“Jakoby ‘Pur’ Riesling – the name says it all. Like a box full of kittens. Playful, expressive & determined.”
“Viader Cab Franc – A mythic beast robbing you of diminished secrets. Crushed violets in a velvet glove.”
“Meyer Family PN – a seductive flirtation with silk cherry sheets & a cinnamon corset! Naughty & caressing.”
However playful and flirty he might come across, his commitment to wine is serious. He is after a Master Sommelier certification — an elite club of only 190 professionals in North America, including just three Canadians (John Szabo, Jennifer Heuther and Bruce Wallner, all Toronto-based). Robert is determined to join the club by 2016 — a goal he set when he started his studies with the Guild of Master Sommeliers in 2010. He has completed the first two levels, and is working on the third level — Advanced Sommelier certification. To gain the Master Sommelier title, you must be invited to take the exam for the final and fourth level.
“The more I know, the better experience I can create for our guests,” he says. Chambar’s excellent beer selection also helped during the exam, which covers wine, beer, fortified wine (such as sherry and port), spirits and cocktails, sake, coffee and even cigars.
“I never stand still, I never stop. The world of wine changes daily and I want to be on top of my game,” says Robert over coffee at 49th Parallel on Main Street, where he clocked about 500 hours studying for his Advanced Sommelier exams in Washington DC this August.
For those who haven’t studied wine before, it is an all-encompassing field, which includes history, science, religion, geography, geology, meteorology, agriculture, law, politics, finance, and marketing — in addition to soft skills such as courtesy, charm, service and salesmanship. “There’s a great deal of power in a smile,” Robert says. It’s not what happens, he explains, it’s how you handle what is happening that defines the outcome of any given situation.
To enter the Advanced Sommelier course and exam, you must apply with three letters of reference and gain acceptance. Students are expected to have a high level of theoretical knowledge, blind tasting skills, and practical restaurant service before sitting the class and examination. The suggested reading list for the exam includes over 35 books and six magazines.
Students pay a fee and must travel to the city where the course and exam are being held. There are three days of intensive lectures given by a dozen Master Sommeliers, then two days of examination. The exam includes three parts, all of which you must pass to attain the certification. Part one is practical service and salesmanship, part two is a written theory exam, and part three is a blind tasting of six wines.
“It was one of the most emotional weeks of my life,” Robert says of his time in DC. He managed to pass two of the portions of the exam on his first attempt this summer, but couldn’t slip by the theory. He will get back to the books and make another attempt in April 2013 with this experience under his belt.
“There’s a reason why there’s only 190 Master Sommeliers. It’s difficult!”
The tasting exam allowed 25 minutes to taste and review six wines orally to a panel of three Master Sommeliers, who graded him on his efforts to deliver a systematic tasting note, then conclude what type of wine it was, where it came from and the vintage. To prepare for the exam, Robert was doing wine tastings with a recorder and a stopwatch — not exactly the relaxing experience many of us associate with wine drinking.
Why would someone choose to add so much stress to one of the most potentially pleasurable experiences?
“I truly love what I do — I love taking care of guests,” he says, before telling me a story of a guest he recently served at Chambar who remembered him from a dining experience she enjoyed seven years previously at Le Crocodile, and thanked him again for being part of it.
I’ve got to hand it to him — if a guest remembers his service after seven years, I think he has the “charm” element of the certification locked down.