PHOTOS BY DEBBIE CUNNINGHAM
Sacramento’s epicurean renaissance is in full swing, with new restaurants popping up seemingly overnight. With an increased demand for artful, refined cuisine comes an equivalent demand for wines that complement that cuisine. Wine lists today include selections produced within the Greater Sacramento area as well as those from the far corners of the globe, with extraordinary varietals never before seen in the Capital City.
Behind those lists are Sacramento’s sommeliers, an elite, tightknit community of wine professionals whose ultimate aim is to maximize the enjoyment of the dining experience. Sommeliers spend countless hours studying, tasting, pouring, and pairing. They can break down a complex wine profile into a summary that the casual diner understands. Their training, provided by the Court of Master Sommeliers, means they know that diacetyl translates to butter, pyrazines to bell pepper, and rotundone to black pepper.
The Court of Master Sommeliers is an educational and certification entity charged with ensuring consistent, high standards in wine serving and pairing. Through in-depth courses and rigorous testing, the court offers four levels of certification for wine professionals: Introductory, Certified, Advanced, and Master — the highest, and most elusive, honor. So elusive, in fact, that only 274 people have been awarded the title since the court’s founding in 1977.
Those who undergo the process of certification, no matter the level, bring considerable expertise and sophistication to the communities they serve. Just the process of preparing for an exam elevates a wine professional’s knowledge, which naturally trickles down to the consumer, especially in growing markets, says William Kramer, a retired surgeon and wine director at Sacramento restaurant 58 Degrees & Holding.
“Having trained sommeliers to pair fantastic wine with our fantastic local food offerings can only improve the area’s reputation,” he says. “Sacramento is a city that’s growing tremendously in terms of wine and food. The reputation of farm to fork is well known nationwide.”
Sacramentans have two certified Advanced Sommeliers in our midst: Elizabeth-Rose Mandalou, co-owner of Allora, Woodlake Tavern, and Uptown Pizza Kitchen; and Keith Fergel, manager of Taylor’s Kitchen.
GROWING WINE SCENE
Elizabeth-Rose Mandalou is passionate about her native Sacramento and hopes her Advanced Sommelier certification will bring more awareness to the city’s burgeoning wine scene. Sacramento has firmly established its craft beer and coffee culture, and it’s only natural wine will follow, she says.
“We have fabulous restaurants, and some of them can certainly compete on a national level,” she says. “I think our wine culture as a whole needs to grow. More can be done to raise awareness and get people excited about wine. I have a lot of fun with my list, and I love introducing people to new wines, especially from areas they wouldn’t expect.”
Named one of the Best New Sommeliers of 2018 by Wine & Spirits magazine, Mandalou says sommeliers are an integral part of the dining experience. Choosing the right wine is like adding the final ingredient to a dish, like a squeeze of lemon or a sprinkle of salt.
“There is a level of trust that is established with a sommelier and a guest,” she says. “I think for casual drinkers, it should be that the wine was carefully picked and selected by someone who is trained to know what the wine should taste like. You should know that we have carefully, artfully, and lovingly selected every wine to complement our cuisine.”
Mandalou says until the CMS, there were no official standards or certifications for restaurant professionals pursuing careers in wine. The rigorous process means those who come through the other side are the most devoted and determined of the bunch.
“This is considered the top tier of wine certifications, and it’s an elite group of individuals who have all failed more than they succeeded,” she says.
Mandalou’s journey into the world of wine began when she was working as a server at Ella Dining Room and Bar in Sacramento. Surrounded by so many knowledgeable professionals, she realized she had a lot to learn about food and wine. After taking the CMS Introductory Course & Examination, she became thirsty for more. She went on to take the Certified Sommelier Exam, which she passed on the first attempt.
When Mandalou was accepted to sit for the Advanced-level exam, she and her husband, chef Deneb Williams, had just opened Sacramento’s Woodlake Tavern, were planning to open Uptown Pizza Kitchen in a few weeks, and were in lease negotiations for Allora. She had no choice but to dive head first into her studies.
“I completely obsessed about everything,” she says. “I made stacks and stacks of flash cards, which I compulsively looked over while stuck in traffic, in the line at the grocery store, at my desk, and walking around.”
Then, a month before the exam, she herniated two discs in her neck, making walking and standing nearly impossible, let alone holding a tray and serving, as required in the practical portion of the exam.
“Throughout this six months of hard-core focus, I learned that I am stronger than I think I am,” she says. “This has helped me realize that if I put my mind to something, especially when other people think I cannot do it, I push myself until I achieve my goal.”
Mandalou credits her success to fellow sommeliers, who mentored her and studied with her, pelting her with question after question in preparation for the exam.
“The journey to becoming an Advanced Sommelier is not something you can do alone. In fact, teamwork and mentorship are the pillars to success,” Mandalou says.
Mandalou is especially passionate about Greek wines. Some of her favorites include Moscofilero, a crisp, intensely aromatic white from the Peloponnese that she pairs with fried smelt and skordalia (a garlic and potato spread); Assyrtiko, a bright white from Santorini with aromas of lemon peel and volcanic undertones; and Agiorgitiko, a plummy, velvety red with hints of spice, also from the Peloponnese. All are available at Allora.
A UNIFYING FORCE
Advanced Sommelier Keith Fergel calls the Court of Master Sommeliers a “unifying force” that brings together the most dedicated and passionate wine experts. He acknowledges that diners don’t always understand the struggles, challenges, and camaraderie that go on behind the scenes, but he is proud of the mutual quest to elevate the wine world, both in Sacramento and beyond.
“It’s the process of moving through the fundamentals of this exam that makes us better professionals, strengthens our community, and makes the experiences that our guests have in our restaurants better,” he says.
Fergel, who has poured at the Tower Bridge Dinner for the past three years, says he is proud to have been embraced by such a vibrant community of wine professionals. He also is proud to work alongside the city’s newest generation of up-and-coming sommeliers.
“It really is an exciting time. I have had the opportunity to taste and study with the best Sacramento has to offer and can say, without a doubt, that there is a burgeoning wine scene in Sacramento,” Fergel says.
Fergel’s interest in wine sprung from necessity. While working as a busboy in his hometown of Modesto, he was offered a position as a waiter. Only 17 at the time, he felt a bit out of place.
“After getting the job, I had no idea about wine and spirits and developed a phobia of being found out as a fake,” he says. “I voraciously read Wine Spectator and other glossy publications to educate myself in order to gain the respect of my managers and peers.”
His career took him to some of the most renowned restaurants in the U.S. and beyond, including The French Laundry in Yountville. Under the tutelage of Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey, who was wine director at the time, Fergel won the inaugural national title of Best Young Sommelier at the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs Jeunes Sommeliers competition in 2002.
Although he passed the Advanced Sommelier exam in 2001, the Master’s title has eluded him. In 2003, he passed the theory and service portions but failed the tasting, a result that he called “heartbreaking.” But he wasn’t alone in his heartbreak. The Master Sommelier exam is notoriously brutal, with an average pass rate of only 8 percent. The exam is comprised of a blind tasting, in which candidates have 25 minutes to identify a wine’s varietal, country of origin, district, appellation, and vintage. Only nine candidates have ever passed on the first attempt.
As for Fergel’s favorite wines? At the moment, dry wines from Germany, including a Schäfer-Fröhlich pinot blanc and Hans Wirsching dry silvaner, both of which are available at Taylor’s Market for less than $20.
“I think they represent some of the best white wine values in the world,” Fergel says.
He recently paired a flinty 2013 Reinhold Haart Goldtröpfchen Grosses Gewächs Riesling with a Japanese-style ceviche with ginger, chili, and scallion ponzu topped with avocado, tobiko, and nori. The wine is available at Taylor’s Market for less than $40.
Whether from the rocky volcanic soil of Santorini or the steep clay slopes of Germany’s Moselle River, sommeliers bring the world to Sacramento. Casual drinkers may not always be aware of the hard work and heartache behind each glass of wine they sip, but they benefit nonetheless. Thanks to the Court of Master Sommeliers, Sacramento’s wine experts elevate and enhance the overall dining experience here in the Capital City.
58 Degrees & Holding
1217 18th St., Sacramento
5215 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento
2924 Freeport Blvd., Sacramento
2900 Freeport Blvd., Sacramento
Uptown Pizza Kitchen
1431 Del Paso Blvd., Sacramento
1431 Del Paso Blvd., Sacramento