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--customer relations.
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--especially the required travel to many gorgeous wine destinations--it also entails a lot of dirty cellar work, bottle dusting and dealing with irate customers and difficult chefs.
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.
How many sommeliers are there in New Mexico?
As far as certified actual sommeliers, I would guess around 10 to 15, although there may be others that have certifications other than the title of “sommelier.” There are certainly a number of people in the state with just immense experience and passion that don’t have any certifications at all. I may be more “certified” than they, but not necessarily more educated.
The expectation is that sommeliers can pick out a wine in a blind test--almost like a sport. Have you encountered that?
Wine as sport is fairly irrelevant and all they are trying to teach in blind tasting is a deductive reasoning process from which you can learn. Great tasters can correctly choose wines and do so often.
Is there a perfect wine?
This question, of course, depends on your definition of “perfect.” If you subscribe to the 100-point rating system of the mainstream wine-reviewing publications, then yes, there does exist a perfect wine. This perfection depends on the palates of those assessing the wine and the scoring system, which might vary subtly from one magazine or newsletter to the next.
Then what qualifies as perfection for you?
For me, perfection is ultimately elusive and unattainable, especially in wine. But there are some wines that seem to possess such “perfect” character for what they are supposed to be like and have balance and complexity in spades that they might approach “perfection.” The one very important caveat is how the wine is being enjoyed; whether it is being consumed on its own or paired with food that brings out its best qualities.
What separates Arbor Mist and other mass-produced wines from “good wines”?
One of the most common--and true--sayings among winemakers is “quality starts (or is made) in the vineyard.” Bulk wines like Arbor Mist are typically mass-produced products made from grapes grown with high yields in the vineyard and where the land is not as expensive as in places such as Napa Valley or Pomerol. “Good wine” is made from meticulously farmed grapes grown at lower yield levels, creating more intensely flavorful fruit. Making wine from this fruit versus that which is over-cropped is the main separation between the good and the bad. Well-tended grapes will naturally make a wine that is more complex and interesting to drink.
What’s your favorite everyday wine?
Well-made German Riesling--day or night, summer or winter, ask anyone who knows me. There is no wine, white or red, that goes better with more types of food than German Riesling. When it's good--and it doesn’t have to be expensive to be good--its balance of piercing fruit and rock-star acidity just transports me every time. I guess I could say I also really dig and recommend Barbera and Nebbiolo.