Master Sommelier No. 2

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - March 23, 2005
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There’s a smile on Roberto Viernes’ face that seems permanently fixed — and it’s partly to do with all the wine he’s been drinking.

“I have been smiling a lot these past few days,” says the amiable director of education at Southern Wines and Spirits. He’s also been talking a lot to Hawaii’s bestknown wine connoisseur Chuck Furuya.

“I’ve had several conversations with him this past week,” comments Furuya. “It takes a while for this to sink in. “

Furuya should know.

For the past 18 years he’s been Hawaii’s only master sommelier, and one of a rarified group in America.

Viernes just raised the numbers to two and 71.

Not a lot, when you consider the thousands of people who study for the notoriously difficult exams each year.

For Viernes, the journey began almost 10 years ago when he borrowed the money from his girlfriend (now wife) to take the first in a series of wine courses.

“I found exactly what I wanted to do,” says the earnest Viernes. “Right away I knew that I wanted to be involved in this field.” As an apprentice chef, he thought that the wine pairing knowledge would be useful — little did he know that he had found an outlet for his talent — and one that would change the course of his career.

Furuya, who for a decade or so was the chairman of education for the Court of Master Sommeliers, knows more about the test than most — he used to set the questions and work on the practical exams.

“It’s an incredibly hard test,” he says. “But I do think that it takes more than knowledge to pass. It take inner strength, and Roberto had that this year.”

If you think you know a little about wine, then imagine this.

Tested on their wine knowledge (a typical question may be “name the great vintages of Bordeaux prior to 1975),” aspiring masters are put through their paces by severely critical judges. They are tested on their powers of detection (identifying wines in a blind tasting) and on their capabilities dealing with “real-life” restaurant/wine situations and very picky customers.

This, for Roberto, was the most difficult part of all.

“It’s like working in a busy restaurant on the worst night of your life,” he says seriously. “You have to understand that they (the judges) don’t want to pass you — they are looking for ways to fail you, so it’s an incredibly tense evening.”

Test situations include having guests deliberately spill wine, argue about wine at table, and refusing to drink their host’s chosen wine.

How the aspiring MS deals with all of these situations has as much to do with success as theoretical knowledge.

Considering the miniscule pass rate, does it take more than just dedication to succeed?

Furuya thinks so.

“There’s definitely a God-given element, I think, in that some more than others have the sensory abilities and the memory capabilities.”

And of, course, the passion.

At Southern, now that Viernes has earned his place with the great wine connoisseurs of the world, he can keep on practicing his work on a daily basis.

“The greatest thing about working here,” he says, “is that I have the opportunity to taste so many wines and learn so much.”

And as if to illustrate his point, he enthuses about tasting wines from Bulgaria, Japan, Switzerland and Hungary. At an average of about 100 different wines a week, Roberto has tasted more than 26,000 glasses of wine in the past five years.

No wonder he’s smiling!

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