Vino Phenom

It’s unheard of in the wine biz for someone so young to acquire all of the skills necessary to be a master sommelier, but Roberto Viernes accomplishes the feat

Katie Young
Friday - September 09, 2005
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Roberto Viernes was first
introduced to the world of win
in 1997. Today, he is one of
only two people in Hawaii to
hold the distinction of master

You wanna be a what? A master sommelier? From plans to attend optometry school to instead becoming a master of wines, Iolani graduate Roberto Viernes’career choice left his family a bit confused.

“At first my parents didn’t know what to think,” laughs Viernes, 31, who graduated from UH-Manoa with a degree in French language. “They weren’t sure what a sommelier was. My parents really wanted me to become a doctor, so for a while there they weren’t really sure. But now they see what I do and they’re very proud.”

Viernes passed The Court of Master Sommeliers master examination earlier this year after nine years of learning just about everything there is to know about the world of wines.

Now Viernes is one of the youngest master sommeliers in the world, the top professional qualification for wine experts, and he’s one of two who carry the MS distinction in Hawaii - the other is well-known master sommelier Chuck Furuya.

Viernes introduces a new Burgundy to
Southern Wine & Spirits VPs Bob Morse
and Kevin Burkett

Not just anyone can become a master sommelier. In fact, the exam is given just once a year in the U.S. and once a year in Europe. Since The Court of Master Sommeliers - the international examining body for master sommeliers - was established in 1977, only 123 candidates have earned their master’s diploma.

“It’s an extremely high level of difficulty for the examinations,” says Viernes, who currently serves as the director of education for Southern Wine and Spirits of Hawaii, training in-house staff on wine as well as coordinating wine education events statewide. “There are three levels of certifications for the master sommelier program and each level is a quantum leap higher in difficulty.”

Almost a decade ago, Viernes, whose previous experience with wine was limited to Sunday church communion, signed up for the basic sommelier certificate course taught by Chuck Furuya after seeing an ad in the paper.

“After graduating from college, I planned to go to France for culinary school,” he says. “I also did a short apprenticeship for a French chef in Niu Valley who had a restaurant called Clicquo. When I saw the ad in the paper for the wine course, I thought it might be a good idea to learn about food and wine pairing.”

Viernes says he was unprepared for the big world of wine.

“My first experience was extremely stressful,” he admits. “I didn’t have all the money to take the course so I had to borrow money from my girlfriend (now his wife, Christine Loke.) The course was at Ihilani and I was taking copious notes because I had no idea what I was doing. It was all a foreign language to me. The only thing I could do was pronounce some of the names of the wines because I spoke French.”

That first course taught Viernes how to taste wines, wine service and wine laws around the world.

He also learned the methodology of doing blind tasting deductions of wines, where you use a master’s method to distinguish by taste everything from what region, or appellation, the wine is from to the type of grape it is to the vintage and the quality of the wine.

A test was given at the end of the seminar to qualify Viernes for his basic sommelier certificate with questions such as, “What is the minimum content for a varietals in Oregon?”

The second, or advanced, certification was held over five days, including three-and-a-half days of seminars and tastings and one-and-a-half days of examination. The exam consisted of written essay and short answer as well as a service portion where the candidate is required to perform duties similar to what you’d be asked to do in a restaurant setting. In addition, Viernes was asked to deduce six wines in 20 minutes.

“The third level is the master’s level and there is no seminar or teaching,” says Viernes. “You come and you’re tested. You’re either a master sommelier or you’re not.”

Again, there are three test portions, all much more difficult than the advanced level.

“They leave no stone unturned,” says Viernes, who notes to prepare for the exam he was intensive about studying theory, tasting wines and doing everything he could to build up his wine knowledge. “If you show any weakness or discomfort in the service portion, they’ll deduct you. And for the blind deduction tasting, you must complete a higher degree of specificity - 75 percent, compared to 65 percent for the advanced level.”

At the master’s level, if you fail any of


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