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Successful Sommeliers

Birmingham area sommeliers pass Court of Master Sommeliers exams.

By Jan Walsh

Photography by Beau Gustafson

What is a sommelier? From a historic perspective, the word “sommelier” is derived from the French sommier, which is a word that evolved from cargo related nouns: the cargo, animals transporting the cargo, and the people in charge of these animals. Sommelier was a title for people in charge of specific classes of items, such as food. And the term eventually evolved to describe a servant in charge of wine.

While wine service dates back to Greek and Roman times, restaurants with wine service—in Western Europe—did not exist until the late 18th Century. Afterwards, during the decades following World War II, only a few U.S., upscale French restaurants had sommeliers. By the 1970s and 1980s, the number of and style of U.S. restaurants with sommeliers grew beyond French restaurants.

Throughout time the main role of the sommelier has been and remains the management of the restaurant’s wine cellar and wine program. The sommelier works with the culinary team to pair and suggest wines that compliment the individual dishes on the menu. In the dining room, a sommelier interacts with restaurant patrons in wine selection—pairing the perfect bottle with dinner, within the parameters of the individual palate preferences and budget.

While a restaurateur can give any person who serves wine the title of “sommelier,” becoming a certified sommelier is a process that involves educational classes and examinations. The Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) is the examining body for the Master Sommelier Diploma. Established to encourage improved standards of beverage knowledge and service in hotels and restaurants, the first successful Master Sommelier examination was held in 1969. By April 1977, the Court of Master Sommeliers was established as the premier international examining body. And the title of Master Sommelier is reserved for individuals who successfully complete the Court of Master Sommeliers’ educational program. Currently there are four program levels to becoming a Master Sommelier.

The CMS recently “held court” for the second time in Birmingham’s history, and the first time since their inaugural visit here in 2004. Prior to this, wine professionals with wine related careers, such as John Cowan, Brian Herr, and Foster Smith had to travel outside Alabama to successfully achieve the CMS Level 1 coursework and exam.

Other local wine professionals sat for exams in 2004 and 2012. Achieving Level I in 2004 was Gene Burgess, Paul Campbell, Carlos Cisneros, Chanel Cotton, David Cross, Thomas Dovel, Caroline Graves, Bryan Groover, Remy Helu, Danny Hiatt, Robert Kamm, Eliseo Martizez, Ellen Wilson, Alan Milican, John Rusiecki, April Strickland, Jan Walsh, and Grant Williams.

Level I is the Introductory Course and Exam and includes a fast paced review for a day and a half with a theory exam at the end of the second day. Those who pass receive a certificate of completion and a pin designating success.

Individuals from this class of 2004 gathered for a toast with wine professionals who passed their CMS coursework and exam in 2012. Level I was achieved in 2012 by Dormanique Chatmon, Matthew Couch, Steve Elliot, Matt Gilpin, Jeff Jones, Gray Maddox, David Manning, Brian Green, Steve Karamichael, Christiane Umphrey, Candy West, and Rusty Worrell.

Level II is the Certified Sommelier Exam with no coursework, which was achieved by Gia Bevens, Carlos Cisneros, and Stella Nystrom.

Level III is the Advanced Sommelier Course and Exam, which has been achieved by John McCune.

And Level IV is the Master Sommelier Diploma Exam. Achieving the distinction of Master Sommelier takes years of intensive education, much dedication and a persistent passion for wine.

To date no one in the Birmingham area has yet to earn his or her Master Sommelier.  “Passing any level of the program is difficult and can require multiple attempts,” McCune explains.

Leading up to the 2012 exams, students developed a local tasting group, “Bama Tasting Group.” They held blind tastings, practiced service and encouraged each other through the process. In addition to meetings, there were 20-30 theory questions emailed to the group about a specific region or topic. Some of the group still meet weekly as they prepare for the next level.

Published, B-Metro, October 2012

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