City Cafe Wines

Grape Expectations

By Paige Phelps Society Reporter, Park Cities News

Professional sommeliers welcome a life of blood, sweat... and wine

SIP N’ SWIRL: Sommelier Kotiel Berdugo of City Café samples a glass of vintage red.
Photos:  Jeremy Chesnutt

Upon graduating college 30 years ago, Kotiel Berdugo traveled to Bordeaux , a land of low-lying hills in southern France famous for its beauty and award-winning wines. But Mr. Berdugo wasn’t there for a vacation. He had gained admittance to the château Mouton Rothschild, where he would become a certified sommelier, a well-respected wine merchant who often works in hotels or restaurants.


For one year Mr. Berdugo lived in the castle, where he was exposed to all aspects of wine making, including the turning of the bottles once a month, the pressing, the fermentation process, and going to the Mis En Bouteille to learn about bottling. He lived in quarters that he describes as similar to a military barracks. He worked in the vineyards, getting to know the types of grapes.

“We were considered like officers. We handled the most valuable item in the castle, the wine,” he said of his rigorous study schedule that some might liken to boot camp.

Twenty-five men began the program that year, and only three made it through. “Some became discouraged,” Mr. Berdugo said. “It was like med school. I was living in the dark down in the cellar, but I was close to life—to wine.”

Welcome to the world of the sommelier. The position comes with no small amount of prestige and ceremony; it has always been a respected role in the service of a fine meal. But obtaining the official title of sommelier is no small feat. The Court of Master Sommeliers, one of the most recognized organizations in the world for service

HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE: The fine art of a good glass of wine is not something a sommelier takes lightly. These prestigious professionals attend rigorous training sessions to gain certification.

professionals, has certified only 56 master-level sommeliers in the U.S. and only 110 worldwide.

Mr. Berdugo, the sommelier at City Café, is not only a certified wine master, but he was “intronized in the Chevalier de la taste de Vin,” an elite wine society that scrutinizes and evaluates sommeliers during a test dinner steeped in centuries-old traditions. “It is a dinner held only with men,” Mr. Berdugo explained, saying that the sommelier is by tradition a “man’s affair,” though that is likely to change. Eleven of the certified sommeliers in the U.S. are women.

“You must pass certain tests, such as you wrap a napkin around your neck in a certain way, and if it slips off and you lose it, you pay a heavy penalty,” Mr. Berdugo said. All this for a good glass of wine.

“There are written tests, blind tests. You must know the shape of the bottles, the vintages,” Mr. Berdugo explains. “You must know by taste if it is a ’95 or a ’90. It takes practice. You must sample a lot of wine. You must be driven. You don’t become a sommelier by correspondence.”

George Calderon, the sommelier at Mi Piaci, also knows what it is to love the rituals and intricacies of a good bottle of wine. In 2000, he read an article called “The Million Dollar Nose” in Atlantic Monthly about Robert Parker, Jr., author of the highly influential Wine Advocate, which rates wines on a scale of 50 to 100 “Parker Points,” and, some say, the most influential wine critic in the world.

“That article changed everything,” Mr. Calderon said. “I decided that’s it; that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.” What he wanted to do, Mr. Calderon said, was devote his life to his passion for wine. Soon after he decided this, a friend of his became the sommelier at a restaurant called Salve, and he seized the opportunity to learn as much as he could.

Mr. Calderon did not live in a castle, but his study of wine was equally demanding. “I started from the very beginning, carrying the crates and boxes, getting familiar with the brands and the way the bottles look,” he said. “Then I started veering towards the ‘why,’ becoming analytical, and all throughout tasting wines and more wines. I had to become like a high school student again, reading, studying, learning geography, agriculture, learning about the fruit.”

Wayne Cummins, Doug Tucker, and Vincent Harvard at Mercy Wine Bar passed their certification test in late Sept., joining this elite world of wine experts. Like Mr. Calderon, these three were tapped by wine wholesalers to enroll in the certification course. Students are handpicked rather than arbitrarily deciding to become a certified sommelier on their own. For three days, from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., students are tested on their ability to discern a wine’s color, viscosity, and nose, ID the fruits, compare the nose to the taste, and make conclusions on the wine’s region and the country for a panel of judges.

“They also test your service at the table,” explained Mr. Cummins. “You have to open the wine and present it. They test your knowledge of glassware and champagne with a full Guedeoon cart; that’s a full set up of all the proper tools you need, everything required for proper service.”

Mr. Tucker concedes that it’s more difficult than it sounds.

“Within the first half hour of the class, you realize there is so much to know about wine,” Mr. Tucker said. “We know so little compared to some people. It was very humbling.” These three men recall the arduous classroom process, describing the way the instructors “try and distract you with sneaky things,” as Mr. Cummins put it. “They try and rattle you with the small, finite details.” Yet these three newly minted sommeliers say they took the course and ultimately passed because of their undying passion for wine. “You need to want it,” French-born Mr. Harvard said of the rough road to becoming a sommelier. “You have to have the fire inside. It is not a game. Wine can be fun, but this is not funny.”

Whether a sommelier is certified for 30 years or three months, they are truly soldiers on the front lines of the wine industry, learning every intimate detail of each bottle they touch and then disseminate to the public.

“When you love it, it’s not an effort,” Mr. Berdugo explained. “You become a wine lover rather than a wine worker.”

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