Wow. It's official. It's really, really real. I'm a sommelier. Tonight was the grad dinner at Algonquin, and what a fantastic night it was. Everyone looked dapper in their spiffy threads as we talked and ate and laughed and drank in the company of our significant others, parents and other proud-as-punch guests.
An impromptu reception was held in the lobby of Restaurant International as folks trickled in. A lovely Tawse Sketches of Niagara 2008 Rosé accompanied a parade of canapes (tandoori shrimp, Chinese pork on won tons, smoked salmon on potato blintzes, to name a few). The meal that followed would make the culinary instructors proud: smoked duck carpaccio with poached pears, and panko-crusted sea scallops to start; then beef striploin medallions in a wild mushroom and pearl onion ragout; followed by bocca negra cakes with a spicy strawberry and cashew mixture for dessert.
Naturally, there were wines with each course, what with it being a sommelier dinner and all: a crisp André Blanck Rosenbourg 2007 Pinot Blanc (Alsace); a silky-soft Yalumba 'Y' Series 2007 Shiraz Viognier (South Australia); an aggressive, fruit-forward Calafate 2007 Reserva Malbec (Argentina); and an Angrove 2005 Fortified Shiraz (Australia). General consensus at our table was in favour of the Yalumba over the malbec for the main course; we thought the fortified shiraz was a bit bland, though, and not nearly sweet enough to match the intensity of the chocolate. (Whereupon we all chimed out the important rule on dessert wines needing to be sweeter than that which they are paired. Bunch of keeners, the lot of us.)
And I even got to deliver the valedictorian address, something that inspired both pride and panic-fuelled misery in me. Nothing a couple of glasses of wine couldn't fix; it ended up going swimmingly. So did the rest of the evening, as each of us accepted our pins from Madame Paradis (of CA Paradis, the culinary shop sponsoring the evening) to deafening cheers and applause.
I promised everyone that I would post my speech, so without further ado, here it is. (PS - I have no problems if you want to share it with others, but please cite the reference or link to my blog. Thanks!)
When I first tried wine, I wondered how they got all those fruits and vegetables in there. Did they crush green peppers, coffee beans, and blackberries in with the grapes? Did they top up the tanks with gasoline before pouring it over a sweaty horse saddle and straining it through a dirty hay bale on the barn floor?
I’ve never had a problem with asking questions, so I brought that up in my first class. Paul (Carriere - Wine Tasting) kinda looked at me funny, but still took the time to explain that no, wine isn’t made that way. It just tastes that way sometimes.
After four years of study in the sommelier program, I’ve learned a lot more about wine. Two things in particular stand out for me, two things that make wine truly memorable. And they’re two things I’ll never go without, ever again: a Stelvin closure and a Rabbit (wine lever). Suffice to say, you should all be thankful I was only asked to give a speech and not open the bottles for tonight’s dinner!
Actually, I’ve learned more about wine than just how to get into it, although I’m sure we can all agree that’s a crucial first step.
I’ve learned that if it smells like cat’s pee, pencil shavings, or manure, it must be good.
That the tannins in a cabernet sauvignon might feel shanked to some, but caressed to others.
That there are no wrong answers when it comes to describing wine. Unless it’s not the answer Natale (Lofaro - Grape Varieties) wants to hear.
That getting up at 6 am, in the middle of winter, for a day-long Saturday course on vinification is less a test of knowledge and more a test of stamina.
That we can sing the praises of Chateau Pétrus till the cows come home, but it won’t change the fact that a little eight-dollar shiraz-malbec from Argentina keeps selling out at the LCBO.
That when your olfactory senses fail you, a brown nose will work just as well to get by.
That when the instructor says “don’t bring red to your service exam”, there’s a really good reason for it.
And, most importantly, that “you can never tell someone what they like”. (Thanks for that, Sugarbuns … I mean, Randy!)
Some of us signed up for this program on a whim, as a nice way to spend an evening with friends. Then maybe it became a hobby, perhaps even an obsession. For others, it was the first step on a new career path. But there’s one thing we all have in common: we love wine.
We love wine so much it wasn’t enough to simply drink it. We had to know where it came from: what row, in what clos, in what vineyard, on what bank of what river. We had to talk at great length on whether the colour of the wine was deep gold, white gold, pale straw, grassy straw, fresh straw or half-full catheter. We forced our friends and loved ones to endure our pompous diatribes on malolactic fermentation, indigenous varietals and tertiary aromas during a trip to the liquor store.
Now, here we are, with pins on our lapels and a slightly enhanced ability to read labels. Now what?
Thankfully, wine is a lifelong tutor. In every bottle, with every vintage, there will always be something new to discover, something more to love. This program has not only given us the means to enjoy wine on another level, but also to share that knowledge with others, to make wine enjoyable for everyone, whether they can pronounce “gewurztraminer” or not. Because wine isn’t just a collector’s item or status symbol or an unsolved mystery. It isn’t just for the super-elite or the intellectuals anymore.
Wine is the sun setting on your back patio while you fire up the barbeque.
Wine is a flurry of bubbles as you count down to midnight.
Wine is a winter’s afternoon spent curled up by the fire with your favourite book.
Wine is that balcony overlooking the ocean, that little bistro in Paris, or that gently rolling hill outside Siena.
Wine is that perfect dining companion at the chef’s table of a five-star restaurant. Or at the pizza joint down the street.
Wine is the laughter shared by family at the annual reunion picnic.
Wine is a long chat with a dear friend or a silent moment with your soul mate.
Wine goes so well with life. No wonder we all love it so much.