I am often asked what led me to become a sommelier.
When I think back on it, my fascination with wine developed once I learned how to properly taste it.
It happened when I was 22, on a solo trip to visit my aunt and uncle, owners of Whitewater Hill Vineyards & Winery in Grand Junction, Colorado.
I arrived in the early evening, just in time for the sunset and dinner. Their house sits in the Picturesque Grand Valley, surrounded by vineyards and fruit trees, with views of the Grand Mesa in the distance. As I pulled up into their long driveway I remembered visiting them as a girl, and going on tractor rides around the vineyard with my cousins. We would pick the fattest looking grapes and chew them up to release their sweet juices before spitting out the tough skins and pits. On this return trip, as an adult, I would be able to taste the wine that comes from those grapes.
After a cheerful welcome and big hugs, I helped set the dinner table and gazed out of the tall bay windows that overlook their vineyards. Soon, my uncle John walked in from the deck with a plate of juicy steaks and peppers, hot off the grill. My aunt Nancy placed a bottle of their 2004 Shiraz on the table that had been opened earlier that day at the winery. She then opened another bottle of wine that she bought at their local wine store. It was also a Shiraz, but this one was from Australia. I was surprised at the time to see that successful winemakers who produce a variety of wine (and have plenty of it!), would drink and pay for wine from anywhere else. I was also surprised that they would open a new bottle of the same wine, another Shiraz. They explained to me that while they enjoy the wine they produce, they also like to have wine from other regions of the world. It’s good for them to taste other wines to ‘keep their palates on their toes’, so to speak.
…Tasting wine this way made it so much more interesting!
We dished up our plates and my aunt poured each of us two glasses, with their Whitewater Hill Shiraz in one and the Australian Shiraz in another. I asked if she would teach me how to properly taste them and she happily obliged. She and my uncle walked me through swirling, sniffing and sipping, explaining what to look for in each step of the way. We picked out aromas of blackberries, chocolate, black pepper and spice. They taught me about the mouth-drying sensation of tannin and the mouth-watering sensation of acidity. We compared the two wines side by side, and I was astonished at how different they were, even though they came from the same grape variety. I realized that until then I had never paid much attention to the wine in my glass. Tasting wine this way made it so much more interesting!
I became entranced with the world of wine…
Fast forward 10 years (ok, ok, 11 years), and now I am the host who will often pour my guests 2 glasses of wine so that they too, can taste the subtle differences. This is a tool that I find to be the most helpful when learning to taste wines. It is what opened my eyes to the big (and subtle) differences to the same grape grown in different parts of the world and vinified by different winemakers. It is what intrigued me to read The Wine Bible and learn about different wine regions and wine styles. It is what led me to eventually pursue my Sommelier certification. In short, I became entranced with the world of wine.
There truly is a fascinating world of wine out there with so much to explore. Through wine I discovered new places to visit and new reasons for visiting. My fascination is not just with the wine, but also the food, culture, landscape and the overall feel of the land. After researching a wine region, I love putting together a themed dinner night to really solidify what I have learned. This means experimenting with traditional recipes and of course, opening up a bottle of wine (or two) from that specific region. When done well, wine and food have a magical way of giving you the feel of a place through your senses. With a little imagination, you really feel like you are there.
In some cases, my fascination grew and grew. The themed dinners became more and more frequent, until I had to go experience it for myself. Italy is one of those places, and it has not disappointed. There are 20 distinct regions in Italy, each with their unique wines and food. Of the regions I have visited, Piedmont is the shining star that really stands out to me. It is one of those magical places for food and wine lovers. It has pulled me back each year, for the past three years. Each time I am more convinced that it is an enchanted land that exceeds all culinary and wine sensory expectations.
So when people ask me how it was that I got into wine, I attribute it to my talented aunt Nancy and uncle John, for teaching me how to truly taste the wine in my glass. Since that day I have been traveling the world, sip by sip.