20 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY october 19-25, 2023 www.montereycountyweekly.com This isn’t a story with a happy ending—not just yet. In September at The Post Oak Hotel in Houston, Birkemeier again fell below the required 75 percent in both service and tasting. He now finds himself in a familiar place, where “almost” exists in its most tangible form, both within and beyond one’s grasp. But he also remains resolute in his quest. “One year I was really torn up about it,” Birkemeier admits. “This year—I don’t feel devastated. It almost seems inevitable that I’d get to this point.” Few candidates pass all three parts of the master sommelier exam on their first try. Three or more is the norm, although many give up after a few attempts. It can be a costly endeavor, with travel to distant cities like Houston or St. Louis, and the schedule of fees. Although there are scholarships available (and Birkemeier has earned assistance in the past), each step of the test comes with an entry fee of close to $1,000. Cost is one of the reasons a Court of Master Sommeliers Americas was created, thanks in part to the influence of Ted Balestreri of the Sardine Factory in Monterey. Before the late 1980s, candidates from the U.S. had to travel overseas for the exam. “I said, ‘We can’t afford to send people to London,’” Balestreri recalls. “My dream was for all the fine dining restaurants in the U.S. to have a master sommelier, but I can’t live long enough for enough of them to pass.” The men and women who attempt the test are already accomplished, having reached level three—Advanced Sommelier—to become eligible. Failure can be difficult to accept, and most of them fail. “Some of the angriest people I’ve met are people who have failed the test,” says Chris Miller of Seabold Cellars winery, who earned the Master Sommelier title in 2012. “It’s very difficult on people.” When Miller passed the master sommelier exam in Dallas, he was the beverage director at a restaurant with two Michelin stars. Every day involved tasting, serving, learning the wine regions and strengths or weaknesses of each vintage. In other words, his job essentially was practice for the test. Even so, Miller failed on his first attempt. “You have to have a very good day—that’s the unfortunate part,” the winemaker points out. “You have to be really on it.” Tasting has been Birkemeier’s nemesis throughout the process. The test is a blind tasting of six wines, three reds and three whites. In the 25 minutes of total time allotted— or about four minutes for each wine— master sommelier hopefuls must ascertain almost 50 impressions about each one before coming to a conclusion on which of the world’s countless wines they are sipping. Keep in mind that wine is an elusive target. Winemakers fuss over their product, playing with different barrels and techniques. The flavors of a varietal from one vineyard can change year to year, depending upon the weather. And there are about 65,000 wineries around the world. It’s a lot to keep track of. “The test throws you curveballs,” Birkemeier says. “I’ve seen so many really great sommeliers not pass this test. I’ve seen people younger than me flame out.” When he last missed the cut on tasting in 2019, Birkemeier learned that he correctly identified the reds, but whiffed on the three whites. So in preparation for the 2023 exam, he relied on the grid. The grid is a sheet of paper divided into four categories. The first three are sight, aroma and palate, each subdivided into eight to 22 line items that clarify such details as color variation around the rim, whether or not the vines grew in organic soil, condition of the fruit at harvest, as well as points of bouquet and flavor. A final category nails down the candidate’s conclusion. Before the judges, they must state the varietal, the vintage, the origin of the wine, right down to its narrow appellation, or growing region, and the climate that particular year. In the past, Birkemeier would spend day after day preparing for the exam by tasting blindly, essentially replicating test conditions—a logical approach, but one with a flaw. “What it doesn’t get you is a deliberate look at the wine itself,” he points out. Birkemeier discovered that in such a setting, he tended to focus on visual, aromatic and flavor cues. What he overlooked was the need to understand characteristics common to the varietal and its terroir. So, he adds, “getting it wrong doesn’t help you get it right the next time.” Sitting at a table in the Amapola dining room a few hours before the restaurant opens for lunch on that April morning, Birkemeier is intent on four wines, turning to the whites first. One is a Chardonnay from France, the other an Australian Riesling. Birkemeier compares them against the white background of paper. A thin ring of bubbles indicates that one is probably from a screw top bottle. An almost imperceptible lime green hue on the fringe of the other suggests a young wine, perhaps new world in origin. There is a reason for everything perceived in a wine. As one progresses, it becomes possible to catch the impressions left by growth in organic soil or the techniques used by a particular winemaker. “This was aged in a barrel,” Birkemeier observes, holding a red wine against the white paper. “Not the usual barrel, but a big vat,” noting by the color how little contact the juice had with wood. He refers to this side-by-side tasting as a binary comparison, using this approach as he studied almost daily through the spring months. At the end of June he brings out an aroma kit full of tiny glass vessels, each releasing a different scent. There are 54 scents in the kit, and Birkemeier has been known to rummage through craft stores for candle-making kits with aromas that are not packed inside Le Nez Du Vin—not ideal, he adds, because “they stink up the house.” On this morning he is nitpicking the differences between Chablis and Albariño. As he leans toward a vial, he notes “If you have a Chablis with new oak, you might get some toast.” The grid is a safety net, forcing those studying for the exam to consider visual, aromatic and flavor cues—quickly—before making a firm decision. There’s a risk if you jump to a conclusion too soon on, say, the flavor profile, that you start to paint a picture that’s not really there. So the grid aids in refinement. “You begin to lock in what those wines are,” Birkemeier says. Turning to the grid, he goes into meticulous detail, in this case with a Pinot Noir in hand. The wine is ruby in color, with highlights ranging from garnet to pink. The flavors are developing toward full maturity, with a “I’ ve seen people younger than me flame out.” Throughout the year, Birkemeier takes a few minutes during a day to test his palate. Here he takes notes on the grid, a paper that helps dissect and define a wine. Daniel Dreifuss