Category Archives: Wine Info

Burgundy is Difficult to Learn

Why is Burgundy so difficult to get a grasp of?  For me, it’s a few things.  I do not speak French, which makes a lot of words difficult.  The pronunciation is really more like memorization than intuition since, again, I don’t know French.  Then there is Napoleon.   Yes, Napoleon.   I mean, I guess what he did was great for a while but now there are just too many descendants of his countrymen (and I will explain why that’s important later) which makes Burgundy a bit of a cluster-fuck.

The area of Burgundy has been making wine since the 6th century.

By the middle of the 1600’s, the wine was being exported. Very soon thereafter Burgundy began to be in high demand in different parts of the world and therefore was commanding a high price for these sought after wines.  Some things never change.  Then fast forward 100 plus years to the start of the French Revolution.  A time which always makes me think of that actor Gerard Depardieu in some movie that he did about the French Revolution.  Yes, even though I am a history major, he still is the first thing that comes to mind.  That aside, after the French Revolution, Napoleon made a namesake law, call the Napoleonic code.  The basic premise of this law states that a person’s inheritance be split equally among heirs.

Napoleon Portrait
Napoleon was actually 5’6” and average height.

At first glance, the law seems completely fair and just.

The only problem is when people have children for the next several hundred years, the available inheritance gets progressively smaller. One can imagine that the situation in Burgundy, given it still accepts the Napoleonic Code, has led to some very silly situations, such as some citizens owning half of a vine of grapes.  I mean, I really do believe that Napoleon meant well with this law…. but perhaps he just didn’t take fractions seriously in math class.

The solution to this problem is generally to have people called Négociants.

Négociants are around to make this jumbled mess a bit more unified, and to turn a profit.  Négociants will buy a bunch of grapes from the farmers or landowners and make wine in larger quantities than they could manage themselves, then sell it off under their label.  The Négociants were kicking some butt in the market and to a lesser extent are even doing so today.  However, Négociants been supplanted in the wine market by Domaines, or farmers and landowners who are doing their own bottling.  This cuts out the middleman, though it certainly does not cut the prices. The big difference is that Domaines are more consistent, but are also smaller operations that charge a lot more. Négociants, though less expensive can often be a gamble.  If you think about it, most people don’t do everything the same way.  For example, let’s say you have 14 people who all have 2 rows of grapes each and they are all purchased to make a wine, is it certain that all 14 growers are using the same methods and take the same care?  It is hard to get two people to do anything exactly the same, let alone fourteen.  Given that, there will be variation, on top of there being difference of terrior, or soil type.

Burgundy Domaine Château Pommard
Famous Burgundy Domaine Château Pommard

So with all that in mind, let’s move on to grapes and geography of Burgundy.

Burgundy Map of Wine Regions
Burgundy Map of Wine Regions

Côte d’Or

The Côte d’Or (aka the Golden Slope) is one of the most famous regions in the world for wine, and a super important one in Burgundy.  Most of the Grand Cru’s come from this region that is divided up into the Côte du Nuits and Côte du Beaune.  If you want a few mnemonic devices to remember these things: I remember it by using the N in Nuits to remember it is in the north and Côte du Beaune being in the south.  In addition to that, when I think Beaune, I think of bones.  Bones are white, and this region is more known for white wine, while Côte du Nuits is more known for red wine.  Also, as a whole (although there are exceptions to everything), if a wine is red it is typically Pinot Noir and if a wine is white it is typically Chardonnay.

If you go North, it’s the Yonne area which contains Chablis, Irancy, St-Bris and Auxerre.  South of the Côte d’Or is Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais.  Beaujolais is another region in Burgundy and its made of the Gamay grape.  Gamay is also used in the Mâconnais. Pinot Noir is and has been the most important grape of Burgundy until about 100 years ago when Chardonnay started playing a more active role and it now doing pretty well for itself.  So in other words, the main grapes are Pinot Noir for red in Burgundy and Chardonnay for white.  That being said, there is another white of some importance called Aligoté which is found in Bouzeron AOP in the Cote Chalonnaise region.

Burgundy Terraced Vineyard
Côte d`Or Terraced Vineyards

Chablis

Obviously Chablis is an incredibly important region as well which is also part of Burgundy yet it so far north it is closer to Champagne!  This is a cooler climate that only produces white wine, the famous one and only Chardonnay.  There are some grand crus in the Chablis and make some of the best whites in the world.  Again, this is a whole other topic which I am not touching on here but I can’t leave out one of the most important white wine regions in the world.

Burgundy Domaine Francois Raveneau
Domaine Francois Raveneau

Beaujolais

Another region of note is Beaujolais though closer to the Rhone region is still a part of Burgundy.  This is a warmer region than the rest of Burgundy and the grape for the area is Gamay. Technically this region can produce red, white and rosé even though I think mostly of the Gamay based easy drinking reds that come from this region.  Again, there are some great wines that come from here and you can get great value wines as well.

Beaujolais Vineyard
Beaujolais Vineyard

Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais

Lastly are the Côte Chalonnaise and then a bit more south is the Mâconnais regions within Burgundy.  Both regions can make red, white and rosé and also make some great wines with some really famous villages.

Côte Chalonnaise Vineyard
Côte Chalonnaise Vineyard

Burgundy Classification

Moving away from geography and going into the classification starting from entry level to highest level in regards to quality is: regional, village, premier crus and grand cru.

The basics in appellation start with the Bourgogne AOP region being the largest and intro level which can include red, white and rosé.  If it is sparkling it will be called Crémant de Bourgogne.  Simple enough, right?

Then there is village level which is labeled by commune and will not be as expensive or terrior specific as the next levels up but you can get some fantastic wines for a deal in this category.  Whether it is red or white will be decided by village and what is allowed. Marsannay does in fact allow red, white and rosé.  What makes this hard for me to understand now is these villages add the names of the famous wineries to themselves.

Next is the Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines which are some of the most expensive wines in the world.   The producers range in sizes from tiny to huge and everything in between.  One big difference between Bordeaux and Burgundy is who gets the status of grand cru and premier cru.  In Bordeaux it is the Chateau that owns the vineyards who has the statues and in Burgundy it is the vineyards with the status regardless of who owns it.

Burgundy Classification Chart
Burgundy Classification Chart

There still is a lot to learn about Burgundy.

There are whole books on Burgundy and this hardly scratched the surface of this interesting section of France.  I am just in the middle of studying this crazy amazing region and just wanted to point out why it is so difficult.  The natives of this region have had to come up with their own inventive solution to make the best of an old, antiquated law, and surprisingly succeeded!  For hundreds of years through today (and probably into the future), Burgundy is a complex region with incredibly expressive wines, which surprisingly utilize mainly just two iconic grapes.  Despite this, they are able to have established such a powerful identity for their region.  If you ever wonder what terrior means, Burgundy is the best example.

Burgundy Questions

Métayage – sharecropping

Fermage – leasing arrangements

Regions within the Yonne department – Chablis, Irancy, St-Bris, Auxerre

Where is Gamay allowed? – Mâconnais.  Beaujolais, Bourgogne Passetoutgrains and the Sparkling red Bourgogne Mosseux.

What is Pinot Gris known as in Burgundy? – Pinot Beurot and its permitted in many appellations but hardly used.

Where is Pinot Blanc most notable produced? – Nuits-St-George

Name the villages in the Yonne department that can add their name to a label? – Chitry, Vézelay and Épineuil

My interview for Open3Wines

We are really excited to be working with Rod Lloyd from TheWinedeal.com   He runs a great website featuring wines from all over the world at great prices.  We are lucky to have some of our wines featured on his website right now at a very competitive price.  I also was interviewed by him at blog.thewinedeal.com so check us out when you have a chance.  It is all about our wines, our company and views on Hong Kong.

Try some of our wines and cheers!

US Wine History

The United States is responsible for producing and consuming a huge portion of the world’s wines and this was not always the case; how we got here is interesting.  The United States in the worlds fourth largest producer of wine, the US population drinks more wine than anywhere in world as a country (not per person) and the wine industry is growing every single year.  Due to the fact that only 30% of the country considers themselves wine drinkers, the US ranks 38th in the world per capita consumption.  California produces 90% of the grapes in the US and is responsible for getting the US a serious player in the wine world due to the famous “Judgement of Paris” in 1976.

There is quite a messy history of how wine came to be what it is today which we can thank the explorers for bringing vines over to us many years ago.  Actually the viking Leiv Eriksson (yes remember way back to history class in elementary school, I haven’t thought of him since either) was responsible for the first vines being planted in North America in Newfoundland back in the 9th century.  Nothing came of it but that is when it started.  Then later, during the colonial period a 1619 Virginia law made it so that the male colonists of Jamestown had to plant ten vines in the hopes of making wine but that didn’t pan out either.  Having vineyards is very complex and some of the problems that killed the vines then still wipeout vines today.  Then it was the Phylloxera pest and other vine diseases which still affect areas today.  During that time it was easier for people to drink beer, ciders and spirits which is exactly what they did.  Tomas Jefferson who is responsible for so many different ideas also loved wine.  He was very interested in wine making drinking European wines, wanting to make wine in the US but never achieved it.  It was a passion of his but he did play an important role and will be remembered forever even if he never got produce his own wine.  His buddy George Washington also loved wine and tried planting vines in order to make wine but he didn’t succeed either.  Oh well, I am sure no one can call either of them under achievers.

During this time period of the latter 1700’s which was pre internet and communication was slow if there was anything at all, wine stuff was in the works all the way on the other coast as well.  The West and East coasts have very different histories so while the east coast was being colonized and vines were being planted but not working out, the west coast was having missionaries set up and vine were also being planted and having some better luck.  Franciscans produced the first wine in California in 1783 and that is the start of CA wine history.  In 1839 George Yount (the name may ring a bell, think Yountville, yes he named the place after himself like many others) landed in Napa and planted the first vines.  It took a long time for Napa to get where it is today.  Many of the people responsible for the Napa wine industry are very prominent names today.

Approaching now in the mid 1800’s we all know what happens, yes the California Gold Rush!  Wooohoooo, fun times which upped the population, gave us an economy and cities started developing.  Wine production increased simultaneously with the Gold Rush which is when the big names start emerging.  In 1849 a Hungarian man “Haraszthy” brought vines over from Europe and founded the Buena Vista winery in Sonoma.  A man by the name of Charles Krug worked for Haraszthy who parted ways to start his own winery.  Napa and Sonoma were on a an amazing streak with Beringer and Schramsburg emerging it seemed unstoppable.  Then in 1873, Phylloxera happened in Europe which is devastating to the vines often wiping out everything!  It is one of famers worst nightmares.  This drove more money and interest into the California wine market.  Phylloxera still affected the vines in CA but not quite as badly as in Europe which is how hybrids came to be which is combining of rootstocks (A plant onto which another variety is grafted) so from then on a lot of the wines we have today are grafted on American rootstock.

Anyway, everything was going really well for the wine industry until Prohibition happened.  That is what put a halt on production and progress for a long time.  Some wines were drank as sacramental wines but all in all this completely crushed the wine market.  Prohibition was from 1920-1933 which was enough time for people to lose interest and momentum for the US wine world.  Cheap wines became the prominent thing and this is what seems somewhat responsible for the bad reputation wine in the US has fought to overcome for so many years.  Everyone who was making wine had to stop, people couldn’t invest, drink, learn and explore all the interesting aspects of wine and momentum was lost.  After prohibition ended, cheap wines were being produced and it wasn’t until some time later when to drive to make California competitive again.  In 1938 Tchelistcheff, a Russian wine maker trained in France started teaching people like Mondavi, Martini and Grgich on the Frnech wine making techniques that brought the learning curve back up to speed.  In the late 1960’s, these legends along with some others started making some world famous wines that forever changed the level of California wines.

After the Judgement of Paris, everything only went up from there.  Sonoma and Napa weren’t the only great wine regions in the US.  There are so many great wine regions throughout the US now it would be unfair to only name a few, but, Monterey, the coastal regions, and so many others are producing fantastic wines.  Every state in US now makes their own wine and so many countries world wide make their own wine now.  I am not saying every country or state makes wine equivalent to that of the First Growths, but it would be a shame to not drink outside the box and taste what the world has to offer.  The US has come a long way in the last 40 years and you would being doing yourself a disservice to not try some of the great wine regions of the world. Cheers.

Sunday Wine Tasting With Zin Diva

So my friend Zin Diva came by to taste some wines today for an upcoming event.  Unfortunately, since I am in Hong Kong at the moment promoting our Hong Kong wine offerings for our company there Open 3 Wines, Cody stepped up to the plate to lead the tasting.  Here is what we tasted:

Corralillo – Sauvignon Blanc – 2010 

2013-01-27 11.49.49

This is a Sauvignon Blanc from Chile and who doesn’t love Chilean Sauvignon Blancs?  When I first started drinking wine, I pretty much only drank red.  I didn’t care what it paired with, I just wanted a Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec and I was not open to much more.  Then I started drinking some whites that were either oaked Chardonnays or something on the sweeter side like a Riesling.  Living in San Francisco, where it’s almost never hot, there are few times where something crisp and refreshing was necessary.  It was not until my friends threw a picnic in Marin on a  hot day and people brought Sauvignon Blanc and Rose and I fell in love.  I have been drinking refreshing whites ever since.  This 2010 Sauvignon Blanc from San Antonio Valley, a small wine region on the coast of Chile west of Santiago, is ready to drink now.  Because of the influence of the Pacific Ocean there is a cooling quality which gives the wine a wonderful acidity and produces very aromatic whites. In Chile and Argentina there are more Organic vineyards than other countries due to the high elevation and locations that naturally have fewer pests.  This wine is 100% organic sauvignon blanc grapes which gives it a very clean taste.  I taste tropical fruit, great acidity and it has a long elegant finish. This wine pairs will with fish, shellfish or a warm day or evening.

Gustave Lorentz – Cremant D’Alsace

Cremant DAlsace

I think bubbles are confusing for a lot of people. There are so many different types and so many different attitudes towards bubbles.  Some people just love anything with bubbles in it, whether it’s a Cava – bubbles from Spain, Prosecco – bubbles from Italy, Sparkling – bubbles from anywhere or Champagne – only bubbles from the region in France called Champagne.  Bubbles can be made in different methods resulting in different bubble sizes and amount of bubbles per glass and bottle.  They are typically made into white wines; however, there are sparkling Rose’s and even a few sparkling reds, think Lambrusco from Italy, a fun treat that Morgan Braxton Wine Society Members will have soon.  There are different quality levels of making bubbles: the traditional Champagne method, the Charmat/ Transfer method, and the Carbonation method  – in that order.  Essentially, the traditional Champagne method is just as it sounds and based on France’s elite sense of pride on everything.  This is the original way it is made, it’s the most costly, and arguably produces the best version of bubbles.  There is a whole system of how to make and blend wines in batches, only blending them later, have them ferment with yeast in the bottle versus a vat which gives wines made in this method a nuttiness or complexity not found when using the other methods, adding a “dosage” (blend of wine and sugar) later after the spent yeast is removed by hand and so on. It’s labor intensive even though today, machines mostly do this, but it still requires many more steps.  Next is the Charmat/ Transfer method, a more simple method where all of these steps are done in a vat and transferred to bottles later.  Last is carbonation, simply put the wine is carbonated.  Gustave Lorentz is from Alsace, a region in France that borders the upper Rhine region near Germany and Switzerland.  What does this mean?  It can get really cold in the winter! It has hot dry summers and cold dry winters creating a unique climate for wine.  Also this region has gone back and forth between France and Germany four times so it’s a complicated region, but since 1945 its has been a part of France.

This balanced, clean and zesty wine is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir.  There is lemon rind on the nose and red fruit on the palate.  This wine is made in the traditional champagne method; so when you look at it and taste it, pay attention to the amount of bubbles and the size. Drink to start an evening, indulge at a party, or pair with soft cheese or shellfish.

Koyle Royale – Cab – 2009Koyle Royale

This Cabernet Sauvignon is from the Colchugua Valley, one of the three provinces of the central Chilean region.  Colchugua Valley is home to the ‘Huaso’ or the Chilean cowboy.  This region was also named the worlds best wine region in 2005 by Wine Enthusiast Magazine.  It is  is a big red wine and you should decant it for 30 minutes prior to drinking.

Koyle Royal is dark purple with round and velvety tannins and a long finish.  There are underlying notes of dark chocolate, black pepper and an earthiness with some baking spices.  Cody drank this bottle with a steak and loved it.

 

 

La Tunella – Friulano 

 

Friulani

Friulano is a less common varietal as well.  To clarify, La Tunella is the brand or producer and Friulano is the grape or varietal.  It comes from Colli Orientali DelFriuli up in the northeast part of Italy near Venice.  I know this does not mean much since Italy is the most complicated wine country in the world, with the most amount of wines and regions.   Adding to this, we haven’t heard of most of the varietals or the places they are from so it really seems like its in a different language.  A great fact to take from this is Colli Oriental del Friuli is a sub region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia and is an important wine-producing region in Italy located near Venice.

La Tunella is all hand picked and pressed.  Yeast is added to the first fermentation process and then the wine spends time again on the yeast. When this happens its called “sur-lie” aging aka aging on yeast.  The wine is stirred to mix around the yeast,which is called “battonage”.  This process is similar to the Champagne method we discussed, which adds nuttiness and in this case you should smell and taste a little almond.  It’s a beautiful wine with a brilliant straw-yellow color.  On the nose there will be almond, pear and wild flowers.  The balance of floral and fruity characteristics with a smooth, velvety, moderately acidic, dry palate results in a well-structured, delicious wine, drinkable for many occasions.

Don Valentin Bianchi – Lacrado – 2010 Don Valentino

Lacrado is a blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from San Rafael, Mendoza in Argentina.   The Mendoza region is considered the heart of the wine making industry in Argentina, producing two-thirds of the all the wine made in Argentina. Mendoza is located in the Eastern foothills of the Andes Mountains spreading into San Rafael in the Southern region.  Don Valentin Bianchi Lacrado comes primarily from two estates situated at 2400-2500 feet above sea level, making it one of the coolest areas in San Rafael.  Enough geography, lets move onto the wine.

 

Lacrado has an intense color or ruby red, robust intensity and a perfume like nose.  Its velvety smooth, complex with an array of flavors and has a medium-long finish.  Pair it with meat, turkey, chicken and strong cheeses to fully enjoy everything this wine has to offer.

 

 

Luca Bosio – Barbera d’Asti D.O.C.G. – 2011 Luca Barbera

Barbera is the varietal produced in Asti, a region in Piedmont residing in the Northwest part of Italy.  The DOC and DOCG labeling means it passed another level of certification from the government so it is considered more exclusive and regulated.  There are acronyms all over Europe: the more letters the labeling has indicates increased importance.  In case you were wondering, D.O.C.G. stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita and it just so happens to be the most important DOCG for Barbera D’Asti in Piedmont, which is where this wine comes from!  Barbera is the third most widely planted Italian red grape.   Some places in California are making Barbera as well, but its popularity has yet to blossom in the states.

Luca Bosio is 100% Barbera from vineyards located in Castagnole Lanze and Costigliole d’Asti, which are 200-330 ft. above sea level.  These grapes come from very specific regions and in this instance they happen to be in amazing locations.  This wine is a great representation of a typical Barbera from D’Asti.  When you figure out its subtle nuances, your palette should taste ample red fruit, cherry, tar, mild chocolate flavors.  Its silky tannins make it a smooth easy drinking red.

 

Real Compañía – Tempranillo – 2009 Real Campania Tempranillo

A lot of people have not heard of Tempranillo or don’t drink it much, and I think we should put an end to that nonsense.  Tempranillo is to Spain as Cabernet Sauvignon is to Napa, but you can stretch your dollar much further with this grape.  It is possible to spend a fortune, but for every day wines, this grape contains great value.  Tempranillo, coming from the word temprano, defined as “early” in Spanish.  It inherited its name because it ripens several weeks earlier than other Spanish grapes.  The varietal is native to Spain, considered the Nobel grape of the region, and is the main grape used in Rioja.

Real Compañía is from the Manchuela region located in mid-central Spain 2300 ft above sea level.  The area has cold winters, warm summers and the soil is red, calcareous and stony.  The vines range from 30-70 years old, harvested and hand selected.  This wine was made in stainless steal achieving an optimum aroma, color and tannin extraction.  You will get an intense red cherry color with bluish hints, vivid and very fruity aromas of blackberries, red currants, cherries and black licorice.

This Tempranillo has good structure, is well rounded, very fruity with a long finish.  Pair it with rice dishes, paella, pasta, meats, or enjoy it with light appetizers.

Valentín Bianchi – Malbec – 2010 Valentin Malbec

This winery is a 3rd generation, family owned winery originating in 1928.  It is notorious throughout Argentina for producing outstanding wines.  This grape also comes from Mendoza, which is located in the Eastern foothills of the Andes Mountain and San Rafael in the Southern part. Malbec originated in France and is one of the six blending grapes used in Bordeaux.  It is grown in regions other than Bordeaux, France, but with only a few exceptions is always blended in France.  Contrarily in Argentina, it stands alone and is their most famous grape to date.  It is a thin-skinned grape that requires more heat and sun than many other reds do in order to ripen properly.  Malbecs are usually an inky red or violet intense wine and pair well with food since they inhabit a big bold nature.

Valentín Bianchi is all estate grown coming from the Doña Elsa Estate in Ram Caída, San Rafael, Mendoza at 750 meters above sea level with sandy calcareous soil of alluvial origins.  The grapes were handpicked and fermented with the skins.  The juice was drained, pressed and went through auto clarifying racks and then spent 6 months in French and American Oak barrels.  The end product has a deep purple color with aromas of ripe plums, cherries, hints of vanilla and coffee.  The flavors simulate the aromas with a powerful yet elegant mouth feel followed by a long finish.  This wine has endless options for pairing, but make sure its something with a lot of flavor (think rich meats and cheeses).

Old World vs New World

 

What are “Old World Wines or New World Wines?”

People often talk about old and new world as both a classification and a style; its helpful to know what people mean.  The best and easiest explanation of Old World vs New World wine was told to me by a wine salesperson in Sonoma.

“Old World is everything in the soil.  New World is everything above the soil.”

Essentially “old world” is Europe and “new world” is everything else.  Once you start reading more about it and discover South Africa has been making wine since the 1600’s and almost all of Europe is making wine now, some starting fairly recently, it can seem a little confusing but just stick to the simple rule that “old world” refers to Europe and “new world” is everything else.

As for flavor profile, it’s hard to describe all wines from a region with the same adjectives.  Over and over again I hear people say they like new world wines, “because they are more fruit forward.”  This means that when you smell and taste the wine, the first descriptors that come to your mind are fruit and could be anything from boysenberry all the way to grapefruit.  On the contrary, people often say they like old world, “because they are earthy, rustic, and musty wines.”  This doesn’t mean that old world wines are lacking fruit or new world wines are missing earthy notes.  It merely means that fruit or earth are their most prominent characteristic.

The explanation I was given has painted a pretty picture in my head where the sun is shining, there are rolling hills, a red clay type soil, a picket fence and perfectly placed oak tree sitting in the center surrounded by perfect rows of vines.  Anyway, he said that old world wines are everything below the soil and new world wines are everything above it.  So, old world wines take everything from the earth, soil, minerality, dirt, fossils etc and those characteristic will show through in the wine.  Many of these wines let the terrior make the wines.  Terrior according to Wikipdia “is the special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place bestow upon particular produce such as wine, coffee or tea.  Agricultural sites in the same region share similar soil, weather conditions, and farming techniques, which all contribute to the unique qualities of the crop. It can be very loosely translated as “a sense of place,” which is embodied in certain characteristic qualities, the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the production of the product.”  New world wines are everything above the earth, the sun, the irrigation, modern technology, the wine maker. Since the new world has started making wine more recently then then old world, there is more modern techniques that can be used.  As a result, we borrow this word in English since there is no direct translation and in French there is no word for wine maker.  They have something called a vigneron or someone who cultivates a vineyard since they place less importance on the wine maker and more on the terrior.

Thus, old and new world wines have very different flavor profiles.  I love drinking wines from all over; there is a perfect wine for every occasion.  Often I like old world wines with food and new world wines without, but that isn’t even always true.  I prefer drinking whites during the day as opposed to reds, but again there are plenty of exceptions.  I think the key is to be able to categorize wines so you can have a better idea of what you like and why.  Being able to articulate descriptors in order to get help from your server at a restaurant, someone at a wine shop or being at a friends house can enhance the occasion where the wine will be consumed. The most important part is liking the wine so whatever your preference may be, that is the right choice.

Taking the Sommellier Level 2 Exam

Inspecting a Wine Glass

There are fewer people who have taken this test versus the Level One Sommellier Exam, that’s for sure.  With each test the success rate goes down exponentially.  A side effect of this is that there are less people you can use as a good reference for any questions you may have.  I was lucky and able to tap into the network of  people I used to work with.  In addition to that I was able to tap into a group of people I met through the Guild of Sommeliers website.  We formed a few tasting and study groups which were immensely helpful.  Check out my guide to setting up a tasting group to help get you started. I was able to ask my network some questions; however, I  always got mixed messages on what to expect.

The test seems to be constantly changing, or at least people’s memories of what to expect keep changing.  What I experienced and I took the test in Campbell, CA on June 20th was a three part test: tasting, theory ( the written portion) and service.  The whole test really doesn’t take that long.  You have one hour to complete together both the tasting section first and the theory section second.  I completed the test at the culinary institute which was a very nice facility in the middle of nowhere, and perfect for this test.  Each seat had its own water fountain and an area for glasses waiting to be analyzed with great lighting.  It was the standard tasting grid that you can get on the website and you are tested on their standard wines (the wines on the list I cover in my how to set up a tasting group post).  For the tasting part, having formed a tasting group and practicing a lot over the last month was helpful.  Use the skills you have hopefully learned and don’t second guess yourself, your first instinct is usually correct. (I passed the tasting section!)

Then, as soon as you finish the tasting section, raise your hand and a master sommelier takes your two pieces of paper with your best guess of what the wines are.  Its time to quickly move on to the theory portion.  So, forget what just happened, hope for the best and start remembering everything that used to be so esoteric but now comes second nature (You know your third growth Bordeaux like the back of your hand, right?)    Also remember: you must pass each section with 60% or better.  It’s not 60% overall, it’s on each section.  There are no grades but they do call out the person who did the best and reward them.

The theory section is when it’s time to show what you know and quickly (remember you only have one hour to do both tasting and written exam).  It is mostly multiple choice but there is a significant part of fill in the blank and matching.  They tell you not to tell anyone what was on it and I don’t want to abuse their secrecy by any means.  I am merely going to lay out what to expect so you can mentally prepare for it.  There are some matching sections where you can use an answer twice so process of elimination goes out the window!  The multiple choice wasn’t hard (I think: I did pass this section, but who knows what I missed).   You do not get a grade, or a list of what you got right and wrong or anything really; which is why people are not able to help you much on what is going to be on the exam. The second I walked out of the room, everything was erased from memory and I had to work hard to recall what was on the test.  It’s a bunch of random questions, some seem incredibly easy, some require a bit of thinking and others are merely an shot in the dark since I had never heard of the terms in some of the questions (luckily that was only a couple of questions).

The next section of the test is service.  I felt  inept in this area ahead of time and while I was taking it I was pretty sure this was the section that could keep me from passing.  I felt pretty confident in the other sections, maybe even a little too much.  There is a long gap between the first part of the test and the service part.  I had my Tasting and Theory test at 8:20 am though they request arrival at 8am.  That part lasts from 8:20-9:20 and then is following by a one to two hour gap which maybe changes based on your class size.  After sitting outside and talking with peers about what the test was about, what the wines were,  some last minute totally not beneficial cramming, you are then required to meet in a room where a master sommelier will summon you onward.  You stand in a hallway for a few minutes, a master sommelier tells you what restaurant you are pretending to be in, what wine you are serving, and then it’s ready set go!  Five of us, five master sommeliers and just like that you are waiting tables at a 5 star restaurant, no joke.  You prepare the wine, practice the right levels of what is in the glass, remember to line your tray with a linen, put the glasses in the right order, walk with a tray of glasses, don’t bump the invisible guests and always walk clockwise!  It seems ridiculous since there is only one person sitting there, but that’s what is expected.  Know your cocktails, know your spirits, know food pairings and why, and sell everything you recommend.  I found this part difficult since I have been on the sales side of wines and not service.  As wine sales reps, we open bottles and pour – thats it!  No fine dining, no linens, no order of putting down glasses and picking them up, carrying trays, having an extensive wine list of different price points in the back of your mind ready to regurgitate with a perfect pairing.  Now I know…. I don’t want to stress anyone out at all as the other parts for me were not that difficult.  If you have restaurant experience – it really is an extreme advantage on this section.  The people in my class who had a service background passed this section.  After completing your service there is a long gap of waiting and stressing.  It was about five hours after the test when I  came back to hear the result.  The test on the website says its from 8-5:30, that is not the case.  It is a lot of waiting. until your fate is called out in front of everyone.  Unfortunately, I did not get to celebrate with the small group of people who passed.  You receive a feedback card and mine highlighted my lack of serving experience.

So in the end, I passed two sections and failed one – therefore I did not pass.  I am signing up for the next one and have some practicing to do!  Next time I will get my Certified Sommelier Pin.  Good luck to everyone else! 🙂