March 3, 2024

Sommelier Central

By Ross Boissoneau | June 16, 2018

Police are here to serve and protect. It’s all about the law. Sommeliers are here to serve and educate. For them, it’s all about the wine.

The source of all knowledge, Wikipedia (ahem), calls a sommelier “a trained and knowledgeable wine professional, normally working in fine restaurants, who specializes in all aspects of wine service, as well as wine and food pairing.”

That’s true to a point, but if one is really dedicated to wine service and knowledge, one can explore the levels of the Court of Master Sommeliers. It offers four levels of study and advancement: Introductory, Certified, Advanced and Master Sommelier. Each requires depth of knowledge, study, and both written and field tests.

Why would someone go through what is a very rigorous examination process? It has to come from a passion for wine, not simply a desire for advancement in business. “If you have a passion for food, wine, travel, your hobby becomes your business,” said Matt Citriglia, a Master Sommelier who was in Traverse City for the recent City of Riesling. On the other hand, he said if you gain the knowledge but lack the passion, you won’t make a good sommelier, no matter your level of expertise.

For Marie-Chantal Dalese, the passion was there practically from birth. Her parents founded Chateau Chantal in 1991. After spending her childhood in and around the vineyard, she serves today as president and CEO, and is a certified sommelier.

“The certification was the most nerve-wracking testing experience of my life, and I’ve gone to grad school,” she said with a laugh.

Like Dalese, Ryan Rozycki recently earned the title of Certified Sommelier. He now works at The Blue Goat Wine & Provisions. He took the introductory exam in 2014 and has been working toward a Certified Sommelier since. “I’ve been interested in it for years. Wine is an all-encompassing field of study. You’ve got geology, [the soil]; geography, where it comes from; chemistry, how fermentation works, compounds and flavors; and history,” he said.

After working in restaurants during school in Ann Arbor, he began working at Stella’s before working at Lucky’s, then moved on to the Blue Goat. He said he enjoys the retail side, especially developing relationships with customers. “The Blue Goat has a tasting license, so I can pull a sample and say, ‘Try this one.’ That’s huge.”

Mari Chamberlain is the co-owner of Blu restaurant in Glen Arbor with chef and husband, Randy. “For me it was such a process,” she said of earning her title of Certified Sommelier. “I started in the restaurant business 21 years ago in Newport, Rhode Island, by a fluke. It gets in your blood,” she said.

After working at a four-star French restaurant in Monterey, California — “I had no business there,” Chamberlain said with a laugh — she made her way to way to northern Michigan, having learned a valuable lesson: “The better you were, the more money you could make. I started reading about wines, then had to taste them. The more I knew, the more doors opened.”

One of those doors was at Stella’s. She was hired by owner Amanda Danielson as a manager for the restaurant when it opened. “Amanda’s a real education promoter. We studied and took the test together. Then I stopped.”

Danielson didn’t. She continued to study, earning the title of Advanced Sommelier. She’s co-owner of both the reborn Blue Goat Wine & Provisions and Off the Map Hospitality (restaurants Trattoria Stella and the Franklin, as well as catering and special events), and co-founder of City of Riesling, which took place in Traverse City June 10–11.

There she hosted a brief sommelier roundtable at Left Foot Charley, where it was clear that the six sommeliers not only represented a cross-section of careers, but all had a passion for wine and for service. It included Charles Schneider, GM and wine director at Webster’s Wine Bar, and Rebekah Mahru, beverage director at City Winery, both of Chicago; native Michigander Paul Brady from New York City; Mick Descamps, wine director for Red Wagon Wine Shoppes in southeastern Michigan; and Citriglia, Director of Education at Southern Glazer Wine and Spirits in Miami, Florida.

And while they all admit that attaining their level of certification is hard work, whatever it is, they all say there is still more to learn about wine and service. Citriglia downplays his accomplishments as he’s now working in wine education. “I’m not on the floor. I look up to and respect all these people,” he said.

It’s also clear that it is a mutual admiration society. “These are the most amazing people,” said Schneider, who noted that if he hadn’t gone into the field, he’d have never met people who are equally passionate about wine and who are now his friends.

“It’s been so good to see all these people. It’s cool to appreciate what we all do,” he said, whether it is in bars, wineries, restaurants or retail.

All agreed that it’s both their job and their passion to share the joy and intricacies of wine with others. “It all goes back to teaching. Parts of it are not glamorous — it’s a business,” Danielson said, noting that they’ve all hauled unweildy cases of wine up and down stairs, toiled in cellars or other less-than-desirable locations, all in the name of wine.

So there’s retail, perfect for people like Rozycki and Descamps. Citriglia’s gig is now education, while Danielson, Brady, and Chamberlain work in restaurants. Mahru and Schneider work in wine bars and Dalese at a winery. Another outlet is at the wholesale level, where Jennifer Laurie works for Imperial Beverage. “I did retail for 22 years,” she said, before a job opened up in northern Michigan, where she and her husband wanted to be.

“In restaurants, you get instant gratification. In retail, you have to wait till they come back,” she said. In her present role, she said she has to determine what each outlet’s niche is. “Now I’m selling to someone like Ryan, (saying) ‘This would be good for your shop, great for your restaurant,’” she said.

No matter the outlet, it’s about engaging the senses and finding new, exciting wines, and passing that love on. “It’s like you go on a journey with them,” said Laurie. “It’s always changing, there are new trends, new styles, different grape varieties. When it comes to a love of wine, the more you get into it, the more you can get out of it.”


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