“Restaurants in Atlanta have changed dramatically in the past 10 to 15 years,” writes Matt Bradford, wine director at Atlanta’s Canoe restaurant, in his application for Taste of Atlanta’s Best Sommelier Contest. “Much of this has been driven by an adoption of the “chef-driven” restaurant, highlighting the abilities of specific chefs.” Bradford went on to challenge Atlanta restaurants to elevate their beverage programs so they equal or surpass the culinary virtues of the kitchen.
And with that sentiment in mind, it can be argued that in the third week of October, 2011, Bradford’s vision the “sommelier-driven” restaurants became reality. In the course of a few short days, the city witnessed two seminal events that spotlighted Atlanta’s wealth of talented beverage service professionals.
On Oct. 20, Joon Lim of Kevin Rathbun Steak was crowned champion in a hard-fought Best Sommelier competition. Just prior to the Best Sommelier finals, The Court of Master Sommeliers, the world’s most demanding certification organization, announced that Justin Amick won its prestigious Rudd Scholarship and the $5,000 prize that comes with it. Amick, general manager and beverage director of Atlanta’s Parish Foods & Goods, scored highest of the 49 certified sommeliers taking the Court’s advanced exam, given in Seattle on Oct. 12-14.
“Merely passing the Court’s Advanced Exam is an accomplishment so few realize,” said Tim Gaiser, director of education for the Court of Master Sommeliers. “To earn the highest score is a feat beyond what most in this industry could ever achieve. It’s certainly a sign that Justin has a very rare talent and capacity for knowledge.”
Two days after the Rudd Scholarship announcement, Amick was sitting on a prestigious panel of judges assembled at Davio’s restaurant in Phipps Plaza. The two other judges were Michael McNeil, education director for Quality Wine & Spirits and Georgia’s only Master Sommelier, and Eric Crane, director of training and business development for Empire Distributors, who, like Amick, holds the Court’s advanced certification. The judges carefully watched as Lim, Bradford, Jacob Gragg of Aria and Robert Evans of Davio’s display their mad sommelier skills, nail ferociously difficult questions and identify wines merely by tasting them. I was honored to be the master of ceremonies for the evening.
The four contestants on stage represented the top finalists from a grueling preliminary round that saw more than a dozen beverage servers compete earlier in the week. Evans, Bradford, Lim and Gragg hold a ridiculous number of honors and certifications. Lim and Bradford passed the Court’s advanced certification exam earlier this year.
As a small aside here, it must be mentioned that Gragg is merely 23 years old. This fact makes the other more seasoned competitors green with envy, as green as the advanced certification lapel pins given out by the Court of Master Sommeliers.
Later in the evening, after the congratulations for Joon were winding down a bit, I stood with this pod of gentlemen with green advanced certification pins. Most of them, I believe, will not be wearing the green pin very long. There is a palpable energy among these active, engaged wine minds. Their collective goal is the red lapel pin of the Master Sommelier, the ultimate wine certification. In the next two to three years, we will see an unprecedented number of certified Master Sommeliers from Atlanta. This will substantially raise the bar for beverage programs in the city and position Atlanta on the map as one of the nation’s best places for wine, beer and spirits service.
Bradford, the runner up to Lim, summed up this git-r-done attitude as we chatted after the finals competition. Far from being crestfallen for coming in second, Bradford forcefully stated just how much more determined he is to up his game through study, travel and renewed emphasis on wine tasting. “Next year, I don’t want to come back and compete. I am coming back to win.”
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a wine consultant for Tower Beer, Wine & Spirits. You can reach him at email@example.com.