Illustration by Kristy Heilenday
In a 1981 episode of That's Incredible, Dr. Arthur Lintgen identified classical music recordings by examining the vinyl grooves of LP records. As a 10-year-old, I was nonplussed. As a 40-year-old, I verified with snopes.com that this wasn't a ruse. Indeed, Lintgen knew his stuff. Master Sommeliers perform a similar feat each time they nose a glass. Blindly identifying the grape, the region, the vintage and the producer is not a party trick, but the result of mastery. And Richmond could use some of that right now.
Despite RVA's rise in foodie IQ, our chief complaints continue to center around service. Even evolved menus and wine lists are no good if they're undercut by middling (or worse) waitstaff protocol. I believe that having a Master Sommelier in town would lift our fair metropolis out of the service doldrums. I'll explain why.
First, some perspective. For more than 40 years, The Court of Master Sommeliers has been the leading examination body in the world of wine, spirits, beer and booze; and the Master Sommelier Diploma is the ultimate achievement in beverage service. How hard is the exam? As of 2012, only 197 people worldwide had completed all four required levels to earn the coveted MS lapel pin. (The historic pass rate is 10 percent.) There are 129 Masters in North America: none in North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia or Maryland, one in Washington, D.C., and two in Virginia — Fran Kysela and Robert Jones, both of whom work for Kysela Pere et Fils, an importer/wholesaler based in Winchester.
Think of the MS as a doctorate in drinking and serving. Besides encyclopedic wine knowledge, an MS embodies the noble art of service. To earn their pin, sommeliers must demonstrate polished table-side manners and adroit guest relations well beyond the fundamentals of wine pairing and decanting. In short, where there's an MS, there is great service. Like having a prima ballerina to mentor the rest of her company while inspiring a city, an MS in RVA would galvanize not only her staff, but all of Richmond's top-tier restaurants. Chefs, farmers and food trucks have reached near rock-star status, yet the waiters on the front lines of everyday food service languish as third-class citizens in RVA's dining revolution. Master Sommeliers embody the concept that service isn't something you do merely en route to a career but is a craft itself to embrace.
There are certainly some local wine pros already in position, but none have achieved the pinnacle that would kick-start a landmark service improvement. Among those with varying degrees: Emily Jones, owner of Strawberry Street Vineyard, has her Level I, but that's on the retail side; Mel Oza of Lehja and Michael Avery of The Boathouse at Rocketts Landing have passed Level II; and Can Can's Bob Talcott earned his Level III.
Others have tiptop experience but no sanctioned titles: bottle-brained Julia Battaglini at Secco comes to mind as well as RVA-based importer Bartholomew Broadbent — in 2012, he was No. 50 in the IntoWine.com Annual Top 100 Most Influential People in the U.S. Wine Industry, yet his lapel is devoid of official certification pins. And I've been chief sommelier for Barboursville Vineyards since 2002 and earned a national award for wine journalism, but I've only sat for the Level I exam (I call it the enophile's GED).
The stars are aligned. We have a dearth of service, and the Virginia wine industry is about to surpass New York in volume to take the No. 4 spot behind California, Oregon and Washington state. Thus, Richmond is primed for a master who exhorts servers and embraces Virginia wine.
Yes, there are plenty of other ways to improve service, but an MS would incite a mighty and lasting uptick. My bet is that one of RVA's restaurant groups will underwrite and support an MS candidate who then runs the whole company's beverage and service training program, creating a kind of farm system that spreads across the 804. If that candidate isn't already amongst us, perhaps importing a newly minted MS for $60k/year is a wise investment. (Ask me, I know a few.) Ace waiters rejoice. The lame have been served notice.