Cellar Dwellers

Hotelier, July/August 2006

Knowledge, not snobbery, elevates sommeliers at top hotels

Christine Mercnik is the sommelier at the 584-room Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes in Orlando, Florida. If you think that means she just nudges diners towards better wine and keeps wait staff up to speed on what's what in the cellar, think again. Things are changing for sommeliers at hotels, and Mercnik is taking full advantage of growing interest in wine. Ritz-Carlton sent her to Grand Cayman in December to advise on wine strategies for a new hotel, she was flown to Toronto in May to host an evening wine event for apartment owners of the soon-to-be-built Ritz-Carlton condo-hotel, and she regularly tours wine regions for work, most recently Chile. Mercnik says Ritz-Carlton is "very, very supportive" of her wine education with the London-based Court of Master Sommeliers program.

For her visit to Toronto, Mercnik "selected six wines and just kinda toured the guests round the world. Ritz-Carlton wanted to have a wine expert in the house to give greater depth of information about the wines." Mercnik is originally from Canada (and still has the "about" to prove it) and is a graduate of Ontario's University of Guelph's hospitality program. After moving to Florida in 1994 and working in several big hotels, she joined Ritz-Carlton in 2003. Sommeliers looking to move around would do well at the Ritz-Carlton or other big chains, she says: "the opportunities definitely present themselves and people can transfer."

Style-wise, Mercnik is one of today's new breed of sommeliers - extremely knowledgeable about wine, but not at all snobbish. She could tell you in detail about yield management and soil composition in vineyards, but says "my approach is to keep it very simple, down to earth, and most of all, fun." Back in Toronto, Canada's first Master Sommelier (top level at the Court of Master Sommeliers), John Szabo shares Mercnik's view of hotel chains. "In the right place," says Szabo, "you will have almost unlimited resources, storage space is not an issue and, at the upper end, the full range of stemware and accoutrements, like a guéridon [a wine service trolley] or a champagne cart. If you get the backing, you can pretty much create a dream program."

Szabo points out that a downside for sommeliers at hotels is more bureaucracy, resulting in a lack of control over the wine list. He says there are still many places where "the purchasing manager controls everything, and the wine list is usually nothing to behold as a result." But Szabo adds that "you also have to realize that food and wine is not the primary focus of the business, which is in complete contrast to a standalone restaurant." Sommeliers: what do they know? Well, a lot. Most take courses run by the Court of Master Sommeliers or the Independent Wine Education Guild, both London-based and internationally recognized. Reaching Master level in either requires years of intensive study. Some sommeliers have attended two-year Oenology (the study of wine) courses at the community college level.

The Court of Master Sommeliers has an introductory course of two days of lectures and a short exam. It covers important winemaking regions, tasting analysis, and service, and some prior knowledge is essential. After a year or more of reading and wine tasting, you take a tasting, service and theory exam. Pass that, and you're a Certified Sommelier. Serious candidates take the Advanced Course, a big step up in depth of knowledge. Before the certification level was introduced, only about a quarter of people passed. "Some people were taking it three or four times before passing," says John Szabo. The final stage is Master Sommelier. It's tough: there are only 135 in the world. Szabo says "you pretty much have to be working in the business and live it day to day. There is just too much to know to approach it from the outside."

As public interest in wine grows, sommeliers are finding themselves more and more in demand. Hotels are noticing and the results are win-win. "The St. James in Montreal is a great example," says Szabo. "Until recently, the restaurant was an afterthought, but they realized it could be a profit-generating centre and they've now got a couple of great sommeliers managing the wine program, which is critical for generating profits." Not to mention great for sommelier career opportunities.

Canada's best sommelier?
Elyse Lambert won the Best Sommelier of Quebec competition the last two years running and is focused on winning Best Sommelier of Canada in September. Candidates write an exam, run the gamut of wine service to a table of "diners", blind-taste and guess two wines, identify six other spirits and aperitifs, and correct an error-strewn wine list. Lambert is a consultant sommelier at the 61-room Le St. James in Montreal with fellow sommelier Stephan Leroux, and her enthusiasm for and knowledge about wine is immediately obvious. "After a degree in communications, I studied hotel management. When I took my first wine course, I fell in love with everything about wine." Lambert's been learning ever since - taking a sommelier course at the École Hoteliere des Laurentides and attending lots of tastings.

Lambert worked in resort hotels in Quebec, including a spell at the legendary Auberge Hatley, which burnt down earlier this year. But life at Montreal's most chic boutique, which she joined in 2005, is different. "The international clientele at the St. James is very sophisticated. I try to figure out what they like. I go in the same direction, but I aim to give them something a little different. That's what they remember." Le St. James is a favourite among visiting celebrities, but Lambert fastidiously honours the hotel's policy of refusing to reveal who stays there. "I can tell you that the Rolling Stones stayed," she says, "because that's public knowledge now."

Lambert puts together a tasting menu with wines. "This is our real strength. Stephan and I have a lot of experience and we work closely with the chef." Lambert says "in a hotel, we have more people to consult regarding the wine list," but Lambert and her colleague Leroux have gained the confidence of management and are given generally free rein within their budget. "They trust what we are doing".

Whistler's wine whiz
Geoff Waddell started in the restaurant business as a teenager at Joe Fortes in Vancouver, got interested in the great wine list, and was rewarded with a trip to Napa, California. "I attended Sterling Vineyards School of Hospitality and I did what would be approximately a sommelier level two course. I loved it and knew for sure that I wanted to work with wine." After a few years with a B.C. brewery, Waddell joined the 419-room Westin Resort and Spa in Whistler as sommelier in 2004 and he'll "hopefully be a certified sommelier by next year." But lack of certification hasn't stopped Waddell from turning heads: in 2005, his first list for the Aubergine Grille won an "award of excellence" from prestigious Wine Spectator, the leading US wine magazine. "I'm very proud of that," he says, adding that he's just been notified that the restaurant has won another award this year.

Waddell manages both the Aubergine Grille's and the banqueting wine lists - over 250 wines. He works closely with the chefs on food pairings and keeps a beady eye on price points. "The banqueting component has serious budgetary restraints." Whistler attracts an international clientele and Waddell is proud to promote B.C. wines: "you see their brows start to furrow. They're sceptical. And then you lay this product on them and they're blown away by the quality." Waddell's top picks include Black Hills Nota Bene (a cab/merlot blend so good the winery sells out immediately), Vincor's Nk'mip riesling and Osooyos Larose (a superb blend of cab sauv and merlot and other Bordeaux grapes by talented winemaker Pascal Madevon).

Bright lights, big city
Sara D'Amato is sommelier at the 380-room Four Seasons in Toronto. She's from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. and her father is a professor at Laurentian University who specializes in the Marquis de Sade (!), "so on his sabbaticals we were in Avignon, close to a lot of important wine regions. I'd go to wine festivals with my parents." After high school in France, Sara got a BA at the University of Toronto then attended Niagara College's Oenology program, finishing first in her class in August 2005. She spoke at a gala awards dinner and, she says, "literally between getting off the podium and back to my seat, I had six job offers, including sommelier."

Sara's glad she accepted the Four Seasons - "The people are fantastic" - and for proof that a high-end hotel is the place to be for a sommelier, Sara says "I got to taste [Chateau] Pétrus with the owner of Pétrus (FYI, you can't buy a bottle for much less than $1,000). Next week the owners of Chateau Margaux are coming in. Winemakers from all over the world come. I love it." Sara lists over 400 wines, about 10% of which are Canadian. The international set represents about forty percent of the business at Truffles restaurant. "I love to introduce Canadian wine," says Sara. But, echoing Geoff Waddell in Whistler, she says "they can be very sceptical." Her current top picks? "Equuleus from Chateau des Charmes. I also love Osooyos Larose from B.C. Henry of Pelham's Cuvée Catherine [a sparkling chardonnay/pinot blend] is great, as is Cave Springs riesling."

Sara's confident too: "If someone is hesitant about my recommendation, I'll say 'if you don't like it I'll take it back and sell it by the glass'. I want people to trust me." And they do.

[Note: The published story was cut due to space constraints. This is the original version of the story with no cuts]


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