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oh lord, hilarious! apparently, i’ll have to learn to like whiskey, which i’ll be given by all my non-wine friends ūüėČ

Rachel Learns to Drive, by lily-elaine hawk wakawaka

Thank you to Chime.in for awarding this post Best Post of the Year, Humor 2011.

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Enjoy your holiday gift buying!

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Sommelier Definition: I actually have to pretend to take wine seriously

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This is the Part II continuation of my wine story, as started in the previous post. ¬†Many thanks to the instant support and love I’ve received from my Twitter friends. ¬†Y’all give me the courage¬†to keep going! @jessicabword, @1WineDude, @PhoebeBrain, @RVimmerstedt, @demilove, @abcwinejimg, @NWTomLee, & @Sassodoro. ¬†I apologize for the length — what can I say, I’m chatty.

So where was I? ¬†Oh yes, life was swiftly pulling me along in a wine direction and it was time to swim with the current. ¬†Before, I’d just been a little wine-and-cheese retail clerk who helped wash and polish glasses. ¬†Occasionally people would ask me for wine advice (Seriously, you’re asking me? Let me go get Shawn…..), so I would fake it by talking a good game and being charming enough to disguise my ignorance. ¬†I mean, I was acutely aware of how very little I knew about wine, but people seemed convinced that I knew something. ¬†In an effort to look and feel less like a fool, I’d begun reading voraciously and asking an obnoxious number of questions of people who knew more than I did (which was just about everyone). ¬†Eventually some of the information must have started sticking, because my bosses decided I knew enough to promote me — to this day I’m so grateful that they had that much confidence and trust in me. ¬†So, suddenly in the Fall of 2011, I’m the brand-new Wine Retail Manager of a huge inventory of fabulous wines connected to the Cellar’s brand new Bistro.

Don’t spill, don’t spill, don’t spill…….. Just pretend you know what you’re doing……..

Woohoo, go me, right? ¬†Cut, celebration over, now it’s time to learn this job at full-speed from the ground up at an expanded business whilst NOT SCREWING THE POOCH. ¬†In the midst of writing and editing wine lists, learning a new POS system, studying our seasonal food menus, teaching our suddenly-huge staff about wine, meeting with sales reps multiple times a week, and keeping track of all deliveries and invoices, I also found myself working more and more on the restaurant side of the business, giving advice and recommendations to our customers as well as performing wine service tableside. ¬†Without even realizing it, I was a “sommelier”…….

Say that again? ¬†Somm-what? ¬†Most of my friends and family to this day still can’t pronounce it, much less have any clue what it is that a sommelier does (Parents: “It’s so much easier to call you an English teacher, y’know….”). ¬†I’m not sure I even have a succinct definition , cause I’m still figuring it all out myself. ¬†My own study of this profession only started when the Executive Chef of the Bistro said, “Well, why don’t you do the Court of Master Sommeliers?” (my reaction — wait, there’s a¬†court of people who are¬†masters at this thing?!). ¬†Okay kids, it’s time to get serious about all of this, so I looked into the¬†Court of Master Whatchamacallits. ¬†Wow, these people have super high standards (and some super high class fees…I’m a po’ wino). ¬†The CMS is broken up into 4 levels, with the highest Master level being invitation-only — you actually have to apply to be allowed to even attempt the test (heh, how ’bout them alliteration skillz?). ¬†Only about 200 people in the world have been granted the status of Master since testing began in 1969. ¬†If you can pass just the Level II certification though, you get to put initials behind your name (see Mom, my “career”¬†is legitimate!) ¬†Oh yeah, my anal-retentive, perfectionist-student-nerd, never-saw-a-test-I-didn’t-like gene was going into overdrive. ¬†This was for me!

All petty, vain, and competitive reasons aside, though, I saw the Court as a way to finally formalize my haphazard wine education. ¬†Up until my promotion, wine was a hobby which I was lucky enough to get paid for part-time on the weekends. ¬†But now I had business cards, an official email address, a fancy title, and I really needed some solid education to back it up besides “Hey, I’ve drunk some wine and read a few books”. ¬†Some people believe that going through the CMS is expensively unnecessary in the real-world of the industry. ¬†Honestly, that opinion isn’t all that wrong. ¬†There are plenty of excellent wine professionals and sommeliers, even right here in tiny Tampa, who have never done the Court or any other of the certifying bodies (Certified Specialist of Wine, Master of Wine, or Wine & Spirits Education Trust) and they achieved their places through old school bottle-up knowledge. ¬†I frankly believe that every person’s wine education, no matter how far he or she might take it, should start simply — with a bottle and a glass of wine. ¬†Passion for the juice begins, obviously enough, with the juice. ¬†For me, though, I saw the Court as a tool that I can use while I explore the possibilities of my career, as well as a focused learning approach to help me internalize and synthesis the vast oceans of information out there (if nothing else, the Guild¬†that is associated with the Court and it’s educational materials is worth every penny). ¬†The best bonus of all is the people of the Court themselves, from students right on up through the masters: a collection of wonderfully nerdy wine geeks like me to whom it’s just a sheer pleasure to talk, socialize, and learn with. ¬†Conclusion: being a Certified Sommelier certainly won’t hurt my career any, and there are several instances where it could very well¬†help.

Laura de Pasquale, MS (aka “La Principessa”) — New goal: I want to be her when I grow up!

So I scraped together the money and registered for the Level I Exam that was offered in Miami in June 2011. ¬†I gained 2 very important things out of that weekend:¬†I developed a huge girl-crush on Master Sommelier Laura De Pasquale (1 of 4 MS’s that trained us — she was the only woman. ¬†Plus, she’s just awesome), and I passed my Level 1 certification. ¬†The whole thing was actually pretty fun — tasted lots of wines, met lots of cool people, got to take a break from work and hang out in Miami for a day or 2. ¬†And the test? Pssh, never even broke a sweat (hey, I’ve read a Bible on wine, y’know). ¬†Almost like a vacation actually, and now that the required practice round is over,¬†I can move on to the real goal: Level II certification. ¬†As noted earlier, if I can pass my Level II, then I officially get to put the initials CS behind my name. ¬†That’s right, not just a sommelier but a¬†certified sommelier, bitches! ¬†However, I’d have to wait a whole year for the Court to come back to Miami…………. or!¬† I could fly to New York City in September and do it then! (Ego: “Yes, yes, do it now! You’re ready! ¬†You’re a rock star!”) Clearly, I needed to be a CS as soon as possible, so I opted for New York — plus, hey, it’s New York. ¬†(And here is where I give an incredibly inadequate THANK YOU! to all of my customers, friends, and family who supported me throughout this whole endeavor. ¬†All of them generously donated tips into my Somm-Fund Beggar’s Bottle to help me raise the cash for fees and travel.)

Breaking of the Somm-Fund Beggar’s Bottle

In retrospect, perhaps¬†I could have chosen slightly better timing to attempt the Level II, considering that¬†the Cellar’s 12th Bi-Annual colossal 2-day Wine Fest¬†was the weekend before I left for NYC. ¬†And that year, being fancy-title-girl, the Fest was my baby. ¬†It took a massive amount of work and preparation, as well as coordination and help from others, but I¬†am proud to say that the Fall 2011 event was the biggest and most successful Wine Fest up until then for the Cellar. ¬†Planning it sucked up more time than I’d anticipated, but I thought I had a handle on everything, including my Certification. ¬†The Level II exam consists of 3 parts: Written Theory exam, Blind Tasting, and Tableside Service. ¬†I was slightly nervous going into the exam, but nothing unusual. ¬†I felt that I had a fairly good grasp of knowledge and theory — hey, I’d rocked that Level I exam, plus I had been teaching wine classes all summer. ¬†I’d also found a great tasting group that did wonders for my blind tasting skills, and I was practicing tableside service every night in the Bistro (though I was terrified of Champagne service — please don’t let it be Champagne!). ¬†So a couple days after the Fest, I flew up to NYC¬†with some general anxiety, but feeling confident that I’d come home a Certified Sommelier. ¬†And, at the end of the day-long testing process, I passed Blind Tasting, I passed Service (even though I got the dreaded Champagne service!), and ….. I didn’t pass the Written?!?!?! (?!?!?!)¬† Ugh, instead of Certification, I’d come home with a mortal wound in my pride……..

Bright side: At least I got to serve and taste Screaming Eagle for the first time right before I left for NYC

My nerdy student heart shriveled up in agony, yelling at my stupid brain all the while for failing to perform. ¬†That devilish Ego also had to finally shut up in embarrassment. ¬†One tip for anyone else attempting the CS — the Written is very short and highly specific, with almost no multiple choice (unlike the Level I Exam). ¬†It ensures that there is little room for error, and my broad wine knowledge, while good, was sadly not in depth or nimble enough to conquer it. ¬†(Plus Australia killed me — why oh why can’t I get Australia to stick in my skull?!)

So clearly, I’d let my overconfidence and, well, arrogance trip me up (“Hey, I don’t know if you know, but I’m¬†The Wine Retail Manager. ¬†I’m kind of a big deal around here…”). ¬†I was feelin’ a bit of road rash on my face from that fall. ¬†But though I’ve been knocked down a few deserved pegs or so, I still haven’t given up on attaining my Level II Sommelier Certification (CS baby!). ¬†I’ll even probably be a better CS for it anyways, having been humbled a bit (that’s my Ego’s story, and we’re stickin’ to it). ¬†I can’t give up on the CS dream because¬†at the end of the day, I really, truly, and honestly love doing what I do. ¬†I became an accidental sommelier, but oddly enough, it seems to particularly suit me. ¬†I want to do the Court to prove my competence and for the satisfaction of the challenge, but I also want to do it because I want to be able to provide my customers with the very best service, abilities, and knowledge that I can acquire. ¬†There is no better feeling than meeting new people at a table, exploring a wine list together and listening to their experiences and preferences, all to help them find a bottle that they’ll love. ¬†It’s even better when I can help someone select a bottle they wouldn’t have necessarily chosen on their own. ¬†What an awesome job where part of the description is to share wine stories and make new wine friends.

Huh, maybe that’s my own definition of a sommelier right there………….

Some upcoming posts:

  • Moving on and trying to move up — Job searching in the wine industry.
  • Wine Tastings at Pelagia Trattoria and Datz Deli
  • Recommended Wine Reads — some for knowledge, some for fun!

Working in Wine — can anyone really make a “career” of this?

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So, this is yet another wine blog. ¬†Joe Roberts (aka 1 Wine Dude) is a wine blogger that I enjoy, and he kept yelling at me (and the world in general) to start a wine blog. ¬†Never say that peer pressure doesn’t work!! ¬†I’ve already joined the wine conversation via Twitter (@SirenaDiVino) and Facebook, so this is another venue to explore.

Really, though, I wasn’t sure that I had anything to offer to the blogging conversation. ¬†I’m an involved commenter, but I don’t know if I have the “juice” for original posts. ¬†I didn’t know how to start, or what to say. ¬†I picked out a blog name over a month ago, and I have zero public posts to show for it. ¬†This particular post I’ve started and stopped at least 5 or 6 times ūüėõ Yay writer’s block!

So in the end, I realized that I have to start at the beginning (duh). ¬†I have to start at the beginning of my wine story……

Wine was an accident for me. ¬†I wasn’t looking for it, and I sure didn’t see it coming. ¬†I grew up in an alcohol-free house; neither of my parents drink. ¬†Part of that comes from the long history of alcoholism in our family, so my family just chose to not engage with alcohol in general. ¬†I was always scared growing up that one sip of alcohol would turn me into an alcoholic (after much introspection and experimentation, that thankfully seems to not be the case!). ¬†I didn’t have my first drink until I was in college, and I didn’t get drunk for the first time until I was 19 (it was technically legal too — I was in the Australian embassy at the time). ¬†So where does the wine come into it?

My wine story started 5 years ago in 2007 when I met a couple who owned a local wine shop. ¬†I met them because I worked at the pre-school across the street from their Cellar, and both of their children happened to be my students. ¬†I had turned 21 not too long before, had recently moved back home to Tampa from Washington, DC, and FINALLY decided that I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. ¬†I’d been at the preschool for about 9 months when my colleagues decided to show some local small-business solidarity and start a wine-and-cheese night once a month after work (the fact that we worked with toddlers all day had NOTHING to do with our need for alcoholic beverages!). ¬†That night, someone put a glass of red wine in my hand for the first time. ¬†To this day, I have no idea what that wine was. ¬†All I remember was thinking “Hey, this is pretty good. ¬†Gimme another.”

Me as a wine “baby” — just startin’ to learn about this stuff!

I’m a naturally curious person, a fairly skilled student, and I HATE being ignorant and uninformed. ¬†So every 3 or 4 weeks I’d go back to that Cellar on my own, I’d tell Shawn the owner “I have $12, what can I get for that?”, and then I’d pester him mercilessly with questions about wine and what I was drinking. ¬†The preschool job ended a few months later, which the couple from the Cellar heard about. ¬†They called me up that summer, wondering if I’d be interested in taking a part-time job working for them. ¬†The Official Decision Time Clock reflects about 2.5 seconds for an affirmative “oh, HELL YES!”

After my lightning-fast snap decision, I got a bad case of the guilts (I blame my Catholic upbringing for that particular tendency), called Shawn and Mary back, and confessed that I knew absolutely NOTHING about wine. ¬†I still wanted the job, I was over the MOON about the job, but I felt obligated to make sure that they weren’t under the impression that I was some kind of “wine professional”.

Shawn said “Don’t worry, just come to the Cellar this Tuesday at 11”. ¬†When I showed up, there were 12 bottles of wine lined up on the bar and he said “We’re gonna taste them all”. ¬†That day, he walked me through the basics of wine (which I promptly became thoroughly confused about and forgot most of), and I came to the conclusion that I obviously had the coolest job in the world (even though I hadn’t really started yet). ¬†Shawn also gave me¬†The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeill (my reaction — there’s a Bible for wine?!) and told me to read the first 100 pages.

After that, I became a stalker……….

Some members of the generous Cellar family and fellow geeks!

No seriously! ¬†A stalker of wine and wine knowledge, that is. ¬†Every time Shawn or Mary helped a customer with a selection, you could usually find me lurking around the corner, creepily staring and avidly listening to every word. ¬†I continued my pestering of Shawn with questions and also expanded that annoying habit to any poor wine rep who happened to walk in the door. ¬†When possible, I would even come to the Cellar early and “stalk” the weekly tasting meetings Shawn had with wine reps. ¬†I attended every public class and tasting the Cellar put on. ¬†I re-read the intro to the Bible again, hoping some of it would stick this time. ¬†And I drank wine. ¬†A LOT. ¬†Everyone says (and in this case, everyone is right) that the best way to learn and put new knowledge into context is to have concrete examples to pair it with. ¬†In our industry, that means incessant drinking and tasting — cheers, y’all! ¬†Luckily, my new work atmosphere included many people who loved to share and talk about wine with me — the extraordinary largesse of fellow wine geeks, I salute you! This continued merrily on for about 3 years.

BUT! …… I was still in school at University of South Florida as an education major. ¬†I loved wine, but I loved teaching too. ¬†Life conundrum — which path do I follow? ¬†Is wine just a hobby, and I”ll get a grown-up teaching job when I graduate? (My parents: Yes, pick that one, since that’s the degree we’re paying for!) ¬†Or do I try to figure out how to get someone to pay me as wine geek for the rest of my life? I’m equally good at both, I love both, and I didn’t know which to pursue (Yes Mom and Dad, I know which you want me to pick…). ¬†One troubling consideration was when it came to wine, I didn’t really know what my options were or how to make a life out of it. ¬†If I picked wine, did that mean I was supposed to stay in a little suburb of Tampa in this neighborhood shop all my life? ¬†Was that going to be my wine “career”?

In the midst of all this “what am I going to do with my life?” and “is wine really a viable career for me?” angst, I was promoted to Wine Retail Manager during the expansion of the Cellar to include an adjoining high-end, full service Bistro. ¬†Without ever making a fully, consciously intentional decision, I found myself in the middle of 50-60 hour work-weeks while trying to juggle a diminished class schedule of increasingly irrelevant courses for a degree that I probably wasn’t going to use. ¬†I found myself switching from an education focus at the last minute, giving up my final internship placement, and went with a straight-up Literature degree focus (the idea was to use the straightest, shortest path out of school so I could geek out more on wine). ¬†It was also right around this time that someone dropped the Court of Master Sommeliers bug into my ear. ¬†Life was in fast-forward, and I wasn’t sure if I was in control of any of it………

Seriously, won’t someone pay me to just do this?

End of Part 1