoma, Calif., wine country. The first day she was grilled for an hour by a panel of three masters about wine theory, a test that put all of the years of study into play even though just a fraction of her knowledge was actually used. Day two was a tasting. Six wines were poured blind and Emily not only had to identify the wines by grape, region, vintage and maker, but also was awarded (or deducted) points for her manner of deducing the same. They want to make sure you use good reasoning and have a real knowledge of what a wine and the grape should taste like, said Emily They want to be sure that its not just a parlor trick. Day three called for the service portion of the test, an area where Emilys years of experience at the Fifth Floor served her well. I felt that would be the easiest part for me and it was, she said.When all was said and done, Emily was one of just nine (and the only woman) out of a field of 55 candidates to pass. A feat in itself. Beyond that, however, she also was awarded the Remi Krug Cup, which is given to the single-highest-scoring candidate who passes all three portions of the masters exam in the first attempt. Kind of like graduating first in your class at Harvard Law School.By becoming a master sommelier, Emily joins an elite group of just 96 Americans who hold the designation. Included in the new class are two Coloradoans, Jesse Becker from Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder and Sean Razzee from the newly opened Spago at The Ritz-Carlton hotel in Bachelor Gulch. Rest assured I would have been equally impressed with either one of them had my elevator stopped on their floor.On the day after she passed the exam, Emily was back at work at Fifth Floor as she helped prepare the restaurant for its grand reopening this week with a new look (killer art) and a new menu (overseen by chef Laurent Manrique ). A little tired from the testing and the ensuing celebrations, Emily must now begin a new chapter in her career. No longer is she simply studying to be a master.She has become one.Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at email@example.com.