What is a Sommelier?

Bristol Bar & Grille is home to Scott Harper. He is one of only two Master Sommelier’s in the state. At our restaurants, his expertise provides guests access to best value for some of the world’s top quality wines. But what is a sommelier?

Bristol Bar & Grille Master Sommelier Scott Harper teaching one of his many wine courses.

Bristol Bar & Grille Master Sommelier Scott Harper teaching one of his many wine courses.

Harper says it could be as simple as a service person in an upscale restaurant that serves wine. Essentially a wine steward.

You should expect a sommelier to help select and service wine, Harper adds. The sommelier should put the patron at ease. The guest should not make them feel intimidated or pressured to order a particular wine or price. Using a sommelier’s service should be a delight, making the dining experience easier and relaxed. With a few concise questions they should be able to help you find an appropriate bottle. It should be in your price range and a style that fits your meal. The sommelier should be competent enough to recommend a Monday night $30 bottle as well as a $100 bottle of special occasion wine. (Read on for Harper’s suggestions in both categories.)

On the business side, the sommelier does for the wine program what the chef does for the kitchen. He or she likely chooses the wine for the wine list. The list should provide selections that pair well with the restaurant’s food and the guests’ taste. It should also strike a balance between known wines and interesting selections. The sommelier keeps the wine list as accurate as possible, purchases the wine, trains the staff on wine.

Using a sommelier can be simple. Feel free to tell them what you are interested in drinking. If you tell them you are looking for a bottle of red wine around $50 that is medium-bodied, dry, and full of ripe fruit and spice, the best sommeliers will enthusiastically give you some choices. The sommelier may even turn you on to the best wines they have in the category requested. Additionally, asking the sommelier to pair your wine with your meal or meal with your wine can be received with an eagerness to please.

A sommelier can be accredited, but many quality are not. The worldwide examining body of sommeliers is the Court of Master Sommeliers. The Court’s testing is focused on superior beverage department management and guest service. It includes tasting; theory; practical dining room application; and encompasses spirits, beers and global wine knowledge. To become a Master Sommelier, a candidate must pass four levels of examinations. The exams include introductory sommelier exam; the certified sommelier exam; the advanced sommelier exam; and finally, the master sommelier diploma exam. The master sommelier diploma exam has one of the lowest pass rates of any exam in the world. As of 2014, just 140 professionals earned the title Master Sommelier in North America. Of those, 119 were men and 21 were women. There are 219 professionals worldwide with the title of Master Sommelier since the first master sommelier diploma exam given in 1969.

At the fourth and final level of the master sommelier diploma exam, the most revered test is the blind tasting. In 25 minutes, the sommelier must describe six different wines by verbally identifying the grape varieties; country of origin; district and appellation of origin; and vintage, while speaking to the taste and favor of each of the wines. Theory and practical are the other two exams that must be passed at the master’s level. The theory is completely verbal. The candidate is asked questions regarding wine, spirits and beer minutia by a panel of Master Sommeliers. Once a question has been answered, the candidate may not go back. The practical involves various types of wine, spirit and beer service in a restaurant filled only with Master Sommeliers. The candidate may be decanting wine with grace and humility while being barraged with questions that are almost infinite. The questions may include wine and food pairing, quality vintages, wine styles and pricing.

A Master Sommelier has a proven mastery of wine and other beverages. However, passing any of the four levels is deemed an accomplishment. Sommeliers studying for the exams should be an excellent source for your fine beverage needs. Attaining the title of Master Sommelier takes both passion and dedication. The years of preparation involve tasting thousands of wines, long hours of studying, traveling to wine regions and thousands of dollars in expenses related to each.

Recommended wines from Bristol Bar & Grille’s Master Sommelier Scott Harper:

Monday night $30 bottle
Joseph Drouhin Vaudon Chablis, 2013, (Burgundy, France)

The Drouhin family have been winemakers in Burgundy for over 125 years. Chablis is their specialty. The wine is pale gold with green highlights. It is dry and very crisp with delicious, bright flavors of green apples, lemon zest and grapefruit. It’s flavors are linear and intense with enjoyable wet stone minerals that add a level to the complexity. The bottle is 100 percent Chardonnay. it is elegant, vivacious, fresh and medium-bodied. You can drink it as a flavorful aperitif or as natural accompaniment with seafood.

Special occasion $100 bottle

Honig Cabernet Sauvignon “Bartolucci Vineyard”, 2008, (Napa Valley, California)

Located at the foot of Spring Mountain in the Napa Valley, this old, head-pruned vineyard has been farmed by the Bartolucci family for three generations. With its gravelly soil and warmer micro-climate, the vineyard is ideally suited to growing Cabernet Sauvignon. From this amazing fruit, winemaker Kristin Belair creates a 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. It is a rich, luscious wine with aromas and flavors of cassis, plum, black olive and baking spice. The palate is full-bodied, round and lush, with plum and berry fruit. Its finishes are rich with velvety tannins and a long finish.

By Scott Harper, Bristol Bar & Grille’s Master Sommelier