Frasca, vi voglio bene.

March 20, 2011 § 1 Comment

I hope I got the Italian right. Apparently there are a few ways to say “I love you” in Italy. Grant (pictured far right) can correct me if I’m wrong. I can’t thank Bobby, Matt, Grant and the rest of the crew enough for letting me tag along this week to learn about wine & life as a sommelier. It’s been my favorite week yet.

There were 3 main areas I set out to explore with this project: personal interests, local/community and craft. Sommelier week was definitely the trifecta.

1) personal interest: I’ve always loved wine, but this week took it to a whole new level. Wine became much more special to me because Bobby & Matt taught me how to learn about it, not just enjoy it. I think a lot of times we’re so used to things being spelled out for us we don’t even have to think about them on our own terms. Even in the case of wine, it’s been assigned grades that tells us if it’s supposedly good or not. This week I learned how to start making my own assessment and I began to learn how to understand wine, making it much more personal. I think the life of a sommelier is fascinating because it’s an ongoing exploration of how the world is expressed through wine, which in many ways is constant but in other ways is constantly changing, always keeping it interesting.

2) local: Frasca meaning “branch” is a generic Friulian term for a casual restaurant often attached to a winery. It’s typically the neighborhood place for good food & wine. In Boulder, Frasca always delivers an incredible dining experience. Getting to hang out to see how it works firsthand and how the sommeliers there think about wine has given me a new appreciation for why Frasca is so special. Not only did I learn so much from them, but they made me feel like part of the family. It was another experience that brings me closer to becoming part of the community of Boulder.

3) craft: I’ve mentioned the book Shopclass as Soulcraft a few times now which talks about the value of work that involves learning a trade. When you think of sommeliers, I think some might think of it as an elitist profession, but this week I saw the pure craft of it. In the book, Michael Crawford says craftsmanship might simply be the desire to do something well for its own sake. He quotes the philosopher Hannah Arendt, “The reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced, and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors.” I think the sommelier is dedicated to understanding that permanence of wine, the craft of it, and is devoted to communicating that to others. I think it’s why so many sommeliers go on to make their own wine. It brings them one step closer.

This is a hard week to move on from, but the good thing is that I’ve now incorporated a new way to appreciate wine. I don’t know where it will lead, but I’m definitely hooked. It is like a giant puzzle & I’m now obsessed with understanding how all the pieces fit together.

blindly tasting wine vs blind tasting

March 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

After spending a week with sommeliers I realize I’ve been blindly tasting wine. I’ve enjoyed wine but I’ve never really employed my senses to understand what it is & what makes certain wines more special than others. This week I learned a lot more about evaluating wine by spending time with sommeliers as they did blind tastings. Blind tastings are a key aspect of how a sommelier becomes a sommelier. They help them hone their evaluation skills and are also the key component of the certification exam. To pass you are presented with 6 wines that you have to verbally evaluate. correctly identifying their characteristics (and in advanced levels the wines themselves) in 25 minutes. The scoring gets harder as you advance. 95% of people fail the Master Sommelier exam.

The first blind tasting I observed was at Frasca with Matt Mather and Grant Reynolds. Matt is going for his Master Sommelier certification soon and Grant is going for the Advanced level. Multiple times a week they practice tasting with each other with one person tasting & verbally describing the wines while the other follows along taking notes. It’s a process of identification and elimination that has its own cadence & language. Matt said the hardest part of it is that you have 2 minds competing with each other – the one that’s trying to evaluate things on face value and the one that might be forcing it a bit. You have to try to continue to force your mind, senses and palate to be objective and to look for the benchmarks that will reveal the wine.

I also paid a visit to the Boulder Wine Merchant this week to watch a blind tasting between their team and Frasca’s crew. Community is important for sommeliers. It’s how they learn from each other and stay on top of what they do. They had 3 different stations combining people with various levels from those looking to pass the sommelier exam to Brett as a Master Sommelier.

After watching these guys, I thought it would be fun to try it on my own, so Brett put together 2 whites and 2 reds for my husband and I to practice with. We are so lucky to have such a great wine shop in our neighborhood. Our level of knowledge of what different varietals should reveal is pretty low, but the exercise itself just gets to you focus in more on what it is you’re seeing, smelling and tasting in a way you can’t when you know what something is already. John correctly identified the Sancerre while I correctly identified the second white as from California, although I thought it was Chardonnay when it was viognier. (It smelled like vanilla oak to me).

Not only was this a lot of fun to do, but we learned a lot from the mistakes we made. After we revealed the wines, we read up on them and learned the cues we should be picking up from them. I’ll only caution that this can be pretty addictive if you like wine.

I think I might be hooked.

have sommelier, will travel

March 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Last year my husband and I went to Champagne & Burgundy on our honeymoon to France. It was a special trip I’ll always treasure. This May, we’re going to Italy and I’m looking forward to seeing the vineyards of some of the fantastic wines I’ve been introduced to this week. We’re also going to check out Slovenia and Croatia where some very interesting wines are being produced.

Travel has always been in my blood. I think it’s one of the reasons I love coffee and wine so much. They have “place” and reflect the nuances of that place.  I wish I had the time and money to be able to visit all the great vineyards in the world, but in lieu of that I can enjoy a great wine that can transport me there.

The question is: where to go?

The answer? Ask a sommelier. A sommelier’s craft is not only to know great wines but to also understand where they come from. They travel extensively to wine producing regions, study them religiously and spend a lot of time with producers to understand the “place” of the wine. I had the pleasure of sitting in on a visit of from the head of sales of the Produttori di Barbaresco at Frasca yesterday. Not only did I get to taste my way through the region of Barbaresco, but it was fascinating to hear about the land from the gentleman who has lived there his whole life. His two grandfathers were 2 of the original 19 farmers of Barbaresco; now there are 53.

At Frasca, they take those relationships even a step further by organizing wine events every Monday that showcase wine producers, often inviting the producers themselves to come talk about their wines. This Monday I went to their wine event featuring the unique macerated wines of Radikon. It was pretty special to hear Sasa Radikon talk about where the wine is from.

As much as I would like to live at Frasca, I think they might get a bit tired of seeing me there everyday. Luckily, I also have the Boulder Wine Merchant and can be transported to all kinds of amazing places through their wine selection. Brett Zimmerman, also a Master Sommelier, has gone to great lengths to introduce people to some of the best “terroir” you can get your hands on. The service he and his team provide will make you feel like you’re on a comfortable, impeccably guided tour as they walk you through where the wines come from. Gili in particular has been so helpful in educating me on wine.

It’s good to know outside of vacation I can still satisfy my travel bug through a nice bottle of vino. It’s even better to now know some wonderful sommeliers who are furthering my education of where what I’m drinking comes from.

Don’t fear the wine list

March 17, 2011 § 1 Comment

So many wine lists are just a heavy, confusing array of wines that “cover the bases” in terms of variety & cost. In the book Secrets of the Sommeliers, they say a great wine list is a sommelier’s form of expression. At Frasca, I would say their wine list is more of a movement. They want you to learn about wine, so they transport you across land & time to bring you closer to it, especially to a place near and dear to their hearts, Friuli-Venezia Guilia, Italy.

Yesterday I got to be a sponge with Bobby’s team, especially with Frasca sommelier, Matt Mather, who was recently named one of the top new sommeliers in the country from Wine & Spirits Magazine (which he shrugs off with a big smile).

I have to say a word about Matt before getting back to the wine list. It’s refreshing to talk with someone who is so incredibly down to earth despite having a serious knowledge of wine. I have no doubt he holds his own when it comes to wine jargon, but as a sommelier, he’s more interested in speaking your language and translating that to find the right wine for you. This carries through in much of what he’s written into the wine list which I smuggled home with me last night.

It’s often hard to be able to read through a whole list when you’re at the table with friends, but what Matt has added in in terms of knowledge and history of the varietals, regions & specific wines might just cause you to have to ignore your friends for awhile. Luckily I had a nice table in the back to myself and got to read through the wines they offer, trying their wines by the glass and learning more about how they put the list together from Matt & Bobby throughout the night.

As with a lot of professions in life, there are people who feel like they have to show off their knowledge & credentials to seem smart enough or capable enough, often in the form of a one way conversation or “lecture”. Sommeliers might have actually invented it. Frasca’s sommeliers realize this short-sighted view is a waste of talent. They understand that more than just having a database of knowledge, it’s important to create a bridge between that expertise and the taste of the person you’re relating it with. Their wine list is the epitome of this and worth a read online.

The list is organized by flavor profile, varietal and theme, giving people multiple ways to find a wine they might enjoy. The right side of the list is by varietal or flavor profile while the left side is by theme, offering a sommelier’s insight into what makes the wine special as well as wine making and historical tidbits. I found the section on macerated wines to be fascinating. If Matt weren’t a sommelier, he would make a great History professor.

A good wine list is a living, breathing thing. Matt also talked a lot about seasonality. He’s constantly changing up the wines by the glass because he wants it to respond to the seasons. Yesterday was our first 70 degree day, so he poured a glass of their Edi Keber 2009 Bianco, Collio Goriziano to show how perfect that wine is to complement a beautiful day like that.  I also got to enjoy some of their delicious Proscuitto di San Daniele.

I couldn’t think of a better way to spend an evening.

I’ll take sommelier homework any day

March 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

As with any certification, you have to take courses and pass exams to become a true sommelier. In this case, they’re not easy. There’s lots of homework involved.

In preparation for my stage at Frasca, I’ve been doing my homework. It’s been a tough, unpleasant task, but somehow I’ve suffered through it. Maybe it’s all of that delicious wine I’ve been tasting.

For homework, I paid a visit to the Boulder Wine Merchant, owned by another Boulder Master Sommelier, Brett Zimmerman. Gili, one of his knowledgeable associates put together a case of classic wines for me to try. I started with 6 classic whites (chardonnay, sauv blanc, chenin blanc, riesling, viognier & pinot grigio) & 6 classic reds (gamay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon/merlot, sangiovese, syrah & zinfandel). All of these were wines most typical of those varietals.  She also printed out the certified sommelier tasting exam sheets so as I was tasting I could think about how you would have to evaluate the wine if you were blind tasting it on the sommelier exam.

Not only was that exercise a lot of fun, it gave me a whole new set of dimensions with which to evaluate wine. As you taste these wines side by side you can really start to distinguish their differences. It’s a fun thing to do with friends. I have not ventured into blind tasting quite yet but I’ll get into that more this week.

In addition to tasting homework, I’ve also done a lot of reading. Bobby Stuckey, Master Sommelier from Frasca, suggested I read Secrets of a Sommeliers. From his perspective it gives good insight into how sommeliers think. It was definitely an interesting read and I came away with how the idea of a sommelier is being crafted in the United States compared with the stodgy stereotypes.

The Court of Master Sommeliers also recommends reading the Wine Bible and Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. I found these to be really helpful as you’re tasting different wines to learn about their nuances. They are packed with info.

learning the secrets of a Master Sommelier

March 14, 2011 § 2 Comments

Every week I do this project I find more and more reasons to love Boulder. Recently Bon Appétit named it the foodiest city in America. Last week the Denver Magazine made me aware of another compelling accolade. Boulder has more Master Sommeliers per capita than any other city in the United States (yes, that includes NYC, SF and LA). Out of the little more than 100 Master Sommeliers in the country, 10 are in Colorado.

This week, master of masters, Bobby Stuckey, has invited me to come learn more about the life of a Master Sommelier at the award-winning restaurant, Frasca, his brainchild with partner Lachlan Patterson. To say I’m excited would be a major understatement.

Bobby earned his Court of Master Sommeliers Certification in 2004, a title held by just over 100 people worldwide. He’s had an incredible career in food & wine. He began his career as a sommelier at The Little Nell in Aspen where in his 5-year tenure he received considerable recognition for his expertise from Gourmet’s “Best Wine Service” Award to a nomination for The James Beard Foundation from “Best Wine Service”. For those who don’t know what James Beard Awards mean, they’re like the Oscars of the food & wine industry. To put it into further perspective Bobby would be up there with Tom Hanks & Sean Penn in numbers of nominations and awards.

In 2000, Bobby joined world-renowned chef Thomas Keller at The French Laundry (a food & wine Mecca I’ve still yet to make it to). Within the first year Bobby received the James Beard Foundation “Outstanding Wine Service” award. During his tenure The French Laundry also received the award for “Outstanding Restaurant Service”.

Awards and recognition aside, it’s easy to see how important service is in Bobby’s philosophy of being a sommelier and running a restaurant. Apart from enjoying some of the best food & wine I’ve ever had, at Frasca you are equally dazzled by the service. Bobby and his team make it seem effortless.

This week I have a feeling I’m going to end up with  a greater understanding and appreciation for the amount of work that’s behind that seamless service. As a wine lover, I hope to not only learn more about what it’s like to be a sommelier but also how I can improve my own enjoyment of wine.

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