More than just a bartender or wine steward, a Master Sommelier is an expert certified in wine, food pairing and customer service. As part of their testing, they must be able to distinguish not just a wine varietal but also the country of origin simply by tasting.
“It’s blind tasting, technique, being able to recommend things according to a person’s palate and what they like,” Wahl said, in summary of the skills a sommelier must possess.
Only 120 of these Jedis exist in the world, and Wahl would be only the second in Georgia. Most work at five-star restaurants or as consultants to a global clientele, but you can find Wahl at his Vineyard Wine Market on Evans-to-Lock Road.
Wahl will tell you that regardless of his expertise in wine-industry minutia, the purpose of a sommelier is simple: to make people happy.
“A lot of people will rely on someone else’s taste to define what they like, and that makes it hard for people to enjoy wine,” Wahl said. “I like to find out what flavor profile people like and go from there, regardless of the rating.”
As a young Padawan learner, Wahl was employed for eight years at Cadwallader’s Café. The restaurant required weekly wine tastings and roundtable discussions to expand employees’ understanding. Then he developed the wine list for the former D. Timm’s jazz café and learned what it meant to serve a public.
“There is a Southern palate, without a doubt. A lot of people in the South like the young wines that are fresh and fruity, as opposed to things that might have a little bottle age and bouquet,” Wahl said. He did not see it as his job to tell people what they should like.
He did try to help people expand their likes by introducing them to more possibilities within their flavor profile. Malbecs, for example, did well for Southern clients. But he caters to many different palates at Vineyard Wine Market. Thirty percent of his clients have a military background and request wines they have encountered during their travels.
New transplants to the South are often surprised to find brands they enjoyed back home. Some clients wander aimlessly, unsure of themselves. Wahl said the key in helping them all is to listen to what his clients like and explore the best quality in each style. What began as a job requirement has become a passion.
It will take passion to carry him through. It takes an average of eight years to complete the four-test process. For the first test alone, Wahl estimated he spent six to eight months studying 30 hours a week. He is exempt from the second test —
they’ve since split the test he took into two — and will take the third early next year. The fourth is by invitation only.
“The only way you can do that is either to be in the business or have a massive disposable income,” he said — cost can be prohibitive, with tests starting at $800 — and it is often easy to tell who is who. People who are not in the business often
stumble when it comes time to serve someone else; likewise, people skilled in service sometimes stumble in the academics.
“There was a guy beside me who I don’t think knew what he was getting into. He was the manager of some country club up north and they sent him down with high expectations. He was sweating the whole time and didn’t pass the test.”
The written test consists of short answer, true or false, and multiple choice questions on topics such as salesmanship, the history of a varietal, the climate and soil profile of a wine producing region, and the basics of the winemaking process.
“They make those choices very difficult and they really tune into whether or not you’re paying attention to detail. One of those answers can seem like it’s right but there can be a little variable that can make it wrong,” Wahl said.
There are no requirements in the United States to be certified for this, and there’s only one recognized organization: the Court of Master Sommeliers, based in London. All study is independent, although the court matches students with mentor sommeliers.
Wahl’s mentor was also a psychologist who told him, above all, to be confident with his answers. Testers try to identify and exploit weaknesses to see how a student handles it. But in what is often a Socratic experience, confidence can be difficult even for experts.
“The more I learn about wine, I learn I can never stop learning about wine,” Wahl said. “The more knowledge you gain, the more humble you are.”