10-19-23

www.montereycountyweekly.com october 19-25, 2023 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY 19 Four stemmed glasses, a paper cup and two bags containing wine bottles wait on a table in an empty Salinas restaurant. It’s a clear, sharp, lateApril morning, and Jeffrey Birkemeier settles into a chair and gazes for a moment at the arrangement. He has a couple of sheets of plain white paper to serve as a neutral backdrop as he checks the color of each wine. There is also a printed chart—a grid in his terminology—on which he can note the finer points of clarity, aroma and flavor. Birkemeier’s exercise is part of a routine that continues through much of the year. The owner of Amapola Kitchen & Wine Merchant on Gabilan Street already reached the level of advanced sommelier. Before that he became a certified sommelier. He served as beverage director for Casanova in Carmel and wine manager at Pebble Beach’s Stave Wine Cellar before opening his wine-centric restaurant and shop—which is to say he knows quite a bit about the subject. But there is one goal that continues to elude him. “Being a great blind taster doesn’t come naturally to me,” he admits with a note of resignation. “It’s the part of the test I’ve never passed.” For a decade, Birkemeier has been in dogged pursuit of the master sommelier title, bestowed by the Court of Master Sommeliers through a grueling evaluation. The Master Sommelier Diploma Examination has a reputation for frustrating the hopes of many a wine expert. On average, only 8 percent of those who attempt to scale all three stages of the exam are accepted into the court—a coveted honor currently held by just 273 people worldwide. Birkemeier made his first attempt in 2013. “I got blown out of the water,” he says, recalling the moment when he first entered a hotel conference room in Dallas with naive confidence. “I knew the answers, but I just couldn’t remember.” He tried again three years later and was back in 2017, when he finally made progress by passing the theory portion of the three-part trial. As Birkemeier prepared for the 2023 exam, the clock was ticking. Acing theory once again in 2021 gave him three years, by rules of the court, to successfully complete the next two sections, service and tasting. By April, he felt good about his progress. For months he had been flipping through stacks of flash cards, poring over books such as Message in a Bottle: A Guide for Tasting Wine by master sommelier Tim Glaiser, and challenging his palate. And he still had three months before traveling to Houston for the test. “It’s a year-round process,” he says of studying. “Post exam is a recovery, but you have to get right back into it.” The examination probes a person’s depth of knowledge, their ability to think quickly and show poise under pressure and, of course, the dexterity of their palate. A test of theoretical familiarity comes first—a verbal exchange of 100 questions in 50 minutes, covering anything from laws governing alcoholic beverages in different countries to the growing conditions favored by grape varieties to methods of distillation. The topics venture from wine to include spirits, beer and cider. Passing this portion of the exam moves hopefuls to the next steps—service and tasting. During the former, they tend to a table of masters who lob real-life scenarios: Which wine pairs with grilled swordfish in an apricot glaze? I like dry reds but my partner prefers sweet whites, what is a good compromise? Hey, your waiter brought the wrong wine, what kind of joint are you running here? At the same time, they scrutinize your choice of stemware, the way you pour and other technical details. Birkemeier has passed both theory and service in previous attempts. But Covid-19 suspended operations for 2020, and Birkemeier was forced to start over, taking theory again in 2021 to reset the clock. “It’s taken longer than I expected, but the process rewards resilience,” he explains. “I’m kind of stubborn.” Jeffrey Birkemeier’s preparation for the master sommelier examination involves several different exercises, including flashcards that prompt him to tick off the qualities or particular wines, growing regions and other details. Here he compares a selection of varietals, learning the visual and aromatic clues that distinguish one from another. On a printed grid, Birkemeier notes his impression of such details as the suspected condition of the fruit at harvest, the type of soil the vines grew in and the fermentation process, all culled from sight, smell and taste. “There’ s nothing in the world but you and the wine.” Daniel Dreifuss

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