Chewing the Fat
Michael Cooperman's genteel approach to demystifying wine
There's much about wine that's open to satire, but no aspect of the industry is more caricatured than the sommelier. Wine experts have always been humorously depicted in popular culture as being erudite and intimidating in their patronizing indifference toward non-experts. The classic depiction of a wine steward is a tall, thin foreigner who belittles you for your lack of politesse.
In reality, a sommelier is simply a restaurant’s certified wine expert who uses his or her knowledge to choose a restaurant’s wines with an eye toward complementing the cuisine, maintaining the wine list, training the staff and—most importantly—working with customers to help them choose proper wines for their meal and budget. In most of the finer restaurants in Albuquerque, the staff is required to undergo fairly rigorous training, and many of them receive beginning level certifications. The only truly distinguished sommelier title, however, is that of Master Sommelier, awarded by the United Kingdom’s Court of Master Sommeliers. This British organization (and its stateside satellites) is hands down the most revered and sought after, though there are many other credible certifying organizations within the United States.
There are 167 Master Sommeliers in the world, with 96 residing in America. The exams are extremely rigorous. Qualifying to take the final exam alone requires years of preparation. The exhaustive test--which entails identifying, discussing and writing about wines from around the world--has a 3 percent pass rate. All the tests have portions in which candidates are required to blind taste and identify wines. The entry-level exams are much less involved but still require a thorough understanding of wine and a familiarity with different varietals and wine-growing regions, as well as proper wine service and--again, most importantly-
In Albuquerque, a notoriously unpretentious town, the idea that wine drinkers are elitists and that sommeliers are stuffy and rude is dissolving. Here, wine experts are using an inclusive approach to wine sales and customer relations. Thanks to this shift, enjoying wine is no longer a cult of exclusivity. It's become a part of everyday life for many folks who are able to name and discuss the different varietals.
It is imperative to understand that being a sommelier is restaurant-specific and many connoisseurs are not certified sommeliers. Something you'll hear from sommeliers over and over is that although their job may sound glamorous-
Michael Cooperman, the director of education for Southern Wine and Spirits in New Mexico, is a perfect example of today’s more genteel sommelier. Cooperman is arguably the most credentialed wine professional in the state, having attained the grade of Certified Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He is also a Certified Wine Specialist per the Society of Wine Educators, and he has earned a Level Four Diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. Adding to Cooperman’s expertise is his strong French language background, which is certainly a boost in a field where competition is ever-increasing. The Alibi sat down with Michael Cooperman to get an idea of what it means to be a sommelier. Here's what Michael had to offer.