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The sommeliers of San Diego

Behind the curtains at Tapenade and Roppongi

It's all pretty unusual, when you really think about it. First off, you've got this exclusive fruit (the grape) that grows only in special regions. And then, the whole time that it grows, it’s fussed over and pruned around and prodded and worried about. Subsequently, every season, when this wonder fruit is finally picked, it gets crushed and sweetened and leavened, whereupon some expert in a cold basement slowly oxygenates its dead remains. After that, the strangely treated remains are sealed into bottles and shipped to rich folks who foster them further, these protected ghosts of grapes. And finally, of course! After years and years, the rich folks drink the stuff. And they claim it tastes like what? Candied cherries? Saddle leather? Smoked meat? Black licorice? Yellow flowers, flinty stones, toasted oak, and garden herbs? Is everybody serious?

Growing up, I believed that wine was simple swill: just another alcoholic beverage. Back then, I also thought that coffee was dirty water and that all beer tasted face-scrunchingly bitter. For a long time, I preferred my grape juice from Welch’s.

But today I sit here realizing that I’ve imbibed and integrated a few of the most monumental molecules that could ever touch a tongue, and those molecules have changed me: 1982 Léoville-Las-Cases, 1988 d’Yquem, 1990 Pétrus, 1986 Cheval Blanc, 1982 Margaux, 1975 Lynch-Bages. Those molecules are mingled now with my molecules, part of my mind and my body.

So I guess you can call me a wine lover, or if you prefer the snobbier and more affected term, then you might try to pronounce oenophile. For me, it’s easy: I just love the stuff — reading about it, talking about it, collecting it, imagining the tastes of some of the greatest vintages, and, of course, sitting down to drink a bottle or two. To me, wine is poetry, a private enjoyment that can become, at the same time, a communal passion. And just think of the pedigree: before stamps, coins, books, butterflies, plates, cars, dolls, knickknacks, and maybe even before dust, wine was the original collectible.

Moreover, if you have even half a palate, and good appreciation skills and some disposable income, then by now you’ve probably discovered that wine can help you transcend your senses. The mere act of tasting takes on dimension and weight. Perhaps I’m being over the top, but I’m not embarrassed to call the drinking of fantastic wine a religious experience.

Then we might ask, o grapes, how do you do what you do? But it’s some kind of natural mystery. The fact is, grapes are almost as racially diverse as human beings. And every one of them, every varietal of grape, thick-skinned or thin-, is like a supersponge, like the best nerve endings of the earth. They soak up hints and tinges of everything in the soil where they grow. Billions of years’ worth of what’s been in the soil. And the sun, rain, and wind determine how well they absorb this earthy information. Grapes are just immensely sensitive. And if a person’s palate’s sensitive as well, then these humble grapes can bring along shells, stones, woods, spices, fruits, meats, leathers, and other echoes over the bizarre paths they shuttle from branches to bellies. It’s like a literal game of grapevine, many vineyards long.

In the game there are the masters and the makers, cellars and sellers, corks and consumers. And wine also boasts dedicated missionaries, esteemed stewards of the bacchanalian faith. These attendants are usually referred to as sommeliers.Sommelier is a formal title whose etymology bears close ties to the word sumpter, which is an archaic term for the driver of a packmule or packhorse. But the respected job of today’s sommeliers is more specific: to pack wine, and to guide the bottles and the knowledge directly to the consumer. To do this, sommeliers become experts in beverage-department management, wine tasting, wine theory, and practical wine applications. Most of them work in restaurants, where wine is, of course, a staple.

Although I sell wine and talk wine almost every night of the week, at the restaurant where I work, I am not officially a sommelier, not even a first-level one, because I haven’t taken the test. The test to become a sommelier is itself a grueling endeavor. But more about that later. Officially, there are three levels of sommeliers, with the Master Sommelier (M.S.) diploma being the highest distinction a professional can attain in fine wine and beverage service.

In the past year, I have been lucky enough to meet and drink wine with three official sommeliers, including the original master sommelier in the United States. They are normal people, of course, these stewards of wine, except for the unusual degree to which they have pursued their passion. All sommeliers have at least two distinctions in common: an enormous base of dedicated knowledge and a thoroughly talented palate.

Another thing that my three sommelier friends have in common is they all tell wonderful stories. I don’t know whether this is coincidence or if it comes with the territory. It does occur to me that, to sell wine, one has to be able to persuade people. And what an artful method of persuasion it is to spin simple narratives.

Which is to say that it’s almost time, after brief introductions, to turn this wine article over to the artful words of the sommeliers themselves. But first…

Dustin Jones, 26, is the newest member of the wine fraternity. He passed the introductory-level test just a few months ago. I’ve waited tables for more than two years with Dustin Jones, and I think that the only accurate way to describe him is this: he’s rather full of himself, but in a good way. You could err on the side of caution and grant that he’s self-assured or self-possessed, but then you’d miss his essential capacity for his own personality. One time I called Jones a likable jerk, and he’s really so likable that he didn’t mind at all the pejorative portion of the epithet. When you meet him, you’re drawn in by his confidence, by the blend of boyish enthusiasm and somewhat rakish charm. In wine terms, you’d exclaim that his youthful tannins don’t conflict with his stylish fruit, and yet he’s got extensive proportions of both.

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Megan Burgess

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.

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Eddie Osterland

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.

“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.

“The other thing I say to people is, get out of your comfort zone. Too often, people these days, from what I see, they play it safe. You know, playing it safe is like the typical Saturday-night dinner where you start the fish course with chardonnay, and then you do merlot or cabernet with the meat course, which is nice and it’s fun, but that’s what everyone’s doing. So if you want to be different, you have to get out of that comfort zone.

“I think the real beauty of wine is, first of all, when you pull that cork, you don’t know what the wine’s going to taste like. Always. It’s always like a discovery waiting to unfold itself. And every year a whole set of vintages changes, so your favorite wine last year may not be your favorite this year. And that’s fun. So going out to wine stores and trying different wines is something I love to recommend. I also think that wine is a synergistic thing, in a word. Wine is good; food is good; but the two of them together add up to three.”

Against wine snobbery, Osterland has this delightful joke: “Wine is 85 percent water and 13 percent alcohol. So that leaves only 2 percent for the stuff that really matters. Don’t overdo it. Wine wasn’t meant to be overblown.”

On the other side of the coin, though, Osterland does draw a distinction between cheap wines and the good stuff. “The difference between a wine that’s $10 and a wine that’s $35 isn’t that one of them is 3H times better,” he explains. “You know, unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. It’s kind of analogous to photography. It’s like a third of a stop difference in exposure. When you have them side by side…you know, the $10 bottle of wine’s fine until you have the $35 bottle of wine there, and when you taste that, all of a sudden you see it’s got multiple dimensions, it goes in five different directions, it has a longer aftertaste. The true sign of a great wine is the length of its persistent aftertaste.”

Osterland finished our interview on a sobering note, pun intended, when he mused, “Wine isn’t for everyone, because you have to be willing to inquire into the ways that excellence is achieved. And in wine, a lot of it is about subtlety. And you have to be willing to say, okay, the wine is only that much better, but that much is where it gets special, and that much is worth it to me. And you know, most people aren’t like that; they’re just rushing through meals, not appreciating, not taking the time to slow down. It’s hard to teach appreciation. I sometimes think it’s one of those things, you either have it or you don’t.”

Appreciation is a gift that Megan Burgess enjoys in spades. When she talks about wine, she uses reverential words like “sexy” and “amazing.” You can tell that she loves drinking and teaching about good wine more than she likes making money off it.

Burgess and I met recently in Roppongi to discuss her growing passion for wine and her growing importance within the wine business. As it is with most of us, Burgess can tie her fervor for wine back to a single significant bottle, the original sample that turned her head, the initial sip that put her on the path of the connoisseur. For me, it was the 1982 Château d’Yquem. For Osterland, it was an old Wehlener Sonnenuhr by J.J. Prüm. Soon we will learn that Dustin Jones’s watershed bottle was the ’82 Lafite-Rothschild. Burgess calls the drinking of this bottle the “lightbulb moment.”

“I grew up in Canada,” Burgess began, “so my first experiences with wine weren’t with American product, but more with French. My parents are by no means wine connoisseurs. So probably my first experiences with wine would have been around the holidays: Beaujolais, chardonnay, Chablis. But it wasn’t really until I moved to the States that I became really interested in wine. Even in culinary school I wasn’t that interested yet, because I didn’t have enough exposure, I didn’t know enough about it.

“But then I tried the ’94 Rochioli pinot noir. I was working at Harry Denton’s in San Francisco, right down on the water there, and one of the clients had purchased it and left, like, a half of a bottle, and we were trying it in the servers’ station, and that was, like, my lightbulb moment of saying, ‘Oh, my God. This is such an amazing experience.’

“And I think that my experience as a cook, and going through culinary school, helped me develop my palate without even knowing it, just being able to identify different tastes and different flavors. And that wine was so supple and so sexy that I was just stunned. And that’s when I knew that I really wanted to focus on that.”

By “focus on,” Burgess really means something closer to “devote my life to.” Her biography describes a life of interesting work and experiences in exotic places, everything centering on wine, wine, wine.

“When I lived in San Francisco, I took a lot of trips up to Napa. I participated in press at Sterling Winery, and that to me was just amazing. When you do the press, you’re working with all these immigrant laborers. I mean, they’re farmers, and the labor’s hard. It’s back-breaking labor. You’re out there and you’re stooped over, and it took a little bit of the romance out of it. But then I could really see. I really experienced what a harmony wine is. It’s like this harmony between the earth and the everyday worker, and the end result of this beautiful, sexy product. It was just amazing to me. Picking grapes into these huge buckets, and these trucks were coming along picking them up. The camaraderie of the workers…it’s very precise. It’s really nothing like that old I Love Lucy episode. Not anymore.

“To me, what’s so amazing about wine is the fact of that harmony: man takes something from nature and turns it into something incredible. And the fact that it can be so different. That one varietal can be so different depending on where it’s planted, and how much sun it gets, and how much wind it gets, and how stressed out it might be, and what the earth is like, and what the soil content has. And then the winemaker taking that raw product and molding it into this ideal: it’s so romantic.

“Part of what’s so exciting about wine for me is the quest for knowledge. You know, every day if I can learn something, it’s an exciting day. And you can always get stuck in repetition at your job, but if there’s an area that’s exciting and that’s constantly changing, then, you know, if you can love your job, then you never work a day in your life. To me, my passion lies with the wine and how I can bring it to people. I love it when I can say, ‘Okay, of course you know the great wines, but I’d like to point out some hidden treasures on the list.’ You know, the great deal that someone wouldn’t have ordered but now they enjoy it because you suggested it to them. To me, that’s the high, the adrenaline rush, bringing wine to people who enjoy wine, but they’ve just never had anyone take their hand and guide them toward something new.

“My advice for people is to trust an expert. Open yourself up. Try new experiences. You shouldn’t always just stick with what you know. My advice for people is, if you’ve got a local wine shop that you trust, then I think you should get to know the guys who work there and let them recommend a few things. And then if you like those wines, let them recommend a few more. That’s just an invaluable asset. If you can find a great little retail shop that’s in your local area and you can befriend the guy who works there, who tastes all the time, and you can sort of tell him a little bit about what you like, then he can really steer you towards what you’re looking for.”

If her pure motivation and learned counsel aren’t impressive enough, then you might find the discipline Burgess displays in her wine studies to be, quite frankly, inspiring. “I passed my first-level sommelier test last year, and now I’m studying for the second level. They have a recommended reading list, and so I’m reading a lot.

“There are three areas of concentration for the test: theory, service, and blind tasting. Service I participate in every day, so that’s no problem. I feel comfortable in wine service, and I partake in it every day. And the theory part of it is covered in all the recommended books that I’m studying. But the wine tasting, I think, is the part of it that probably has the highest failure rate. So I’ve started a wine-tasting group, and we taste twice a month, every two weeks. One session is white and one session is red, and we bring our own wines and we taste them blind. The class is all just people who are heading toward the same goal. They’ve all taken the first level, or they’re heading toward taking their first level, and we follow the format to a T, and it’s fun. It’s an interesting group of people.”

I asked Burgess to talk about the pinnacle of the sommelier’s craft, the daunting prospect of blind tasting. To be able to precisely identify the flavors in a wine and then, without any other clues, to extrapolate your experience with those flavors into identifying the wine: what kind, where it’s from, who made it, and often even the year when it was made. Now that is a mind-blowing level of mastery.

“Tasting wine is one thing,” Burgess says. “It’s great, but blind tasting is another thing altogether. One, you’re always kind of surprised by what you do know. Especially if you’re with a group of tasters and you’re all comparing notes. For example, I have trouble tasting herbs in wine, but there’s another person in our group who’s great with herbs. I mean, dead-on. And that helps me because then I start to remember those herbs the next time I taste them. There’s another girl in our group who’s great with flowers, and she picks those out all the time.

“Personally, my thing is, because of where I grew up, I’m very good with earth smells and grass smells and stones and vegetable smells, because that’s where my background lies and what I’ve been exposed to. There’s another person, you know, who’s kind of funny, he’s always, like, ‘Okay, that smells like Jolly Ranchers,’ and he’s a city kid, so it’s funny, because among this group of people, we make the perfect palate. So we learn from each other, and it helps so much. Because, at the tasting level of the sommelier exam, you have 20 minutes and four wines. And you have to nail it. I mean, there are points given for how you come to the deduction you come to whether you nail the wines or not, but that’s the area that most people have difficulty in.” (Dustin Jones will tell us more about the experience of the sommelier test soon, soon enough.)

In the meantime, watching Burgess work, I get the impression that she’s doing exactly what she was meant to do. She’s a natural, and her love of the restaurant business, especially the wine part of the restaurant business, saturates her attitude in all that she does. You pair that kind of love with equal doses of ambition and dedication, and you get a very special specialist indeed.

“I want to be a master sommelier someday, because, to me, anything worth doing is worth doing well. And I want to go all the way with this. I love a challenge. And this is a business that I will never leave. I did leave it once to work at a law firm for a very short period of time, but I couldn’t stand it. Sitting at a desk all day was just not me. I started in this business when I was 15, washing dishes in a restaurant. I’ve worked literally every job in a restaurant. And now I have so much respect for everyone on my team, because I know how important they all are.”

Dustin Jones is on my team at Tapenade Restaurant, and he’s the first official sommelier we’ve ever had working there. He and I will often talk wine at the same table, comparing our knowledge and blowing away the guests, and learning from each other. Jones’s wine expertise is only a couple of years in the making, but he is now that lucky person who discovers a way to earn money by doing the thing that he enjoys.

“My interest in wine, at first, was really about making money. I was, like, if I learn about this, I can make more money in tips. So I guess it was financially driven at first. And I didn’t even really like wine at first. I remember at one point I was, like, ‘I don’t like white wine.’ And now, you know, I laugh at that statement, because I started drinking good white wines. I think that we have this belief that white wine has to be cheap and dry and doesn’t really do much except that it pairs with fish, and that’s about it. But as I started to drink some better white wines, actually, now I think I prefer white wines.

“But I actually stumbled into my interest in wine while I was working at Café Pierre up in Los Angeles. They have an unbelievable wine list, about a thousand bottles, and this guy comes in, turns out to be a high honcho producer or something. John Langley. Produces Cops. I didn’t know any of this, and I was closing, and he comes in at about 10:30, which is pretty late, and I was kind of like, boo, you know, and he orders an ’82 Lafite-Rothschild, a thousand dollars, most expensive bottle on the list. Punch it in the computer, you know, still don’t even know what he ordered, and I look: a thousand-dollar bottle. Oh my God. You know, the money’s kind of jumping around in my head.

“And so I open the wine. He wants it decanted. What is that? So we go through all this decanting, all new to me, and I learned a little bit there about drinking old stuff and getting air at it. So I poured it off for him and the lady he was with, and he tells me to grab a glass. So I grab a glass. And he pours me a full glass and goes, ‘Drink this, and you’ll see why we pay a thousand dollars for a bottle of wine.’ And I drank it, and instantly, I did. I understood it, because it was unbelievable. The flavors and the concentration, and there was just a lot going on. And that made me really kind of think, okay, this is an interesting business.

“When I was a kid, my dad was a chef. So, you know, I ate a lot of food in his restaurants, and he drank a lot of wine. And when I was younger, he’d kind of show me a lot of the pairings, things like, oh, chardonnays with fish and Burgundies with pasta and pizza, and so I kind of, I guess I’ve always been a food person. So the progression of, when I was old enough to drink, then I could really start matching the food with the wine, and that little marriage, and that’s what kind of got me going.

“And by now I’ve read a lot of books, a lot of wine books, you know, Windows on the World was my first wine book. And it was interesting to kind of see the different regions and how different regions kind of grow the same grapes, and why grapes from one region taste different from the other. And as I began to sell these wines, I began tasting a lot of these wines, and with that, really, that’s when wine kind of grew into a big interest.”

But the real watershed moment in the wine life of Dustin Jones occurred when he met Eddie Osterland. Osterland often eats at Tapenade, and Jones remembers fondly that first time the two of them met.

“So this guy sits down with a lady at table 14, and he orders a bottle of Château Pipeau. Not a great bottle, you know, 50, 60 bucks, and I bring it to the table, show him it, and he feels the bottle. He goes, ‘Um, could you put this on ice for a minute?’ And I had no idea this guy was a master sommelier, you know. I’m, like, put it on ice?! Man, this is a red wine. Where are you from, bro? And he kind of looked at me like, you think I’m stupid for doing this, almost like he kind of called me out, like maybe I rolled my eyes or something, and, yeah, I was aghast almost. I just didn’t like the idea of chilling red wine.

“And so he says to me, ‘Grab yourself a glass. In fact, grab two glasses. And grab a second glass for all of us.’ And he’s, like, ‘Pour some of the warm wine, and then go chill that for five minutes, and then taste them side by side.’ So I’m like, sure, man, whatever you want. Lo and behold, the hot wine was tannic. It was a young Château Pipeau, you know? But the other? Fruit and herbs, and, wow, the aromas, it was just unbelievable. And I kind of looked at him like, how did you know, man? And why is that the case? And he kind of got into it and explained it a little.

“And that got me interested, and we got to talking, but he didn’t say who he was until after the dinner. And at the end of the dinner, he hands me his business card, and he says, ‘Hey, listen, you should call me. We should talk.’ And so I called him and we talked and here I am, I just passed my first sommelier exam and I’m making the move towards where he is.”

By now, Osterland has more or less taken Jones under his wing. It’s funny if you know the both of them. They both carry on conversations almost the same way. They both talk fast and loose, and neither one of them seems to place periods in his sentences. They inflect their voices, tell stories, and each one has this terrific ability to tap into his interior monologue, to talk to himself while he’s talking to you, to tell himself a story at the same time he’s telling you one. It was no wonder to me when I heard how well the two of them were getting along.

“Eddie’s got this really great idea, I think, as far as what he’s doing with his master sommelier certification. He does seminars for major corporations on ‘power entertaining.’ So what I’m helping Eddie do is get the word out. Basically just marketing and letting people know that he’s out there and he’s doing this, because hardly anyone else is doing what Eddie does. He’s like the only West Coast sommelier who is doing any public-speaking stuff. And so I’m working for him, sending out letters and mailing packets and e-mails to destination-management companies that book all the speakers for other companies who are entertaining clients or having Christmas functions and dinner parties.

“I think the first thing I want to do when I get my master sommelier certification is I want to travel. I want to see the world and work in some of the greatest hotels and figure out where I want to live and maybe someday pursue something along the lines of what Eddie’s doing. I want to turn this whole wine thing into a money-making venture.”

To that end, Jones decided to take the first sommelier test, to enter the Court, as it is called. The Court of Master Sommeliers is the ultimate club for oenophiles. Over the two decades since the Court’s first examination was held, 104 candidates have earned the Master Sommelier diploma. In the service of wine, spirits, and other alcoholic beverages, the Master Sommelier diploma is the ultimate professional credential anyone can attain worldwide.

There are three stages to attain the top qualifications of master sommelier. The Introductory Sommelier course, the Advanced Sommelier course, and the Master Sommelier diploma. The website for the Court of Master Sommeliers states that “The letters ‘M.S.’ after your name will reassure an employer that you are a professional beverage manager and can control an efficient, profitable beverage service.”

I asked Jones to tell me about his experience with the sommelier exam. “It was a class of about 60 people, up in Anaheim, at the Napa Rose Restaurant. We were in a big conference room, with little tables. When I walked into the room, there were already hundreds of full tasting glasses of wine, spit buckets, and glasses of water. And we sat down, and they said, all right, first things first. We’re going to taste some wine. We’re going to try to blind taste these wines, in fact. And we did, and I called some of them out. Recognized a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, which made me feel good and got me thinking maybe I could pull this off.

“And then they went through the wines of the world. And they went through them with a speed that was really intense. They covered Côtes du Rhone in 35 or 40 minutes. And Côtes du Rhone has, you know, 15 or 20 grapes we’re talking here. All very, very fast. And I realized pretty quickly, if you didn’t know a lot of this stuff going in, you weren’t going to learn it at the test. Because they went through everything. It was more to brush you up. And we also tasted dozens and dozens of wines.

“So the class was from 7:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., for two days, and we went through the wines of the world. You know, Romania and Hungary in 6 minutes. Chile in 15 minutes. Italy in 45 minutes. It was amazing. And the test itself, at the end of two days, was really tough. The first four questions, I started to shake. I didn’t think I was going to pass. I didn’t know anything. I couldn’t even guess the first four questions. But then I got, like, 20 or 25 in a row. And a couple of wines that I know from Tapenade really saved me, because we serve them here at work.

“And then, of course, there was the blind tasting. And of all the wines we tasted, I was able to call out a lot of them. A Chablis, a Riesling, a Chianti. It was pretty great. They taught us how to do it, and then we had to try it out. You know, you go through this whole thing with blind tasting: the visual, and then the nose, and then you go into what you think the wine is going to be, trying to figure out the flavors. You draw your initial conclusions, and then you work your way toward a final conclusion of what each wine is, where it’s from, and when it was made. The whole thing was an unbelievable experience.

“On some level, I know that I don’t want to be a waiter for the rest of my life. And I do love my job. I know that waiting tables is a great way to deal with people all the time. And at Tapenade especially, you deal with people who are the cream of the crop, people who are cultured and who have been to France and who know what they’re talking about. And the food’s great, the wine’s nice, but eventually, I’m not going to be doing this. You know, I want to make some money and earn a degree. So when I talked with Eddie about it, again, it was like that bottle of Lafite, that lightbulb, you know, ding-ding, there it is. Now I can finally pursue something that I’ve become passionate about and make some money at it too.”

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Thai Joints rule in the Heights

Pick up or delivery, Thai fans have it good on Adams Avenue

It's all pretty unusual, when you really think about it. First off, you've got this exclusive fruit (the grape) that grows only in special regions. And then, the whole time that it grows, it’s fussed over and pruned around and prodded and worried about. Subsequently, every season, when this wonder fruit is finally picked, it gets crushed and sweetened and leavened, whereupon some expert in a cold basement slowly oxygenates its dead remains. After that, the strangely treated remains are sealed into bottles and shipped to rich folks who foster them further, these protected ghosts of grapes. And finally, of course! After years and years, the rich folks drink the stuff. And they claim it tastes like what? Candied cherries? Saddle leather? Smoked meat? Black licorice? Yellow flowers, flinty stones, toasted oak, and garden herbs? Is everybody serious?

Growing up, I believed that wine was simple swill: just another alcoholic beverage. Back then, I also thought that coffee was dirty water and that all beer tasted face-scrunchingly bitter. For a long time, I preferred my grape juice from Welch’s.

But today I sit here realizing that I’ve imbibed and integrated a few of the most monumental molecules that could ever touch a tongue, and those molecules have changed me: 1982 Léoville-Las-Cases, 1988 d’Yquem, 1990 Pétrus, 1986 Cheval Blanc, 1982 Margaux, 1975 Lynch-Bages. Those molecules are mingled now with my molecules, part of my mind and my body.

So I guess you can call me a wine lover, or if you prefer the snobbier and more affected term, then you might try to pronounce oenophile. For me, it’s easy: I just love the stuff — reading about it, talking about it, collecting it, imagining the tastes of some of the greatest vintages, and, of course, sitting down to drink a bottle or two. To me, wine is poetry, a private enjoyment that can become, at the same time, a communal passion. And just think of the pedigree: before stamps, coins, books, butterflies, plates, cars, dolls, knickknacks, and maybe even before dust, wine was the original collectible.

Moreover, if you have even half a palate, and good appreciation skills and some disposable income, then by now you’ve probably discovered that wine can help you transcend your senses. The mere act of tasting takes on dimension and weight. Perhaps I’m being over the top, but I’m not embarrassed to call the drinking of fantastic wine a religious experience.

Then we might ask, o grapes, how do you do what you do? But it’s some kind of natural mystery. The fact is, grapes are almost as racially diverse as human beings. And every one of them, every varietal of grape, thick-skinned or thin-, is like a supersponge, like the best nerve endings of the earth. They soak up hints and tinges of everything in the soil where they grow. Billions of years’ worth of what’s been in the soil. And the sun, rain, and wind determine how well they absorb this earthy information. Grapes are just immensely sensitive. And if a person’s palate’s sensitive as well, then these humble grapes can bring along shells, stones, woods, spices, fruits, meats, leathers, and other echoes over the bizarre paths they shuttle from branches to bellies. It’s like a literal game of grapevine, many vineyards long.

In the game there are the masters and the makers, cellars and sellers, corks and consumers. And wine also boasts dedicated missionaries, esteemed stewards of the bacchanalian faith. These attendants are usually referred to as sommeliers.Sommelier is a formal title whose etymology bears close ties to the word sumpter, which is an archaic term for the driver of a packmule or packhorse. But the respected job of today’s sommeliers is more specific: to pack wine, and to guide the bottles and the knowledge directly to the consumer. To do this, sommeliers become experts in beverage-department management, wine tasting, wine theory, and practical wine applications. Most of them work in restaurants, where wine is, of course, a staple.

Although I sell wine and talk wine almost every night of the week, at the restaurant where I work, I am not officially a sommelier, not even a first-level one, because I haven’t taken the test. The test to become a sommelier is itself a grueling endeavor. But more about that later. Officially, there are three levels of sommeliers, with the Master Sommelier (M.S.) diploma being the highest distinction a professional can attain in fine wine and beverage service.

In the past year, I have been lucky enough to meet and drink wine with three official sommeliers, including the original master sommelier in the United States. They are normal people, of course, these stewards of wine, except for the unusual degree to which they have pursued their passion. All sommeliers have at least two distinctions in common: an enormous base of dedicated knowledge and a thoroughly talented palate.

Another thing that my three sommelier friends have in common is they all tell wonderful stories. I don’t know whether this is coincidence or if it comes with the territory. It does occur to me that, to sell wine, one has to be able to persuade people. And what an artful method of persuasion it is to spin simple narratives.

Which is to say that it’s almost time, after brief introductions, to turn this wine article over to the artful words of the sommeliers themselves. But first…

Dustin Jones, 26, is the newest member of the wine fraternity. He passed the introductory-level test just a few months ago. I’ve waited tables for more than two years with Dustin Jones, and I think that the only accurate way to describe him is this: he’s rather full of himself, but in a good way. You could err on the side of caution and grant that he’s self-assured or self-possessed, but then you’d miss his essential capacity for his own personality. One time I called Jones a likable jerk, and he’s really so likable that he didn’t mind at all the pejorative portion of the epithet. When you meet him, you’re drawn in by his confidence, by the blend of boyish enthusiasm and somewhat rakish charm. In wine terms, you’d exclaim that his youthful tannins don’t conflict with his stylish fruit, and yet he’s got extensive proportions of both.

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Megan Burgess

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.

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Eddie Osterland

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.

“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.

“The other thing I say to people is, get out of your comfort zone. Too often, people these days, from what I see, they play it safe. You know, playing it safe is like the typical Saturday-night dinner where you start the fish course with chardonnay, and then you do merlot or cabernet with the meat course, which is nice and it’s fun, but that’s what everyone’s doing. So if you want to be different, you have to get out of that comfort zone.

“I think the real beauty of wine is, first of all, when you pull that cork, you don’t know what the wine’s going to taste like. Always. It’s always like a discovery waiting to unfold itself. And every year a whole set of vintages changes, so your favorite wine last year may not be your favorite this year. And that’s fun. So going out to wine stores and trying different wines is something I love to recommend. I also think that wine is a synergistic thing, in a word. Wine is good; food is good; but the two of them together add up to three.”

Against wine snobbery, Osterland has this delightful joke: “Wine is 85 percent water and 13 percent alcohol. So that leaves only 2 percent for the stuff that really matters. Don’t overdo it. Wine wasn’t meant to be overblown.”

On the other side of the coin, though, Osterland does draw a distinction between cheap wines and the good stuff. “The difference between a wine that’s $10 and a wine that’s $35 isn’t that one of them is 3H times better,” he explains. “You know, unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. It’s kind of analogous to photography. It’s like a third of a stop difference in exposure. When you have them side by side…you know, the $10 bottle of wine’s fine until you have the $35 bottle of wine there, and when you taste that, all of a sudden you see it’s got multiple dimensions, it goes in five different directions, it has a longer aftertaste. The true sign of a great wine is the length of its persistent aftertaste.”

Osterland finished our interview on a sobering note, pun intended, when he mused, “Wine isn’t for everyone, because you have to be willing to inquire into the ways that excellence is achieved. And in wine, a lot of it is about subtlety. And you have to be willing to say, okay, the wine is only that much better, but that much is where it gets special, and that much is worth it to me. And you know, most people aren’t like that; they’re just rushing through meals, not appreciating, not taking the time to slow down. It’s hard to teach appreciation. I sometimes think it’s one of those things, you either have it or you don’t.”

Appreciation is a gift that Megan Burgess enjoys in spades. When she talks about wine, she uses reverential words like “sexy” and “amazing.” You can tell that she loves drinking and teaching about good wine more than she likes making money off it.

Burgess and I met recently in Roppongi to discuss her growing passion for wine and her growing importance within the wine business. As it is with most of us, Burgess can tie her fervor for wine back to a single significant bottle, the original sample that turned her head, the initial sip that put her on the path of the connoisseur. For me, it was the 1982 Château d’Yquem. For Osterland, it was an old Wehlener Sonnenuhr by J.J. Prüm. Soon we will learn that Dustin Jones’s watershed bottle was the ’82 Lafite-Rothschild. Burgess calls the drinking of this bottle the “lightbulb moment.”

“I grew up in Canada,” Burgess began, “so my first experiences with wine weren’t with American product, but more with French. My parents are by no means wine connoisseurs. So probably my first experiences with wine would have been around the holidays: Beaujolais, chardonnay, Chablis. But it wasn’t really until I moved to the States that I became really interested in wine. Even in culinary school I wasn’t that interested yet, because I didn’t have enough exposure, I didn’t know enough about it.

“But then I tried the ’94 Rochioli pinot noir. I was working at Harry Denton’s in San Francisco, right down on the water there, and one of the clients had purchased it and left, like, a half of a bottle, and we were trying it in the servers’ station, and that was, like, my lightbulb moment of saying, ‘Oh, my God. This is such an amazing experience.’

“And I think that my experience as a cook, and going through culinary school, helped me develop my palate without even knowing it, just being able to identify different tastes and different flavors. And that wine was so supple and so sexy that I was just stunned. And that’s when I knew that I really wanted to focus on that.”

By “focus on,” Burgess really means something closer to “devote my life to.” Her biography describes a life of interesting work and experiences in exotic places, everything centering on wine, wine, wine.

“When I lived in San Francisco, I took a lot of trips up to Napa. I participated in press at Sterling Winery, and that to me was just amazing. When you do the press, you’re working with all these immigrant laborers. I mean, they’re farmers, and the labor’s hard. It’s back-breaking labor. You’re out there and you’re stooped over, and it took a little bit of the romance out of it. But then I could really see. I really experienced what a harmony wine is. It’s like this harmony between the earth and the everyday worker, and the end result of this beautiful, sexy product. It was just amazing to me. Picking grapes into these huge buckets, and these trucks were coming along picking them up. The camaraderie of the workers…it’s very precise. It’s really nothing like that old I Love Lucy episode. Not anymore.

“To me, what’s so amazing about wine is the fact of that harmony: man takes something from nature and turns it into something incredible. And the fact that it can be so different. That one varietal can be so different depending on where it’s planted, and how much sun it gets, and how much wind it gets, and how stressed out it might be, and what the earth is like, and what the soil content has. And then the winemaker taking that raw product and molding it into this ideal: it’s so romantic.

“Part of what’s so exciting about wine for me is the quest for knowledge. You know, every day if I can learn something, it’s an exciting day. And you can always get stuck in repetition at your job, but if there’s an area that’s exciting and that’s constantly changing, then, you know, if you can love your job, then you never work a day in your life. To me, my passion lies with the wine and how I can bring it to people. I love it when I can say, ‘Okay, of course you know the great wines, but I’d like to point out some hidden treasures on the list.’ You know, the great deal that someone wouldn’t have ordered but now they enjoy it because you suggested it to them. To me, that’s the high, the adrenaline rush, bringing wine to people who enjoy wine, but they’ve just never had anyone take their hand and guide them toward something new.

“My advice for people is to trust an expert. Open yourself up. Try new experiences. You shouldn’t always just stick with what you know. My advice for people is, if you’ve got a local wine shop that you trust, then I think you should get to know the guys who work there and let them recommend a few things. And then if you like those wines, let them recommend a few more. That’s just an invaluable asset. If you can find a great little retail shop that’s in your local area and you can befriend the guy who works there, who tastes all the time, and you can sort of tell him a little bit about what you like, then he can really steer you towards what you’re looking for.”

If her pure motivation and learned counsel aren’t impressive enough, then you might find the discipline Burgess displays in her wine studies to be, quite frankly, inspiring. “I passed my first-level sommelier test last year, and now I’m studying for the second level. They have a recommended reading list, and so I’m reading a lot.

“There are three areas of concentration for the test: theory, service, and blind tasting. Service I participate in every day, so that’s no problem. I feel comfortable in wine service, and I partake in it every day. And the theory part of it is covered in all the recommended books that I’m studying. But the wine tasting, I think, is the part of it that probably has the highest failure rate. So I’ve started a wine-tasting group, and we taste twice a month, every two weeks. One session is white and one session is red, and we bring our own wines and we taste them blind. The class is all just people who are heading toward the same goal. They’ve all taken the first level, or they’re heading toward taking their first level, and we follow the format to a T, and it’s fun. It’s an interesting group of people.”

I asked Burgess to talk about the pinnacle of the sommelier’s craft, the daunting prospect of blind tasting. To be able to precisely identify the flavors in a wine and then, without any other clues, to extrapolate your experience with those flavors into identifying the wine: what kind, where it’s from, who made it, and often even the year when it was made. Now that is a mind-blowing level of mastery.

“Tasting wine is one thing,” Burgess says. “It’s great, but blind tasting is another thing altogether. One, you’re always kind of surprised by what you do know. Especially if you’re with a group of tasters and you’re all comparing notes. For example, I have trouble tasting herbs in wine, but there’s another person in our group who’s great with herbs. I mean, dead-on. And that helps me because then I start to remember those herbs the next time I taste them. There’s another girl in our group who’s great with flowers, and she picks those out all the time.

“Personally, my thing is, because of where I grew up, I’m very good with earth smells and grass smells and stones and vegetable smells, because that’s where my background lies and what I’ve been exposed to. There’s another person, you know, who’s kind of funny, he’s always, like, ‘Okay, that smells like Jolly Ranchers,’ and he’s a city kid, so it’s funny, because among this group of people, we make the perfect palate. So we learn from each other, and it helps so much. Because, at the tasting level of the sommelier exam, you have 20 minutes and four wines. And you have to nail it. I mean, there are points given for how you come to the deduction you come to whether you nail the wines or not, but that’s the area that most people have difficulty in.” (Dustin Jones will tell us more about the experience of the sommelier test soon, soon enough.)

In the meantime, watching Burgess work, I get the impression that she’s doing exactly what she was meant to do. She’s a natural, and her love of the restaurant business, especially the wine part of the restaurant business, saturates her attitude in all that she does. You pair that kind of love with equal doses of ambition and dedication, and you get a very special specialist indeed.

“I want to be a master sommelier someday, because, to me, anything worth doing is worth doing well. And I want to go all the way with this. I love a challenge. And this is a business that I will never leave. I did leave it once to work at a law firm for a very short period of time, but I couldn’t stand it. Sitting at a desk all day was just not me. I started in this business when I was 15, washing dishes in a restaurant. I’ve worked literally every job in a restaurant. And now I have so much respect for everyone on my team, because I know how important they all are.”

Dustin Jones is on my team at Tapenade Restaurant, and he’s the first official sommelier we’ve ever had working there. He and I will often talk wine at the same table, comparing our knowledge and blowing away the guests, and learning from each other. Jones’s wine expertise is only a couple of years in the making, but he is now that lucky person who discovers a way to earn money by doing the thing that he enjoys.

“My interest in wine, at first, was really about making money. I was, like, if I learn about this, I can make more money in tips. So I guess it was financially driven at first. And I didn’t even really like wine at first. I remember at one point I was, like, ‘I don’t like white wine.’ And now, you know, I laugh at that statement, because I started drinking good white wines. I think that we have this belief that white wine has to be cheap and dry and doesn’t really do much except that it pairs with fish, and that’s about it. But as I started to drink some better white wines, actually, now I think I prefer white wines.

“But I actually stumbled into my interest in wine while I was working at Café Pierre up in Los Angeles. They have an unbelievable wine list, about a thousand bottles, and this guy comes in, turns out to be a high honcho producer or something. John Langley. Produces Cops. I didn’t know any of this, and I was closing, and he comes in at about 10:30, which is pretty late, and I was kind of like, boo, you know, and he orders an ’82 Lafite-Rothschild, a thousand dollars, most expensive bottle on the list. Punch it in the computer, you know, still don’t even know what he ordered, and I look: a thousand-dollar bottle. Oh my God. You know, the money’s kind of jumping around in my head.

“And so I open the wine. He wants it decanted. What is that? So we go through all this decanting, all new to me, and I learned a little bit there about drinking old stuff and getting air at it. So I poured it off for him and the lady he was with, and he tells me to grab a glass. So I grab a glass. And he pours me a full glass and goes, ‘Drink this, and you’ll see why we pay a thousand dollars for a bottle of wine.’ And I drank it, and instantly, I did. I understood it, because it was unbelievable. The flavors and the concentration, and there was just a lot going on. And that made me really kind of think, okay, this is an interesting business.

“When I was a kid, my dad was a chef. So, you know, I ate a lot of food in his restaurants, and he drank a lot of wine. And when I was younger, he’d kind of show me a lot of the pairings, things like, oh, chardonnays with fish and Burgundies with pasta and pizza, and so I kind of, I guess I’ve always been a food person. So the progression of, when I was old enough to drink, then I could really start matching the food with the wine, and that little marriage, and that’s what kind of got me going.

“And by now I’ve read a lot of books, a lot of wine books, you know, Windows on the World was my first wine book. And it was interesting to kind of see the different regions and how different regions kind of grow the same grapes, and why grapes from one region taste different from the other. And as I began to sell these wines, I began tasting a lot of these wines, and with that, really, that’s when wine kind of grew into a big interest.”

But the real watershed moment in the wine life of Dustin Jones occurred when he met Eddie Osterland. Osterland often eats at Tapenade, and Jones remembers fondly that first time the two of them met.

“So this guy sits down with a lady at table 14, and he orders a bottle of Château Pipeau. Not a great bottle, you know, 50, 60 bucks, and I bring it to the table, show him it, and he feels the bottle. He goes, ‘Um, could you put this on ice for a minute?’ And I had no idea this guy was a master sommelier, you know. I’m, like, put it on ice?! Man, this is a red wine. Where are you from, bro? And he kind of looked at me like, you think I’m stupid for doing this, almost like he kind of called me out, like maybe I rolled my eyes or something, and, yeah, I was aghast almost. I just didn’t like the idea of chilling red wine.

“And so he says to me, ‘Grab yourself a glass. In fact, grab two glasses. And grab a second glass for all of us.’ And he’s, like, ‘Pour some of the warm wine, and then go chill that for five minutes, and then taste them side by side.’ So I’m like, sure, man, whatever you want. Lo and behold, the hot wine was tannic. It was a young Château Pipeau, you know? But the other? Fruit and herbs, and, wow, the aromas, it was just unbelievable. And I kind of looked at him like, how did you know, man? And why is that the case? And he kind of got into it and explained it a little.

“And that got me interested, and we got to talking, but he didn’t say who he was until after the dinner. And at the end of the dinner, he hands me his business card, and he says, ‘Hey, listen, you should call me. We should talk.’ And so I called him and we talked and here I am, I just passed my first sommelier exam and I’m making the move towards where he is.”

By now, Osterland has more or less taken Jones under his wing. It’s funny if you know the both of them. They both carry on conversations almost the same way. They both talk fast and loose, and neither one of them seems to place periods in his sentences. They inflect their voices, tell stories, and each one has this terrific ability to tap into his interior monologue, to talk to himself while he’s talking to you, to tell himself a story at the same time he’s telling you one. It was no wonder to me when I heard how well the two of them were getting along.

“Eddie’s got this really great idea, I think, as far as what he’s doing with his master sommelier certification. He does seminars for major corporations on ‘power entertaining.’ So what I’m helping Eddie do is get the word out. Basically just marketing and letting people know that he’s out there and he’s doing this, because hardly anyone else is doing what Eddie does. He’s like the only West Coast sommelier who is doing any public-speaking stuff. And so I’m working for him, sending out letters and mailing packets and e-mails to destination-management companies that book all the speakers for other companies who are entertaining clients or having Christmas functions and dinner parties.

“I think the first thing I want to do when I get my master sommelier certification is I want to travel. I want to see the world and work in some of the greatest hotels and figure out where I want to live and maybe someday pursue something along the lines of what Eddie’s doing. I want to turn this whole wine thing into a money-making venture.”

To that end, Jones decided to take the first sommelier test, to enter the Court, as it is called. The Court of Master Sommeliers is the ultimate club for oenophiles. Over the two decades since the Court’s first examination was held, 104 candidates have earned the Master Sommelier diploma. In the service of wine, spirits, and other alcoholic beverages, the Master Sommelier diploma is the ultimate professional credential anyone can attain worldwide.

There are three stages to attain the top qualifications of master sommelier. The Introductory Sommelier course, the Advanced Sommelier course, and the Master Sommelier diploma. The website for the Court of Master Sommeliers states that “The letters ‘M.S.’ after your name will reassure an employer that you are a professional beverage manager and can control an efficient, profitable beverage service.”

I asked Jones to tell me about his experience with the sommelier exam. “It was a class of about 60 people, up in Anaheim, at the Napa Rose Restaurant. We were in a big conference room, with little tables. When I walked into the room, there were already hundreds of full tasting glasses of wine, spit buckets, and glasses of water. And we sat down, and they said, all right, first things first. We’re going to taste some wine. We’re going to try to blind taste these wines, in fact. And we did, and I called some of them out. Recognized a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, which made me feel good and got me thinking maybe I could pull this off.

“And then they went through the wines of the world. And they went through them with a speed that was really intense. They covered Côtes du Rhone in 35 or 40 minutes. And Côtes du Rhone has, you know, 15 or 20 grapes we’re talking here. All very, very fast. And I realized pretty quickly, if you didn’t know a lot of this stuff going in, you weren’t going to learn it at the test. Because they went through everything. It was more to brush you up. And we also tasted dozens and dozens of wines.

“So the class was from 7:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., for two days, and we went through the wines of the world. You know, Romania and Hungary in 6 minutes. Chile in 15 minutes. Italy in 45 minutes. It was amazing. And the test itself, at the end of two days, was really tough. The first four questions, I started to shake. I didn’t think I was going to pass. I didn’t know anything. I couldn’t even guess the first four questions. But then I got, like, 20 or 25 in a row. And a couple of wines that I know from Tapenade really saved me, because we serve them here at work.

“And then, of course, there was the blind tasting. And of all the wines we tasted, I was able to call out a lot of them. A Chablis, a Riesling, a Chianti. It was pretty great. They taught us how to do it, and then we had to try it out. You know, you go through this whole thing with blind tasting: the visual, and then the nose, and then you go into what you think the wine is going to be, trying to figure out the flavors. You draw your initial conclusions, and then you work your way toward a final conclusion of what each wine is, where it’s from, and when it was made. The whole thing was an unbelievable experience.

“On some level, I know that I don’t want to be a waiter for the rest of my life. And I do love my job. I know that waiting tables is a great way to deal with people all the time. And at Tapenade especially, you deal with people who are the cream of the crop, people who are cultured and who have been to France and who know what they’re talking about. And the food’s great, the wine’s nice, but eventually, I’m not going to be doing this. You know, I want to make some money and earn a degree. So when I talked with Eddie about it, again, it was like that bottle of Lafite, that lightbulb, you know, ding-ding, there it is. Now I can finally pursue something that I’ve become passionate about and make some money at it too.”

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