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Food & Dining // Vino Sense
Roberto Viernes

Tales Of An Accidental Sommelier

I would like to think that everyone has a seminal moment or epiphany in their lives when they realize just what they want to do for the rest of their lives. But the truth is that not everyone has that moment. That is why I am so thankful and blessed to have been in the right place at the right time when I took the first level or Introductory Course for the Court of Master Sommeliers. It truly changed my life forever.

I was just graduating from UH-Manoa with a degree in French Studies. My original plan to become an optometrist looked bleak. Not only because I didn’t think I could afford it, but also because I had worked for three years at a very prominent ophthalmologist’s office and I found it to be boring and monotonous. No offense to OD’s and MD OP’s, but it just was not something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

I could now speak and write French and I always had a love of cooking (and eating). So I thought that I could somehow become a French-trained Chef. I planned to apprentice here in Hawaii and eventually use my French skills to go to France and study and apprentice there. So I ended up volunteering as an apprentice at Clicquo Restaurant in Niu Valley which was owned and operated by Chef Yves Menoret. It was a hard time. Apprenticing for French chefs is something akin to culinary Marine training. They are always looking over your back and scolding you for the slightest miscue. I remember a particularly bitter tirade because my julienne of ginger was not thin or long enough to be called julienne. But I thought that it was a natural process to cull out the weaklings – not me, of course.

But one day while reading the Advertiser‘s food section I saw a class being offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers. Among the many topics of wine that attendees would learn was food and wine pairing. I thought it would be good for me to learn about since I was going to ultimately be a chef! So I called the gentleman whose phone number was listed. It was Chuck Furuya, one of Hawaii’s three current Master Sommeliers, and at that time Hawaii’s one and only. I didn’t know him, so I asked him a dozen questions including asking him what his qualifications were to teach such a course. I often wonder what Chuck said to himself after we hung up the phone. Nonetheless I was convinced that I should take this class. But being a poor student and volunteer cook, I had almost zero money, so I borrowed the $495 from my girlfriend – who is now my wife. (Thank you, Honey!)

The class sent me to another world.

Master Sommeliers Wayne Belding, Fred Dame and Chuck taught the course to more than 50 of Hawaii’s wine and food professionals including myself. They opened the world of wine to my eyes, ears and palette like I had never seen before. All the glorious flavors and nuances of wine, the different geography, soils and grape types were overwhelming and exciting at the same time. Tasting wines and blind tasting wines for the very first time was like learning to put a puzzle together with your hands but without your eyes. You must remember that the only experience with wine that I had before this was at communion in Catholic mass. And on top of that I had to take a test at the end of it, knowing almost nothing except what I learned in the class.

As you know, I passed. But it was much more than passing that invigorated me. This class and the instructors in it inspired me. They made me want to be like them; to know the laws, the flavors, intricacies and origins of wine and spirits. And I thought to myself, “I can’t believe these guys get paid for playing with wine.”

It has now been seven years since I passed the Master Sommelier Exam, and I’ve taught many introductory courses, given several certificate exams, and seen two more men with ties to Hawaii become Masters. The introductory course for the Court of Master Sommeliers will be taught here again on Nov. 5-6 with the certificate exam to follow Nov. 7. Please log on to master-sommeliers.org for more information.

If you have ever had any interest in wine either as a profession or as a passion, I encourage you to sign up for these terrific classes. It is held in Hawaii only once a year and I assure you that whether you pass or not you will certainly be filled with more knowledge and passion. Could you be the next Master Sommelier from Hawaii?

Recommendations: 2010 Robert Biale Zinfandel Black Chicken ($35) This isn’t a little chickadee of a Zinfandel. Think a 50 pounder with an attitude. It is dark, smoldering with black fruit preserves and a wildly long and impactful aftertaste.

2010 Planeta La Segreta Bianco ($15) This is an Italian blend of Grecanico, Chardonnay, Viognier and Greco. But what you really need to know is that it is wonderfully refreshing with a beautiful perfume of flowers and sweet citrus and apple fruit. It is one of those wines that make you say “I’ll have more of that.”

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