“So I picked up the wine list. Never even looked at this leather book. Open it up, saw the first line says wine number 131. Château Bellegrave. Nice and fruity with a crisp, clean finish. Delicious. Shut the book. Great.
“Soon as I did that, some people were coming into the restaurant. You know, it’s, like, starting to fill up, and all of a sudden, somebody raises his hand, and he wants to see the wine steward. So I walk over there nervous as can be, and the guy says, ‘Well, you know, my wife’s having the scampi, and I’m thinking of having the rack of lamb. What would you recommend?’ And I said, ‘Um, number 131 here is nice and fruity with a crisp, clean finish. Delicious.’ And the guy says, ‘Okay, if you say so, then we’ll do that.’ So my confidence just went up a whole notch.
“You know, so I run across the room, the next guy raises his hand, and this guy’s from Oklahoma. He goes, ‘Hello there, pardner. My wife and I are gonna have that he-man cattle-and-cut porterhouse two-pound steak. What would you recommend?’ So I said, ‘For that, I’d like to recommend this number 131, fruity, with a crisp, clean finish. Delicious.’ The guy says, ‘Well, okay, if you say so, then we’ll go with that.’ You know, and all of a sudden, my confidence jumped up again.
“And I walked around all night, selling number 131 to just about everybody and taking orders from people who know what they want, which is rare. And you know, at the end of the night, my pocket’s full of tip money; I’d had a lot of fun. And I realized, I don’t know anything about wine, but everybody was believing me. And I just thought, this is fun, but I wonder what it would be like if I did know about wine. How much more fun would that be?
“So I thought about this, and one night, in one of the restaurants I was working in, a man came in who owned a little château in France, and we started talking about wine, and he said, you know, if I were you, I’d forget about doing a master’s-level degree in psychology. I’d study wine. And if you want to do it, then I can help you. Because, he says, I live in Bordeaux and San Francisco, and there’s a school in Bordeaux that offers a degree in professional wine tasting, not wine making. It’s called evaluation. It’s a two-and-a-half-year program. And he said, do you speak French? And I said no. So he told me I’d have to go to an advanced language school for a year and learn French, but if I wanted, then he could set all of that up. So I thought about it for a weekend. I said, put me in! Let’s go!
“So I packed up all of my affairs and moved to France. And spent about nine months at the University of Poitiers learning French. And then I traveled around a little bit to Germany. And then I went to Bordeaux, to this incredible course taught by Dr. Emile Peynaud, who is arguably the world’s finest professor on the taste of wine, and this guy was the teacher. And it was just incredible to hear. I was the only kid in this class, you know, average age about 40, and they were all serious players — this guy over here owned Château Giscours, Pierre Tari, and Christian Moueix from Pétrus. I mean, some major hitters, and I was only 24 years old. So I was there for a couple of years with these guys, and it was just a fascinating experience, you know, it went so deep and went in so many different directions.
“So then I got out of school with a degree which licensed me with the French government to be a taster, and I worked for the French government as a taster in St. Julien, which was an interesting experience. And then I went on and worked at the Hotel de la Poste in Beaune as their head sommelier. And then I went to London, and I just wanted to see about this master sommelier exam. So I went there, and I passed the exam, and then I realized, okay, this was my calling. So the formal education was done.
“And I came back to the United States, and I did lots of things, working as a wholesaler selling wine to restaurants, and I worked as a sommelier, of course. In fact, the best gig I ever had was when I was working as a wholesaler during the day and as a sommelier at night, so I was selling myself the wine that I was going to sell to a customer. I just kept moving it through the restaurant and getting a commission on both ends. It was a sweet deal. Anyway, fast-forwarding, I’ve been in San Diego for the last 10 or 11 years, and for the last 3 years especially, I now have a public-speaking business. And that’s really about all I do.”
As I alluded to earlier, Osterland’s lessons on wine are fascinating and informative. “One of the key things I noticed as a wine judge: you’re often sitting down in front of ten wines, blind, and you’re trying to ascertain which one’s better. But when they’re all $80 or $90 bottles of wine, it’s hard, because they’re all great. But one of the only ways to split hairs and see which wines are better is to be really hungry. Your appetite has to be peaking, at its zenith. And that being the case, most of our wine tastings run at 11:30 in the morning, because that’s when your palate is at its sharpest. But it doesn’t stay sharp for very long. In fact, our tastings never went longer than 45 minutes. But at the end of 45 minutes, it’s a mental exercise discerning shades of excellence, and you’re tired, you’re fatigued. So I always say, let’s get the business of tasting and fineness, let’s make the discoveries, let’s show off some really great things first, and then let the conversation go into whatever direction it wants to go.