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MASTERING WINE

Area sommeliers take the ultimate wine lover’s journey.

WRITTEN BY HEIDI BETHEL
PHOTOS BY MICHAEL OKIMOTO

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Picture this … You’re sitting next to a cozy fireplace at your favorite restaurant on the shore of Lake Tahoe while enjoying an opulent glass of pinot noir. As each sip grazes your palate, do you envision the region in which the grapes were grown or how the terroir has affected this particular vintage? And do you notice the subtle notes of vanilla, licorice, tobacco, and clove that often comprise the pinot noir profile?

These are some of the questions sommeliers ask themselves each time they try a new wine. And Reno-Tahoe boasts some true talent when it comes to vino expertise. The road to accreditation can be as winding as the grape vines they study, but true enthusiasts carry a passion for the details and esteemed customer service.

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Grapes of class

The Court of Master Sommeliers was established in 1977 to promote excellence in hotel and restaurant beverage service. Since then, it has developed a four-tier certification program, including an introductory sommelier course and exam, certified sommelier exam, advanced sommelier course and exam, and, finally, the master sommelier diploma exam. Currently, there are only 227 candidates who have earned the Master Sommelier Diploma, the ultimate professional credential anyone can attain worldwide.

While master sommelier may be the coveted title, the other certificates are no easy feat, explains Elise Vandenberg, general manager at chez louie in the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno and wine director at Local Food Group (Campo, Reno Provisions, and chez louie), as well as a certified sommelier.

“During the certified sommelier test, you first walk into a deductive tasting test, where they give you one glass of white wine and one glass of red,” Vandenberg says. “By observing what it looks, smells, and tastes like, you make the final conclusion, including the grape varietal, region, and vintage. If you can name the producer, it’s amazing.”

In addition to the blind tasting, candidates take a written theory examination and service practical, where they must demonstrate either a standard wine, champagne, or decanting service.

“During the service part, they have you serve a table of people while they fire questions at you,” she recalls. “I was asked several, but the one that sticks out was to name a fortified wine other than port.”

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Imbibing intrigue

In 2000, Steve Sanchez found himself working in the Bay Area, learning from a wine importer. He quickly developed a fondness for Italian wines and yearned to experience the vast array of bottled provisions from around the globe.

“I wanted to taste as many wines as I could get my hands on,” Sanchez says. “I found it all very interesting, and over the years it became something I just couldn’t stop pursuing.”

Sanchez now holds a certified sommelier title and pours many of his favorites at the charming Cafe at Adele’s in Carson City.

As for Travis Masten, certified sommelier for Manzanita restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, he was drawn to the profession through his love of maps.

“The key is you have to be a bit of a nerd,” Masten explains. “I went to flight school and found that there’s no better sport to mix with wine drinking than trying to figure out where it came from. It makes it so much more fun!”

He adds that his knack for absorbing, cataloguing, and recalling information quickly always helps. He also enjoys the performance aspects.

“You have to be a bit of a showman and like to get in front of a group of people to help educate them,” he says.

For those wine aficionados who want to learn more, Haley Stuart, owner of Bighorn Bar & Grill in Reno and wine consultant for Whispering Vine Wine Co. in Reno, recommends the introductory sommelier course and exam.

“It’s very broad and a great entrance into the world of sommeliers,” Stuart says. “The two-day class is educational. It teaches how to be a phenomenal wine purveyor and gives confidence in talking about high-quality products.

“For any wine lover,” she says, “this is definitely a way to step it up.”

And sip it up, to boot!

Heidi Bethel is a freelance writer who enjoys a glass of wine with friends. A former bartender and now owner of Bethel Communication and Events, she knows a thing or two about the beverage scene and loves to tell people all about it.

Wintry wine picks

Looking for a great wine this winter? Here are a few favorites from the experts. You can find them on their wine menus, at local wine shops, or online.

Elise Vandenberg
Campo Reno
50 N. Sierra St., Reno
775-737-9555, http://www.camporeno.com
Recommendations:
- 2011 Barolo DOCG by Beni di Batasiolo in Northwestern Italy. $35. Also available at http://www.internetwines.com
- Barbera D’alba DOC “Donna Margherita” 2011 by Azienda Agricola Giovanni Rosso in Northwest Italy. $19. Also available at http://www.thesortingtable.com   

Steve Sanchez
Cafe at Adele’s
1112 N. Carson St., Carson City
775-882-3353, http://www.adelesrestaurantandlounge.com  
Recommendations:
Old Ghost Old Vine Zinfandel by Klinker Brick Winery in Lodi, Calif. $37. Also available at http://www.klinkerbrickwinery.com
La Segreta Bianco White Blend by Planeta in Southern Italy. $12. Also available at http://www.wine-searcher.com

Travis Masten
Manzanita restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe
13031 Ritz Carlton Highlands Court, Truckee
530-562-3050, http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/properties/laketahoe
Recommendations:
Abstract Red Blend by Orin Swift Cellars in Amador County, Calif. $33. Also available at http://www.wine-searcher.com
IL Bruciato Bolgheri DOC by Tenuta Guado al Tasso in Northwest Italy. $36. Also available at http://www.winewinehouse.com

Haley Stuart
Bighorn Bar & Grill
1325 W. Seventh St., Reno, 775-787-1177
Whispering Vine Wine Co.
4201 W. Fourth St., Reno, 775-786-1323
3886 Mayberry Drive, Reno, 775-787-WINE
85 Foothill Road, Reno, 775-622-8080
http://www.whisperingvinewine.com
Recommendations:
2012 Pinot Noir by Panthea Estate Vineyard in Anderson Valley, Calif. $55. Also available at http://www.pantheawine.com
Rouge de Noirs Sparkling Pinot by Schug Carneros Estate in Sonoma, Calif. $35. Also available at http://www.shop.schugwinery.com

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