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Wine Blog

On becoming a Sommelier. Or, how I was humbled after breaking numerous corks.

Historically, the day I start a new job, the heavens wink upon me and allow there to be atrocious weather. This results in slow business and, for me, more time to just saturate the new setting. One time it was torrential rainfall at a cute, outdoor, summery wine bar. Another time a ten foot dump of Denver snow that shut down the University where I did graduate administration. And a couple Mondays ago, it was snow once again that seemed to come on rather unexpectedly as I slowly trudged down 36 West to my new job in Boulder: Frasca Food & Wine.

To be clear, it’s not a full time gig. It’s not even really a ‘job’–though it possibly had me more nervous on the first day than any other job. My title is ‘stagiere’–a French term for apprentice (an American term for free labor…with a killer meal at the end of the shift). But universally, it is a term for opportunity and experience. And for me, it was the greatest of both to learn under arguably the best wine program in the state, run by none other than the owner himself: world renowned Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey.

I repeated his credentials in my head too many times on that long, nerve-wracking drive. I countered with, “He’s just a person, too. Even he has dropped a tray, broken a glass and spilled on an affluent, innocent bystander…right?” Well, maybe he hasn’t. But in an effort to assuage myself and go through with this commitment, I clung tightly to that assumption. And it wasn’t just him. That restaurant cultivated talent. It begins with Stuckey who went on to win several James Beard awards for wine service, starting with his position at French Laundry, but it also extends to his business partner Chef Lachlan, whom Stuckey met while working at Thomas Keller’s prestigous California restaurant. Lachlan also received a James Beard Award in 2008 for being the best chef in the southwest.

It doesn’t stop with managment. At Frasca, it seems everyone is there to uphold a vision, from the stagieres and kitchen help to the wait staff and somms–all share a similar passion, curiosity and desire to excel within gastronomy.

And so, you might wonder… How was the first night? What makes them exceptional? What did you learn? How did you measure up?

Well, I was, in short… a disaster! And I was quickly reminded of the fact that I need to keep the subtitle ‘novice’ in my blog’s title description.

Walking in, I felt like I was coming home for the holidays, as it dumped copious amounts of cozy, frosted snow flakes on the quiet streets. Inside, people were bundled up in puffy jackets and Boulder attire, writing notes, vacuuming floors, chatting and prepping. Lachlan’s daughter–who had to have recently won cutest child in the world title–pounced on the keys of her computer playing some game, zoning in and out to receive endless amounts of attention from everyone. The pizza joint was trying to get ready for its opening only a few days off. People were busy, but comfortably so.

My words stumbled out, I revealed nervous excitement by the hurried tone of my words which clumily stepped upon one another on their way out. And a few people rushed to remind me that I was there to learn, not impress, and that there was no reason to be anxious.

Breathe, I thought. So tight was my chest cavity. I am pretty sure I haven’t been so nervous since my actual Sommelier exam. And before that, possibly my first grade ballet recital. In fact, if I recall correctly, I decided to opt out of that dance production altogether. Strong will and resolve is not something I was born with–life experiences have given me strength, and I have since then learned to recognize fear and have sought to fight it over time.

After I settled in, we were all given massive, delicious sandwiches and were briefed on each item of the menu. Employees were treated well here. That was clear by the eager look in everyone’s eyes as they listened to each piece of art described. Stuckey’s genuine love affair for Friulian cuisine and culture was impossible not to notice and immediately admire in his lucid descriptions. My goal in life is to always listen to my passions and cultivate them, whatever they be. It is my belief that if one can locate the nebulous of one’s ‘knack’ in life–the source of their wonder and motivation for discovery, the source of one’s happiness–that energy emanates, therefore infecting others with positivity and a similar desire to really live life. If we were all giving back to the world using our talents and capitalizing on whatever captures our fancy naturally, I believe we would not only have a more advanced society, we would have a more peaceful one.

Apparently, I had to get something off my chest. I thank you for the rant.

As the shift began, I merely followed my instructor, Grant, like a shadow. I studied as he assisted customers with their wine choices, cleared away the decorative glasses on the table, studied the glassware he was preparing to deliver, grasped the neck of the bottle gracefully to pull out the cork, wipe its mouth and pour the first taste. It was a gorgeous presentation, and I felt it couldn’t be that difficult. This was wine. I pop bottles on a daily basis, and I don’t use a rabbit opener. I just needed to suck it up. So when he asked if I was ready to give it a go, the last thing I wanted to do was show my fear. So I said yes.

My shaky hand grasped for the lovely neck of the bottle. Hmmmm. It was rather slippery with the little cloth serviette between by left fingers and the glass. It was also much more awkward to maneuver the cork screw with one hand than I imagined. My left hand kept getting in the way of the wine key. Damn… the cork was really in there. Ahhh, there were the flashes of heat to my face cheeks. I tried to disguise my look of worry, but to no avail. It was official:

I broke the cork.

Heck, I even put out the candle with the wine as I tried to perform a professional decant.

Grant quickly offered a note of reassurance. ‘You can break as many as you’d like! Put out the candle! It’s your first night, and it’s fine! Just take a deep breath and try again.’

And I did alright. I tried several times.

I proceeded to break six corks that night out of about fifteen bottles.

I was humiliated. Shouldn’t they force you to demonstrate regular wine service in addition to Champagne at the Sommelier exam? I have never felt like my somm title was such a sham as that first night at Frasca. I hung my head and felt the true meaning of humbling oneself.

Fortunately, they all admitted they had been there. Stuckey even went so far to say that it takes about 90 days for his employees to really get in the swing of things there, so a part time stagiere will likely never feel 100 percent comfortable (lucky me).

My evening ended with a meal. It was a fabulous reward for a few hours of pure anxiety. It began with Il Sformato–an egg yolk that is cured with sugar and salt, topped with roasted cauliflower, frisee and black truffle. The texture was heaven, so creamy and playful with the frisee dancing on the palate. I normally don’t even like that veiny form of lettuce, but it wasn’t chewy and intrusive with this dish, rather it was delicate and provided the dish quite a backbone. The cauliflower allowed for a toasty nuttiness which worked well with the 01 Roncus Bianco blend of Malvesia and Ribolla Gialla on their wines by the glass list. I tried several others from their list, too, in order to get acquainted. This dish had fun with the 09 Tenuta Luisa Friulano as well, with its accents of white peach and fresh almond, but overall it needed the weight and depth from the aged white to really come to full articulation.

I moved on to a duck ragu ‘Garmati’ for the main course. It was a perfect accompaniment to the snowstorm. The noodles were dense tubes that were bathed in this hearty, stew-like duck ragu. It warmed me from within, and had a variety of expressions when placed with a variety of wine. The 06 Masi Campofiornin Valpolicella teased out its floral side, a bouquet surfaced as well as a myriad of forest fruit. Sweet tannins played on the finish, giving it a grand exit. The 08 Ronchi di Pietro Schiopettino (an indigenous Friulian red varietal), on the other hand, turned up the volume on its mineral capacity and acidic potential. It was more ‘geeky’ and thought-provoking, but not altogether more enjoyable. It was a bit stern.

I sampled a handful of their cheeses for dessert, of which a whole additional blog could be written. Epic doesn’t even begin to describe my notes. I went on to play with their Nebbiolo by the glass as well as a glass of Royal Tokaji Company Tokaji 5 Puttonyos. I only took a sip here and there, so for the curious, I was more than fine to make the trek back to Denver. In the industry we are exposed to a ridiculous amount of fine wine… but sadly, we must learn quickly to spit it all out, and choose wisely which to swallow.

My night ended with a sip of the 07 Le Due Terre Sacrisassi blend of Refosco and Schiopettino (about 50/50). It was one of those wines you can sink your teeth into. A wine that inspires thought but also thirst. Not every wine can achieve both, believe it or not. Many can be interesting, but not particularly scrumptious. This red recalled Brunello in a way–so dusty and rich on the nose, a hint of ovaltine cocoa powder, raisiny fruit and tart cherries. The acid was up but the body and warmth of the wine tempered its inflection. You could nearly exact the calcareous soils upon which these grapes were harvested. It tasted more wise and aged than it really was. A gem I will surely seek out very soon to experience a full glass.

They say a woman giving birth releases a chemical that allows her to forget the amount of pain endured in order to not only welcome the child immediately but actually consider procreating all over again. I wonder if a similar chemical was released for me that evening while eating that dinner, for I am actually going back for my third shift this week.

I practiced on about twenty bottles during the four days between my first two shifts. Now almost two weeks later, I think I have tried on over a hundred. With an open mind, a deep breath and a good wine key, I am hoping for a less turbulent run at this again. But I wouldn’t put it past me to break a few more corks and put out another candle.

There’s only one way to learn to become a Sommelier, and sadly it cannot be done with thousands of notecards. Like most achievements in life, one must walk the walk.

And so, this novice will walk once again, one foot in front of the other and one cork at a time.

(To redeem even a fraction of my pride, on the second evening I would like to note that I did not break any corks. Nor did I put out any candles while decanting wine. I felt more confident. And I ate like a Queen. However… I did cut my knuckle with the wine opener. Yes, there was blood… a lot. Oh, and I almost dropped an entire rack of glasses, but there was a quick cat-like save. Phew. Am I going back for more still? Hell yes.)





About mistralwine1982

Originally from Wisconsin, I moved to Colorado in 2005 in order to get closer to the mountains and rock climb. When it occurred to me that I would never make money with that hobby, I went to grad school. I received a masters in English and American Literature from New York University in May of 2009. I have since then opted not to pursue a PhD, for studying and writing about wine is far more fascinating (well, perhaps not moreso than Virginia Woolf, but still… for the long haul?). My favorite wines come from the old world, especially the Rhone, Burgundy, Rioja, Piedmont, and Tuscany. I am also smitten with roses, Italian hard-to-pronounce white varietals, and dessert wines from around the world. By day I run a wine shop. By nite, I sip and tell. It’s rough… but someone must do this.


One thought on “On becoming a Sommelier. Or, how I was humbled after breaking numerous corks.

  1. Love it! And thank you for the fresh perspective. Your bit about being “there to learn, not impress, and that there was no reason to be anxious” helps me re-evaluate my own perspective.

    I look forward to hearing more!

    Posted by Jess | 02/07/2011, 12:27 pm

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