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Wine service grows up

Want in on the food world's hottest career? The master sommelier exam awaits -- good luck.

December 12, 2007|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

MASSAGE therapists, bellmen and valets aren't the people you'd expect to sit through a rigorous 10-month wine course. But in Southern California, the race is on to gain certification as a sommelier and get a foot in the door of one of today's hottest careers.

Los Angeles has long struggled to attract top sommeliers. But now as the area's restaurant scene matures and restaurateurs elevate wine service to match the standards of their cuisine, salaries for sommeliers are soaring. And a new generation of ambitious wine professionals eager for a leg up in a suddenly competitive industry is seeking membership in the Court of Master Sommeliers, an elite organization that selects its members through a series of rigorous examinations.

It's attracting more than just seasoned pros such as the sommeliers who meet weekly at Wolfgang Puck's Cut restaurant in Beverly Hills to study for the tests. Thanks to employer encouragement and subsidies, rank-and-file hospitality workers are cracking the wine books as well.

The evolution of a serious regional wine culture relies on senior sommeliers willing to teach those less experienced. An entry-level course with 40 students at Disneyland's Napa Rose restaurant looks ultra-democratic. But the highly politicized Court of Master Sommeliers invites just some students, not all, to advance through the process. Even then, the London-based organization's final exam has a 97% failure rate.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, December 15, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Master sommeliers: A Dec. 12 Food section article on the local community of sommeliers said there were no master sommeliers in Los Angeles County. It did not mention Elizabeth Schweitzer, a master sommelier living in Monrovia. She works as an educator and writes reviews for Wine of the Month Club.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, December 19, 2007 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Master sommeliers: A Dec. 12 article on the local community of sommeliers stated that there are no master sommeliers in Los Angeles County. It did not mention Elizabeth Schweitzer, a master sommelier living in Monrovia. She works as an educator and writes reviews for Wine of the Month Club.

That elitist approach has had cachet in San Francisco, Las Vegas and, to a lesser extent, New York City. But not in Southern California, where self-taught sommeliers have been the heart of an eclectic and informal wine culture. That lack of formal training can lend an appealing, unpretentious ambience to restaurant wine service.

Yet, as diners experience all too often, it has also made it possible for hobbyists with no more than a subscription to Robert Parker's Wine Advocate and the ability to babble to masquerade as sommeliers.


The final stretch

NOW there is a critical mass of potential master ommeliers in the region. As many as a dozen local wine professionals plan to take the final exam when it is offered in February.

The four experienced sommeliers who study together at Cut -- Mark Mendoza from Sona Restaurant, Cara Bertone with Water Grill, Paul Sherman of Valentino and Dana Farner with Cut -- range in age from their late 20s to early 50s and have each decided to push their expertise to the next level.

Los Angeles County has been home to only an occasional master sommelier and has none now. So these four help one another. The men have passed the advanced-level test and are preparing for the final exam, while the women are working toward their advanced certification, the third step in the four-step process.

Orange County boasts two master sommeliers. One, Michael Jordan, general manager of Disneyland's Napa Rose restaurant at the Grand Californian Hotel, passed the test last month. As he worked his own way through the program, Jordan coached 280 Disneyland employees through the entry-level sommelier test. Of that group, 50 have advanced to intermediate and six have passed the advanced level.

At Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach, wine director Christopher Coon has taught the entry-level course to 76 of the hotel's employees while he's been studying for February's final exam. The MS certification program is "more meaningful than ever," says Kevin O'Connor, wine director of Spago in Beverly Hills. O'Connor never bothered to earn his master sommelier certificate, he says, because the program was little known in the 1990s when he was building his career.

But now, when he hires young sommeliers, O'Connor says he looks for people who have had formal MS training. "There is so much heat around wine these days," he says. "There needs to be some standard to judge whether one wine person is better than another, some bar to clear."

The Court of Master Sommeliers, founded in 1969, is the best known and among the most highly regarded wine service educational organizations. It established an American chapter in 1986, and 87 of the 158 master sommeliers certified worldwide have been Americans.

It can take a sommelier years to matriculate through the four levels of the master sommelier program. The introductory course ($495 for the test) is designed for restaurant servers and anyone who needs a basic understanding of wine. The intermediate ($295) and advanced level tests ($895), which require extensive memorization and experience serving wine, must be passed before a candidate is eligible to be invited to take the final exam ($800).

With its extraordinary failure rate, candidates expect to take the final test several times. When Montage's Coon sits for the February exam, it will be his sixth attempt. Napa Rose's Jordan passed on his fourth try.


Factoring in cost

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