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
a land of low-lying hills in southern
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
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
professionals, has certified
only 56 master-level sommeliers in the
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
“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