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When Too Much Wine Knowledge Is Not Enough

Gil Kulers

Gil Kulers, CWE

Not an uncommon sight to see Eric Crane at a wine seminar, like this one on Australian wines.

Not an uncommon sight: Eric Crane attending a wine seminar, like this one on Australian wines.

Eric Crane is a frequent troller of internet wine chat sites. Every now and then, he crosses paths with a self-professed wine expert. To whom he says in a post:

“No, you’re not.”

Crane, director of training and business development for Atlanta’s Empire Distributors, knows enough to be certain that expertise on the subject of wine is an elusive fantasy. Crane and two other Atlanta wine non-experts, Matt Olson and Chris Gaither, have a unique perspective on wine mastery. They were finalists in the regional Top Somm—The U.S. Sommelier Championship held in The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., in early April.

To get an invitation to Palm Beach, the three had to pass a preliminary test: 30 minutes and 76 questions like: What is the German term for monopole? List the five sub-regions of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. What are the minimum aging requirements for quality Romanian wine? (For more mind-numbing questions from the qualifying exam, see the quiz below.)

Remember, these were just the entry-level questions. In Palm Beach, the questions got harder, plus there was a daunting wine identification (three red/three white) section and a practical service exam that required on-the-spot wine recommendations for an unusual array of dishes.

Crane came in third out of 10 contestants from the Southeast, just missing the finals that will pit the top-two finishers from the five U.S. regions. Olson, the Southeast regional manager Eric Solomon wine importers, and Gaither, formerly Restaurant Eugene’s sommelier, were just happy to represent Atlanta.

Gaither was unavailable for comment as he is just starting his internship at The French Laundry in Napa Valley, Calif. Many apply, but few get the chance to work with the wine staff at what many consider to be the best restaurant in America.

To get as far as Crane, Olson and Gaither did at Top Somm takes years of practice and study. Crane and Olson, for example, gather weekly with a small group of tasters who want to be able to identify wines without the help a label. I sat down with Crane and Olson one recent morning just after their tasting at Canoe restaurant in Vinings to find out why anyone would want to put themselves through such trouble and expense.

“You never know how good you are until you are pushed to the limits of your capabilities,” Olson said. “I always knew I didn’t know everything and now I really know what I don’t know.” Undaunted, Olson wants to someday hold two of the highest credentials in the wine word—master of wine and master sommelier. Currently, there are four people in the world with both distinctions given by the Court of Master Sommeliers. The Top Somm competition is sponsored by the U.S. Court of Master Sommeliers and is geared to spotlight talented wine industry professionals and give others a taste of what the withering MW and MS exams are like.

Crane already holds a high-level credential, certified wine educator, with the Society of Wine Educators. This took him 18 months of study and two tries at the exam. He also is currently on his way toward his MS certification. In late April, he travelled to Anaheim, Calif., to try his hand at the advanced sommelier examination. Pass all three parts of the advanced exam (theory, wine identification and service skills, much like Top Somm) and Crane would likely be invited to sit for the M.S. exam. Merely two in 10 ever pass the advanced exam, for which Crane has studied intensively for 12 months; fewer still pass it on their first try.

“It’s fun,” laughs Crane.  “It is painfully fun, but it gives you a barometer to where you are. [Advanced certification] is there, why not go for it?”

Aside from giving Crane a gauge of his wine smarts, the avowed Deadhead and Phish Phan enjoys seeing so many young faces in the industry exploring wine in a such serious way by attempting these viciously demanding exams and contests. It is a measure of the rising level of wine appreciation that now exists in the United States, Crane said. Advanced wine knowledge was once thought to be the property of Europe, especially England, home to the Court of Master Sommeliers. More Americans, like Crane, Olson and Gaither, are proving they can stand among the world’ foremost wine authorities.

With so much wine knowledge swimming in his head, can Crane still just enjoy a glass of wine?

Almost at loss for words, which is unusual for the 38-year-old Roswell resident, Crane sputters out: “Wine is delicious! Knowing a lot about it is not going to make a bad wine taste better and it is not going to make a good wine taste worse.” But Crane understands the implication of such questions. Advanced certification hangs like an albatross around the necks of quite a few wine professionals.

“Some people develop a hatred for [wine],” Crane said. “People forget why they wanted to get into this industry in the first place. [Wine] is an ancient beverage that people have enjoyed around the world since time began. It helps us to educate ourselves, so we can help educate others enjoy the beauty of wine.”

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Eric Crane passed the advanced sommelier exam on his first try. Fewer than 10 percent of test takers pass on their first attempt.]

Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator with the Society of Wine Educators and teaches in-home wine classes. You can reach him at Gil.Kulers@WineKulers.com.

SO YOU WANT TO BE A TOP SOMMELIER?

Think you know a lot about wine? Well, if you can answer the questions below, loosely based on those used in the Top Somm—The U.S. Sommelier Championship, you may have a future in the wine industry. Answers can be found below.

1. What is Patamares?

A. Vineyard management/trellising system used in Portugal.

B. Italian term for “farm” or “estate.”

C. Spanish for the indentation on the bottom of a sparkling wine bottle.

D. A red wine grape grown throughout southern Portugal.

2. Where is Mantinia?

A. Bio Bio, Chile

B. La Mancha, Spain

C. Peloponnese, Greece

D. La Salta, Argentina

3. What is the minimum Oechsle for German spätlese?

A. 35 Brix

B. 75 Baumes

C. 25 Percent

D. 76 Degrees

4. What is deblocage?

A. The release of reserved base wines to be used in production of Champagne.

B. The sediment found in a decanting funnel.

C. The step when sediment is removed during the traditional sparkling winemaking process.

D. Process used in southern France in which fermented wines are placed in casks containing lees from a prior batch of wines.

ANSWERS: 1-A; 2-C; 3-D; 4-A

3 comments Add your comment

Bill

May 5th, 2010
9:16 pm

The premise: expertise on the subject of wine is an elusive fantasy. Okay if that is true and if you follow that premise to its logical conclusion then no one could be an “expert” on any subject.

Gil Kulers

May 6th, 2010
9:23 am

Bill, that is exactly the point and I think any “expert” would agree. When you dive into a subject as broad and complex as wine (or any subject) with the idea that you will eventually know all, you quickly realize that knowing everything is unrealistic. I think some folks, upon this realization, become bitter and perhaps angry at the subject matter itself. True expertise is an enigma outfitted with slippery handles.

Lisa

May 7th, 2010
1:30 pm

I think I will just keep drinking what tastes good to me.