Monday, 31 December 2018

The Road to Certification: My Sommelier Journey


My wine journey began with a slight underlying restlessness at work. I’m an airline pilot by profession and enjoy what I do but after several years of the same airplane, the same routes, the same delays at times I felt something was missing. I remember looking at my RRSP account and seeing 30+ years until my planned retirement and I knew something had to change. New Airline perhaps? New Hobby? I just wanted something new to stimulate and challenge me as I think it’s healthy to keep things dynamic. 

Most airline pilots have a small side business due to the amount of time off we usually have. Some pilots teach tennis, consult on home solar panel projects, run (like medal winning running) which made me start to wonder what my side business could be. I enjoy personal finance, I love real-estate, but while sipping wine I said wouldn’t it be great if I could turn this into a business. 

In January of 2016, I enrolled in Wines 1 at George Brown College. I didn’t know that I would go beyond Wines 1, just that it was cold and dreary outside so I might as well take a fun three month, once a week evening wine course. I remember walking in feeling confident (Airline Captain, confident? … go figure) only to realize how little I knew. You see, I’ve been sipping and reading about wine since before flight college over a decade ago. I knew however I was lost when the prof starts talking about the difference between left bank and right bank Bordeaux…I bank at T.D. does that count? 


My instructor was good but I figured I learned enough to be happy with that. The next year in now January of 2017 I enrolled in Wines 2 as my thirst for wine and more knowledge dominated my brain as time passed since leaving wines 1. I remember a fellow student asking me if I plan to take the Sommelier program and just like I shunned the idea of taking Wines 2, I laughed them off. However just like after leaving Wines 1, and now Wines 2…my thirst hadn’t stopped. After some thought and much deliberation, I jumped into the CAPS Certified Sommelier Program, nerves be dammed.



There I was on day 1 of orientation on a summer’s day in August. I was nervous, who were my fellow classmates going to be? Were they going to be wine snobs? Would I like them?  Would they like me? Would I even have the palate to keep up with some classmates which would probably have actual experience in the wine world already? I thought I may be a bit of an outcast being a pilot, or so I thought. My classmates consisted of mostly people already in the industry working as bartenders or servers wanting to climb the ranks but there were a few professionals from marketing to various executives including one retired student who I guess felt a bit restless as well. 




Our class started with maybe 20 or so students but quickly dwindled down to 15 as we all realized the scope of what we were in for. Becoming a certified Sommelier is like an airline pilot in a sense, it’s a profession and trade that takes years to master. A somm is required to know about grapes, regions, countries, soils, climate, “terroir” wine laws, language, ageing requirements…oh and to know these wines inside and out via blind tasting. A pilot needs to know how to fly an airplane, obviously, but we need to know about weather, physics, navigation, meteorology, mechanical problem solving, customer service etc. Both of these professions require more than simply “I’m good with numbers” or “I have a photographic memory” well that’s great, but that’s only 10% of what you need to be successful in both professions. Take below for instance, taste 10 different white wines that all look and taste similar, now describe in detail what they are and why. 


The Sommelier program was once a week on Mondays from 09:30-3/4pm usually followed by “tasting” or simply having some fun after class with my fellow students kicking back and nerding out. We had a formal tasting group another night of the week which was all business. We would start class with theory until about noon, break for lunch and then taste into the mid-afternoon. We would taste anywhere from 6-10 wines per class and really try and remember the colour, the acidity, the tannin, the fruit and place it all into our memory index of wine. We would learn about the differences between Chardonnay from Burgundy vs California, the difference between oaked and unoaked and then the differences between American oak and French oak. Honing a palate to detect such small differences took time, practice, dedication and above all…spitting. Sure, once in a while we would taste wine so divine I would rather die than spit it out but this is not child’s play, this is the airline pilot certification of wine courses. Don’t get me wrong, after class the bottles would pop and our teeth would be as red as our cheeks by night, which is why I usually bid Tuesday’s off work.


We tasted around 1,000 wines between class and our private tasting groups so we really tried hard to separate business from pleasure as goofing off would simply lead to a failing grade. The one plus was after tasting there would usually be 1/3rd or 1/4thof several bottles left so the host would have some options for dinner that week if we didn’t stay and finish them off. Sometimes we would sip into the wee hours of the morning with philosophical discussions such as “If you were a wine, which wine would you be” and “what wine do you think you are vs what wine other people think you are”. Very deep, very late, very intoxicated discussions. Let’s just say we really got to know a lot about each other and our wines. 



We sadly lost a friend during the program that passed away who was facing their own demons. We knew they were having some troubles but they really started to improve only to shock us all with his sudden passing. It was emotional for many of us because after spending so many hours together it’s hard not to get attached as friends even when we got on each other’s nerves. Dam, it ripped our class apart, but we slowly rebuilt.



That’s one thing we all learned, take a bunch of people, put them through class after class, tasting after tasting, wine glass after wine glass and eventually, some honest opinions were given. We all got along and have become friends but there were moments where some of us were pushed to the max and you could tell, heck it was a hard program. If you didn’t cry at least once through this program, well good for you but I’m pretty sure we all did. Some wouldn’t sleep before a big exam, personally, I went to bed nice and early but woke up at 5 or 6am for coffee and tasting. In the dark, tasting wine at my island at 6am before an exam….it was a bizarre experience. 



We each had to do different projects on wine regions and present them to the class, prepare essay’s, blind taste, verbal blind taste…oh and don’t forget about the service portion. I did 60 hours at Biff’s Bistro on Front Street East learning the ropes as an intern. It went pretty smooth as I didn’t break one bottle or glass but I did manage to drop a plate which smashed into literally 1,000 pieces as the whole restaurant looked at me and my manager came running. Hey, an accident in the wine world is much better than one in an airplane so I wasn’t too upset about it. 



There were times our professors pushed us to improve on our tastings and at times we felt we didn’t have it in us, but they kept pushing us forward. Was the acidity Medium or Medium Plus, the Tannin we know was high but what type of tannin, coarse, smooth, fine? How was the oak? Large American New Oak or Small second or third use French Oak, maybe Slovenian Botte used in Northern Italy? The debates and narrowing in on our wines were practiced, practiced and practiced until we either couldn’t taste anymore, were too intoxicated or simply gave up. It was hard slugging but the one thing that kept us all going was our love for wine. It really was all about the love we had for wine. It wasn’t a conscious choice to continue, the drive came from within. That inner drive is what you need to succeed, not just wanting it with your brain, but wanting it with your heart. 



We would talk about wine with such passion it would give us the fuel we required to keep going. Some of us had a friendly spirited competition for top marks, best-tasting notes…sometimes I held the reigns but mostly that was held by others. I’m happy to say I graduated with honours but I hold in high regard every single person who can call themselves a somm. If you think a flight attendant is just a server at 25,000 feet and a Somm is simply a wine waiter you couldn’t be further from the truth. Highly trained, highly skilled and both can save your life, ok maybe one more literally than the other but a good somm can at least change your life. 



The interesting thing about a Sommelier certification is that it attracts ambitious and hungry people. I am an A-Type guy who is ambitious and enjoys a good challenge hence I went into wine. This is not for the week or meek, you have to be hungry and want it from deep down. I like flying but I don’t aspire to build or repair my own airplane, in wine however you have to want to design it, make it, taste it and sell it. You have to have a fire and passion for wine other than simply gulping it down with dinner uttering words like “taste good” or “mmm nice full body”. You have to want to know why. Why do vines that are planted on a southeast facing slope in Burgundy taste different from those that face west? Also, how high up the hill, soil composition…the list and expectations are endless. 


If I were to pass on any advice for anyone considering wine in a serious way it would be that you already know if you want to learn more or not. I shouldn’t have to sell you on why being an airline pilot is a great profession because those who know are pursuing it already, they’ve caught the bug. If you are reading this then perhaps you should consider studying wine, you clearly are interested enough! It’s not that it was difficult in an insurmountable way or only those with naturally gifted palates can pass, you just have to want it really bad and not be afraid to put in the hundreds of hours in to get it. There is nothing wrong with sipping wine casually with friends, but that doesn’t make you a certified sommelier.



It was a great year of my life, an expensive, whirlwind adventure into the world of wine and one that I wouldn’t change for any amount of time or money. I loved it! I’ve started a business “The Flying Somm” and am starting up a wine school for The Vintage Conservatory so I guess you could say things are off to a flying start. If you told me a few years ago I would be teaching downtown Toronto executives about fine wine by starting a wine school I would have said that’d be sweet dreaming. That’s the fun thing about wine, the opportunities are truly endless when you go down the rabbit hole.



To my fellow students who are now friends and professors who are now colleagues, thank you for one of the best years of my life!


I also have to send a special shout out to my boyfriend Joseph who dealt with more than enough spit cups and drunken shenanigans from my fellow somm students and I. Jo you deserve a medal of honour or at least a nice dinner out. Thank you. 



Happy Sipping,

Ryan Sullivan 

www.TheFlyingSomm.ca


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