You’ve heard of sommeliers. They’re wine experts who’ve studied the grapes, varietals, winemaking methods, sugar levels, acid levels, chemical compounds—everything that makes a good wine and determines how well it will pair with your dinner. This isn’t a self-appointed title like “social media guru.” This is a very grueling, specific, years-long testing program overseen by the Court of Master Sommeliers, a British organization.
There are three tests and certifications that matter. First is Certified Sommelier (the entry-level title, but still no easy feat). Then Advanced Sommelier (hundreds if not thousands of study hours and practical experience). And the end-all, be-all is to become a Master Sommelier (you’ve dedicated your life to wine, and your firstborn will be named Assyrtiko).
Since the first exam in 1969, only 214 people in the world have been named a Master Sommelier. Stories abound about sommeliers giving up after their fourth or fifth try. “I’ve heard of people walking into the blind tasting, sniffing the glasses and saying, ‘I’ve got nothing—I’m out of here,’” says Joshua Orr, an Advanced Sommelier who oversees the wine program at San Diego’s Marina Kitchen.
Orr takes his test this week. Expectations are high, especially since he just won Top Somm, an annual competition that crowns the best up-and-coming sommelier in America. Top Somm gathers some of the brightest and best from across the US and sends them through a competition in which they’re heckled, flustered and harassed by Master Sommeliers. They’re tested on wine service, wine theory, and have to execute a blind tasting in which they sniff, sip and analyze six unnamed glasses of wine and try to nail the global region, the grapes, the approximate age, whether it’s oaked, who made it, etc.
The previous four winners were from The French Laundry, the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, Café Boulud and Hotel Fauchere. And now Orr.
“It’s a hardcore achievement,” says Domaine Select Wine Estate’s Ted Glennon, who was named one of the country’s top sommeliers by Food & Wine magazine in 2012. “It’s an intense, dizzying set of challenges—to compete is a total display of badassery.”
We asked Orr about the experience:
How’s it feel?
It’s a humungous honor. I always looked at the competitors and winners and said, “Oh, man—you’re the man.”
Tell me a feel-good story about civic San Diego pride.
Usually in these things it’s New York versus San Francisco versus Chicago. When I moved here five years ago, a mentor told me, “San Diego is where sommeliers go to die.” But we recently had a Master Sommelier down here and he was shocked at the talent level. Another San Diego guy—Brian Donegan, formerly of Market—is going with me next week to take the Master Sommelier exam.
Had you tried to enter the competition before?
Yeah. I’d never advanced beyond the initial round prior to last year, when I was allowed in as the “Top New Somm.” I’ve probably taken it two times maybe three prior to that.
What’s the competition like?
You start with the written exam online. It’s timed. They encourage you to Google and cheat because if you do, you’ll never finish on time.
What’s the blind tasting like?
You’re presented with six glasses of wine. In competition, they tend to be less obvious stuff. You gotta expect it. You just know they’re gonna screw with you. We had an Australian Riesling and they threw two sparkling wines at us. Then the questions come: How do you think it’s made? Is there lees contact? What style? What are the primary grapes? How old do you think it is? What’s the retail price of it? I got those right on the first one—a Pinot Noir-dominant Champagne from Bollinger.
There’s a “service” portion of the competition?
Yeah, you actually have to serve wine to these Master Sommeliers while getting harassed at the same time. It’s no-holds-barred, and it’s not meant to be fair. I got quizzed on Calvados and brandy. They were peppering me with the minimum alcohol, which apple types are used, name three small producers, what’s the alcohol level when it’s shipped, whether it’s batched still or continuous still, what’s the soil like…. And while all of this is going on, I have to walk around a table and serve wine.
Go back to the contest. You’ve just picked up a glass of white wine. What’s in your head?
Wine No. 1 was herbal and super mineral, but had a little elevated alcohol. It had a Sauvignon Blanc character, but it’s not super herbal so maybe it’s a riper style of white like Blanc de Blanc or Assyrtico. There’s a chive character to it. It doesn’t fit the Old World style. It ended up being a Sonoma Valley Sauvignon Blanc.
What part was the most nerve-wracking?
The second wine, because the nose was off. I’m at a blind tasting at Top Somm. Do I dare call the wine a little corky? I’m afraid they’re going to walk over to me and whisper, “Son, you’re going to need to politely bow out of the competition for suggesting we would ever serve a corked wine at Top Somm.” Well, I ended up saying that the nose was corked—and I got points for doing so.
How the hell do you break that down?
Certain grape varieties have certain markers. There are chemical compounds called pyrazines. It puts off a green bell pepper note that’s very prevalent in Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc and Merlot. If you can identify that in a glass of wine it makes the world of possible answers so much smaller. Rotundone is a chemical that smells like black pepper, so I’d think something like Syrah or Mourvédre. From there, it’s matching with structure. Sauv Blancs have high acid. Rieslings, too. Gewürztraminers have low acid and high alcohol. Sangiovese has a really distinctive orange color, but it’s also high acid and high tannin. You’re thinking, Is it ripe? Is it overripe? Dry? Jammy? All those things can point to climate, part of the world, Old World or New World.
I’m thirsty. Give me a recent “find” that you’re excited about at Marina Kitchen…
Samsara’s Turner Vineyard Syrah from Santa Rita Hills. It has that dark berry flavor but it’s not over the top. What I love is it’s got that peppery, smoky, olive, almost bacon character. But it’s not so heavy that it knocks you off your feet. I’m also huge on dry Rieslings. We do a great one called Wagner-Stemple that I just brought on by the glass.
The ultimate bottle on your list? For when I sell my startup.
The 91 Vega Sicilia Unico. That’s arguably the most heralded wine out of Spain—a Tempranillo. A crazy wine, made by a family so wealthy that they don’t have to worry about the bottom line. So they have 100-year-old vines and age it as long as they see fit. On our list it’s $525. Unfortunately, it does live up to the price. Damn you for being so expensive, and damn you for being so good.
Biggest part of your success as a sommelier?
Having access to a consistent, high-quality tasting group. Getting your MS is like a marathon—you need constant exposure and training.
So you and sommelier pals get together regularly and taste? Who pays for all the wine? I’m assuming it’s not Barefoot and Smoking Loon.
We pay for it ourselves. This isn’t cheap. It’s like getting a degree. Instead of spending it on books, you’re spending it on alcohol—which most college kids do anyway.
Anything else new?
I jumped on the Coravin bandwagon and I’m having fun with it. It looks like a little hand pump with a needle on it, and it lets you pull a glass of wine without uncorking the bottle. So I use it to feature four different wines—something old and something new. For instance I’m doing a Riesling from 1989 that you can taste for $8. I’ve got a 10 year-old Napa Valley Merlot. I’m going to start posting which wines I’m offering on the Twitter feed (@somm_morr).
How’d mom react to the Top Somm win?
She was on the east coast waiting up in a hotel room for me to call. I’ve done well but never great in competitions. So my dad joked, “Well, you picked a hell of a time to break through.”