Megan Burgess, 30, is just a month or two away from becoming an advanced sommelier. You can tell after five minutes of talking to her that she’ll have no problem with the second level of the test. She passed level one about a year ago. It takes a long time to begin to master wine. But Burgess studies like a champ, like a demon driven. If Burgess herself were a wine, we would marvel at her enormous potential. We would state that she drinks well now, but we would also speculate how the years will favor the escalating power of her flavors, her delicacy like flowers and her aggressive spice.
On the factual side of things, Megan Burgess is one of the most important buyers of wine in San Diego. She put together the wine lists for all of Sami Ladeki’s specialty restaurants, and she buys the wine that keeps those lists stocked and up to date. You might mistake her for a hostess if you walk into Roppongi, but no, she runs the place. And to hear her tell it, that gender bias has a lot to do with what motivates her. At one point in our interview she said, “I thought when I turned 30 that I might start getting some of the respect that I think I deserve. I don’t know. We’ll see.” And she cites the gender issue as well when she discusses becoming a master sommelier. “Women are generally recognized as having more subtle and more discerning palates than men, and yet, of the 57 master sommeliers in the United States, only 11 are women.” Megan Burgess wants to do her part to tip that percentage in the women’s favor.
Eddie Osterland, 57, is the pioneer of the group, the first-ever master sommelier in this country. If he were wine, he’d be a monument, one of the grandest examples of a grand vintage, fully mature, but with plenty of strong years ahead of him.
Osterland spends most of his time nowadays marketing his public-speaking business. He gives keynote presentations as a during-dinner entertainer, speaking mostly to corporate groups around the country. His seminar’s called “Power Entertaining with Food and Wine,” and it’s designed to equip the audience with new strategies for entertaining in their homes.
Osterland starts his talks by entering the meeting area or dining room to the muted strains of classical music; a glass of wine is tilted affectedly in his hand. He has his glasses pushed far down his nose, and he wears an extremely strained expression on that wizened face. His neck and chest are decorated with more than a half dozen cups and keys and ribbons of various wine societies. And he begins to speak in a pinched Germanic accent, very dry, something like, “Yes. Yes. And today, vee vill zpeak of vine. I am expeart on ze subject, of course. And zese are only zome of my avards…,” a deadpan charade that he continues for an excruciating minute, making his guests squirm, before the houselights go down, and a catchy pop tune begins to blare over the speakers. By the time the lights come up again, Osterland has donned his characteristic smile, removed the cups and keys, and pushed his glasses back up to where they belong. Then he begins to take his clients on an engaging ride through the true wonders of wine.
Whatever Osterland talks about, he makes it an engaging ride. Animated, always smiling, Osterland paces his stories to the listeners’ understanding. There’s the one about a bunch of sommeliers on all fours lapping some spilled precious rarity off a stone floor. Or the one where he poured $5000 worth of first-growth Bordeaux into an overheating car radiator to make it to the airport. Whatever story Osterland tells, he can see if he’s got you going, and if he does, then he zips in straight for the laugh, straight for the effect, the gift of the storyteller. You can be sure that if his vignette has a book in it, then he will mime the act of flipping through a book. If someone in his fiction makes a hand motion, Osterland will mimic that motion. If he’s telling you what a woman said, then he’s showing you too, as his voice shoots into falsetto. And it seems that everyone in an Osterland story can speak in his or her own individual voice as well. Osterland can mimic any patois or drawl, any brogue or strange inflection, any imaginable pronunciation.
“It’s kind of interesting how you get into the wine business,” Eddie Osterland told me recently at his home in Pacific Beach. We sat on his wraparound black leather sofa in the house’s entertainment lounge, before a 106-inch HDTV with surround Bose speakers and real slate floors, and I kept thinking, “And wine bought all of this.” By now, Osterland has become a one-man wine corporation, the charter member and sole employee of Eddie Osterland Enterprises, under which name he serves as a wine consultant for big companies. His website, eddieosterland.com, is a reflection of his massive knowledge and palpable charm.
“I was waiting tables in Honolulu, about 20, 25 years ago or so,” Osterland begins. (As an aside, I want to tell you how Osterland spent most of his bachelorhood in Hawaii: he was an amateur jet pilot with a pet monkey. ’Nuff said.) “So one night at the restaurant, the maître d’ comes up to me, and he’s carrying that hardware that a sommelier wears — the cup and the chain and the key — and he’s got it in his hand, and he walks up to me and he puts it around my neck, and he goes, ‘Eddie, I want you to do me a favor tonight. Pierre, the sommelier, he’s sick tonight, so I want you to do it.’ And I almost just had this, like, instant diarrhea.
“I just went, ‘No! Don’t do that to me. You know I drink wine, but I never even looked at the wine list, I don’t know anything, I can’t do this.’ And he says, ‘Look, I got a lot of things on my mind tonight, and one of them is not going to be you and this thing. You want to work here, do this. Here’s the rules: red wine goes with meat, white wine goes with fish. And if they’re on the fence, shoot ’em a rosé, you’re safe. Okay? Go.’ So put me in, coach! And the guy just walks away.