Editor's note: Long before Chris Shepherd became a James Beard Award-winning chef, he developed enough of a passion for wine to work at Brennan's of Houston as a sommelier. He maintains that interest to this day. When Chris expressed interest in writing about wine-related topics for CultureMap, we said yes.
In this week's column, he explains how a master sommeliers taste wine. Take it away, Chris.
To say that wine is a passion of mine is an understatement. I enjoy wine. I enjoy learning about wine. I enjoy learning about the styles, the producers, the varietals. I like to talk about wine, have conversations, read about wine.
To me, it’s a hobby. To some, it’s their life. Their livelihood. We live in a city where we’re lucky enough to have a fantastic wine community — not only restaurants with incredible lists but seven master sommeliers living and breathing among us.
The best part? They’re all teaching the next generation. We have a very strong list of advanced somms in this city, and, at any given time, the number of master somms could go into the double digits as the advanced somms take their tests and pass.
To become a master sommelier, you must pass four exams:
- Introductory Exam, a two-day in-person course covering the world of wine and more.
- Certified Sommelier Exam, focusing on a candidate’s ability to demonstrate proficiency in deductive tasting, wine and beverage theory, and both technical and salesmanship skills in tableside service.
- Advanced Sommelier Exam, a three-part exam like the Certified but at a much deeper level of expertise is tested.
- Master Sommelier Exam, which includes three portions—theory, practical and tasting at an even higher level than the Advanced.
All of this is much harder than it seems. To put it in perspective, there are 273 master sommeliers in the world (and less than 750 advanced somms).
I celebrated my friend Keith Goldston’s birthday over the weekend. He’s the master sommelier at Landry’s — he was America’s 47th master somm. Pretty damn cool.
When you’re sitting at brunch with truly the best of the business, they actually talk about wine! But when Keith broke down the theoretical grid of how he approaches blind tasting, my jaw dropped. I knew he had a lot of knowledge to share, so I stopped by the Post Oak Hotel and sat down with Keith, Julie Dalton (also a master sommelier), and Mastro’s wine director Shaun Prevatt (an advanced somm).
It all comes down to tasting, and they use a grid to guide their tasting. Descriptors are key.
“You can use the grid to work for you and figure out the wine by asking very basic questions without ever tasting the wine,” Goldston says.
Dalton agrees. “Rely on your grid. Hold onto it as your lifeline.”
Keith describes the grid as a flow chart. Ask a question, and if you say yes, get more specific.
“The more you can visualize all those things, you zoom in on what you’re smelling, and you push everything else aside. As my friend master sommelier Kathy Morgan says, ‘Is fruit driving the bus or is earth driving the bus?’ If it’s earth, it must be Old World. If fruit is driving the bus, we’re looking at New World,” he says.
“Guy Stout [Houston’s first master sommelier] says it so beautifully — 'have a conversation with the glass.' Knowing what to ask, listening to the answer, and possibly changing your questions to keep your conversation going. But everything you need to pass is in that glass.”
Keith, Julie, and Shaun all agree that the grid is your guide to the conversation to have with the glass.
So I asked Keith to run the grid for me — to literally talk me through his thought process when he’s tasting. Hold on and buckle up.
“Red wine. Pale ruby fading to an orange browning rim. Ring of garnet makes me think this is 10-15 years of age. Slightest of staining in the tears and viscosity, medium plus.”
On the Nose
“Cleanish but correct. No faults. It’s got this crazy sarsaparilla/root beer/bitter herbs/almost amaro thing going on. Licorice. Prunes, raisins. Craisins, even. Red fruit, black fruit together. Dried, baked, tart, a little bit of plum. A little bit of dehydrated blackberries, cranberries, raspberries.
"You’ve got this leather, barnyard, goat, a little bit of Brettanomyces, definitely a little funk, charcuterie. You’re questioning if maybe you should have had it the day before. A little gamey. A little licorice, nail polish, varnish, balsamic. Balsa wood, model planes — that leads into a whole thing of suntan lotion, woodcutting, wood chips, a fair amount of new oak, most likely American, bourbon barrel thing going on. Definitely showing age on the nose.”
On the Palate
“Clean and correct. A little cleaner on the palate than on the nose. Acid is a medium plus. Tannins, medium. Alcohol, medium plus. Finish is really long and really complex. Bumps the tannins to medium plus.
"A little grippy on the finish from all the barrels. Confirm the use of new American oak on this. A lot of barrel aging. Fruit is a little more tart. Cranberry is much more prevalent. Underripe raspberries. Wild French strawberries. Blackberry is almost gone. All the black fruit seems to disappear. Mushrooms now. Savory notes are there. Meaty, gamey charcuterie. I get a little cigar ash now.
"Very complex wine. Long finish. Leads me to my initial conclusion. I’m going to call this an Old World wine. Possible grapes — Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Pinot Noir. France, Italy, Spain. Age range 10-15 years, maybe even older.”
“It’s a little too dirty and sweet to be Burgundy. I don’t get the tannins firm enough for Italy. So I’ll call it from Spain, from Rioja. Predominantly Tempranillo, Tempranillo blend, Gran Reserva because of the oak, and probably 20 years of age, so 2001 Rioja.”
And you know what? He was right!
It was an amazing thing to sit and watch this unfold in front of me. This is a true testament to the love of and commitment to wine. In addition to witnessing the process, I also got to see the mentorship happening so the next generation can fulfill their dreams, too.
Becoming a master sommelier is not easy. It’s a life commitment. To understand and to be able to have a conversation with what’s in your glass (and blind tasting is only a small part of the path!) is a truly incredible feat. It’s detective-level deduction.
Any time you’re dining out, I encourage you to engage the sommeliers and let them lead you to something new. These folks are really good at what they do.
Want to find all the master sommeliers in Houston? Here’s a quick cheat sheet.
- Keith Goldston, Landry’s: Post Oak Hotel, Mastros
- Julie Dalton, Landry’s: Post Oak Hotel, Stella’s Wine Bar
- Steven McDonald, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse
- June Rodil, Goodnight Hospitality: March, Rosie Cannonball, Montrose Cheese & Wine, The Marigold Club
- Guy Stout, Stout Family Wines
- Jack Mason, Republic National Distributing Company
- Brandon Kerne, Art of Cellaring/Texas Wine School
Give them a high five if you run into them. They earned it.
Contact our Wine Guy via email at email@example.com.
Chris Shepherd won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest in 2014. Last year, he parted ways with Underbelly Hospitality, a restaurant group that currently operates four Houston restaurants: Wild Oats, GJ Tavern, Underbelly Burger, and Georgia James. The Southern Smoke Foundation, a non-profit he co-founded with his wife Lindsey Brown, has distributed more than $10 million to hospitality workers in crisis through its Emergency Relief Fund.