The Sommeliers Disease – The journey of a Rockstar wine advisor

You see them on your lunch breaks. They are the ones with their phones in their hands. Or they carry a copy of “The Oxford Companion to Wine” in their backpacks.

They are the ones who have a personal shopper card at stationary shops and can tell you when a shipment of flashcards has arrived.

If you know of anyone who displays these traits you have found someone suffering from the “Sommelier’s Disease” or Chasingthepinitis.

It starts as a mild fever whilst getting hooked on the basics. The average wine steward enjoys learning about the wines in front of them. They spit, slurp and smell with the best of them. They are happy to be able to sell wine and have a job to go to where they get to speak about one of the passions in life.

Then there are the others, like this author, who become obsessed and suffer from “The Sommelier’s Disease”.

It is a hard syndrome to shake once it takes hold and one that is even harder to admit too. There is no discernable antidote, except for maybe a bottle of mass produced, technically sound wine, produced by a wine farm from the new world. Just thinking of that kryptonite makes me shudder.

But what makes some one turn to “the pin side”? What posses someone to give up their social lives and sit in front of their iPad looking at ‘Brainscape’?…it’s a flashcard app, ask your somm mate, he gets it!!!

I can’t speak for the others in our exclusive club, but for me it was a thirst for knowledge. I was always the guy who sucked at pretty much every subject at school. However there was one teacher, Ms Meek, who had a morning general knowledge quiz. Suddenly the kid, who used to stick his hand up for 0 out of 10 for ‘Mental Maths,’ had found his calling.

For years I tried to find an outlet for knowing lots of shit about nothing. After searching for many years I stumbled upon the Hospitality Management Course at Adelaide TAFE, which no longer has a Hospo school…yeah their isn’t a skills shortage in this country…duh. But I digress.

Every Wednesday we would sit in a Fluro lit, poorly ventilated room and taste wines. Whilst my friend Daniel dreamt of the next Ford Falcon he was going to renovate and add a novelty horn, I was enthralled by Dr Pat, a retired Oenology professor would start the class by playing a game called “Red or White”. Basically he would mention a Vitis Vinifera varietal and you had to guess whether it was Red or White.

You could see this poor academic’s heart break, as people, like the aforementioned Daniel, would call a Sauvignon Blanc a red grape or Cabernet Sauvignon a white. I on the hand loved it and it was the only class I would be there on time and get a lot of answers right.

When I left TAFE I did the “right thing”. I had aspirations to become a Somm (thank you Trevor Maskel) but I didn’t follow this path. I took the well-travelled path of trying to get into upper management and make money. This suffocated me.

I took a break from the Hospo world and worked in a call centre. This killed me even more. But I started going to Cellar Doors on the weekends with my now ex. She would exclaim “you know more than them!!!” So when we broke up, and I had more time on my hands I took a job working in a cellar door.

My appetite for knowledge about Wine Making, Viticulture and the great wines of the world was never satisfied. All I did was read and watch and re-read anything I could get my hands on. This was then furthered when I met my mentor, Gill Gordon- Smith. This woman was (and still is) a powerhouse of a teacher on subjects related to wine. My thirst for knowledge, although quenched, still carried on.

Chassingthpinitis was coursing through my veins.

But how does one venture on this journey?

Well most probably through formal wine tuition, like Gill afforded me. There are some crazy, talented somms who are self taught. But the vast majority, myself included, need to seek some sort of formal qualifications. Luckily for us there are two fantastic institutions that can help you become the person in the Italian suit in the corner.

For my formal education I enlisted with the Wine Spirit Education Trust. It was by luck that I found them when searching on the Interweb. They have courses for Beginners (Level 1) right through to a two year Diploma. Although their courses were initially aimed at Wine Representatives and Wine Merchants, the courses they offer can provide an introduction to the great wines of the world and winemaking/ viticulture techniques. The Diploma is the final step on this journey before you branch out into the world of becoming a Master of Wine (yeah look them up, crazy peeps).

The other school of learning is the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS). This form of education is all based on self-study. This is the school of learning that is featured in the movie ‘Somm’ and the related television show ‘Uncorked’ (You Tube it, its pretty awesome). The self-study option offered by the CMS is a benefit for those who work in the heady world of hospitality. However can be a bit harder for those who like systematic learning. There are four levels associated with CMS certification: Introductory, Certified, Advanced and Master Sommelier (even crazier peeps because they don’t just have to know about wine, they also have to know about Sake, Spirits, Service…..the list goes on). The courses are only offered once a year…well, Introductory and Certified are, Advaned is currently offered in Australia, once every two years. When you are invited to sit your MS (Yes invited), you currently have to fly to London to complete it. However when you finally reach the summit of hospitality Everest, you will currently be one of four Master Sommeliers in the country. To give you an indication of the difficulty of the CMS course, I tried for my Certified last year, and failed. But that is the allure of CMS Certification: You have to prove to the MS who test you, that you are ready for any level. Next year I will give it another shot!!!

The other piece of advice I can offer is to find a good mentor. Try to do this as early in your career as is possible!!! A good mentor will steer you in the right direction, keep you motivated when you reach a road block in your tasting and learning, it will happen from time to time, and also open doors to the industry or networking possibilities .

A good mentor will also bring you down to size when you get a little cocky. It happens to all of us who suffer from chasingthepintis, but remember the world of wine is huge and having some knowledge is beneficial, but there is still a lot to learn even when you do become an MW or an MS…….so I have heard.

Stay Humble Friends and enjoy the journey.

By Jonathan Brook

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