Master Sommelier Jesse Becker, a Nebraska native, is a new wine columnist for The World-Herald. An occasional wine column will appear in the go magazine as part of enhanced coverage of this topic. Today is the first one.
Becker started his California-based company, Pťriphťrique Wine Merchants, in 2010. PWM Wines imports wine from small, high-quality producers and specializes in the wines of Burgundy, Jura and Northern Italy. Becker personally selects every wine in its portfolio. He has worked for some of the country's top restaurants, including Tra Vigne in Napa Valley, Charlie Trotter's and NoMI in Chicago, Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colo., and the Boiler Room Restaurant in Omaha. His training has included harvests: Miner Family Winery in Napa Valley 2001; Maison Camille Giroud in Burgundy 2004; and Alphonse Mellot in Sancerre 2008.
Read on to find out more about his certification, the Court of Master Sommeliers and his philosophy on the drink.
Q: Tell me about how you got into wine.
A: I started at Meyer's Cork and Bottle on 13th and South (Streets) in Lincoln. At the time it was just a place to work because I needed a job, but that's where I started tasting and reading about wine. I left in 2001 for California to work in Napa Valley.
Q: Tell us what it means to be a master sommelier and how you became one.
A: The Court of Master Sommeliers originated in London and gave its first exam in 1977. Since then, 197 people around the world have passed the master exam. There are four levels of exams: the introductory level; the certified sommelier level which includes an exam and a blind tasting; the advanced sommelier which is really difficult; and then the master, which is even more difficult. I passed the master exam in 2008. It took me four years to complete the work.
Some of the best sommeliers in the U.S. have no certification at all. The court is the only certifying body out there. It's a very high standard. There are two chances for people to take the master exam each year in the U.S.
The master exam is very challenging and includes three parts. There is a service component where you go into a room and it's a mock restaurant situation. Master sommeliers are sitting at the tables and you have to go through scenarios where at one table you might have to decant wine — when you open and pour a bottle into a decanter to separate the wine from sediment or to let it breathe — and at one you might open a bottle of champagne, and while you are doing those various tasks they ask you more questions about wine. A big part of it is being a gracious and humble host. We have to be elegant and have lots of finesse in our physical movement and how we communicate with the guest.
Then the second part of the exam is a blind tasting where three master sommeliers sit at a table and the candidate has 24 minutes to blind taste-test six wines, three white and three red, and describe them accurately. In the master exam you have to provide a variety, a country, a region and a vintage and you have to be right on all six wines to pass.
Then the final part is an oral exam where you go into a room with a panel of three other master sommeliers and they just fire away for about 30 minutes. They can ask you any question they want about wine. To me, that's really the hardest part.
Q: Tell me about your philosophy on wine.
A: I've never been a big points guy. It's never mattered to me if the wine has 100 or 95 points from a critic. (Wine publications, such as Wine Spectator, rank how much they like a certain wine by ranking it on a scale of 1 to 100.) I see wine as an essential part of the table and the dining experience. It's part of my everyday life. I will typically have a glass of wine at lunch. I know not everyone does, but for me, it's part of the daily experience. I am really an advocate for lots of different types of wine. The point isn't to be impressive. Some wines are inexpensive but they also work extremely well with certain food.
Q. What do you think of the notion of Nebraska being more of a beer state than a wine state?
A: Well, I love drinking beer, too. I think Nebraskans love drinking wine, and I can tell it's growing in popularity. Restaurant wine lists in Omaha and Lincoln are much more diverse than even a few years ago. There's a lot more available and I think that's a great thing. And it's then that you start seeing those selections in the wine shops, too.
Q: Tell me about your company, PWM Wine.
A: PWM Wine is a small wine importer. We work with about 20 producers that we're importing and selling those wines to restaurants and other wine merchants in California. We're also distributing in Nebraska.
Q: Where should a wine newbie begin?
A: Well, I suggest starting with what I call the six most important international grapes. You can start by trying those either in a restaurant or buying a bottle. For the reds the grapes are Syrah, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon; and for the whites they are Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Chardonnay. It's a great way to find out what your preferences are and what your palette is.
Q: Should people be intimidated by wine?
A: No. That's why I champion wines that tend to be very affordable. I champion regional and local wines from places around the world that are important to certain cuisines. You can buy a bottle of some of these wines for under $10 and, with the right food and the right context, it just makes the dining experience really special. I'm always happy to taste collectible, iconic wines but that isn't the kind of wine that I drink on a daily basis. Wine should be a daily drink.
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