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Wine Advice that Nobody Asked For: An Admission Most Shameful

The time has come, dear readers, for me to admit my greatest wine shame. I am not a sommelier. Man, it feels good to get that off my chest.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, the word “sommelier” is both a job title that someone can hold as well as a certification that can be obtained. There are numerous certifying bodies, but the gist of the role is someone who manages a wine program at a restaurant, tasked with making wine recommendations for food pairings, as well as managing inventory and often training staff.

The term would probably have continued to exist as booze industry jargon if not for the release of the 2012 film ‘Somm’ which put the position in the public eye. The film followed candidates as they were attempting to become master sommeliers with the Court of Master Sommeliers. Less excitingly this test includes a written portion, but the sexier more mysterious part of the test is the blind tasting. In the blind tasting portion a candidate must identify a number of wines by smell and taste alone in a limited amount of time, but they’re never told if they’re right or wrong, just if they pass.

So of course as a wine professional whose responsibilities overlap in some capacity with those of a sommelier, I’ve been asked many times over the years if that’s what I am. The definitive answer to that question is no.

Aside from the certification that can be achieved, in my mind a sommelier is properly a job title, and anybody who has been to State Line may have noticed that though we run a fine operation with tasty cheeses and meaty delights, but we are not running a restaurant here. When pressed, I explain the difference between what I do and what a sommelier is, and then when pressed further that I should take the test and get certified, I will admit that I tried, but unfortunately didn’t make the cut.

I recall the day of the test – I primed my palate with Sancerre at 7:30 in the morning to make sure that I didn’t perceive the first wine of the day as more acidic than it was. I donned my finest charcoal gray suit and put a different wine gadget in each pocket: corkscrew, table crumber, ah so opener, port tongs, and with a Champagne saber on my hip, I brought funnels, strainers, filters, and aerators… ok, some of those things I may have left at home.

The written test fell before my saber without great difficulty. The blind tasting, well, I’ll never know what I tasted, but I know that I passed. Then came the service part of the test. As I realized I was walking the wrong direction around the table (counter clockwise, not clockwise), I knew the whole affair was beginning to unravel. Then as I poured the first glass of wine, I realized I hadn’t put my serviette on my tray and we were completely off the rails.

So there I was, passed blind tasting and knowledge, but failed service. I can’t say that I was too surprised, admittedly it was my weakest skill set of the three parts of the test and I didn’t prepare as much as I could, or should, have. I left the experience a bit disappointed, even a little angry at myself, but after some time and reflection I realized it wasn’t such a big deal. I figured that if I was to fail on anything, I was glad that it was service.

Somehow I’ll live with this shame.

-Joe Buchter, Import Wine Buyer

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