Chicago sommeliers enjoy the taste of growing popularity

Sommelier Dan Pilkey oversees a blind tasting at the Second City Sommelier's event at Chicago's City Winery on March 5. (Kara Voght/MEDILL)

by Kara Voght

On a balmy February Sunday, the Second City Sommeliers, a group of expert wine service professionals, transformed West Loop’s City Winery into a sommelier’s training ground. In one corner, tables hosted wines made from the same grapes grown in different regions, testing a sommelier’s ability to distinguish geographic influences. In another, a high-top table teetered with two dozen stemware glasses, each holding a pour of liquor for visual and olfactory inspection. Along the bar, two wines often confused with one another sat side-by-side for in-depth comparison.

Fifty young professionals milled about the cavernous bar, expertly swirling, sniffing, sipping and spitting wine at each station. Many of them wore blazers affixed with pins indicating their advancement through the Court of Master Sommeliers, the standard bearing organization of wine service.

For Second City Sommelier director of education Dan Pilkey, the event’s attendance was greater than anything he’d imagined.

“I thought I was going to get like, 20 people,” said Pilkey, the event’s organizer. “I was turning people down left and right.”

Pilkey’s shock points to a surprising development: Chicago, the city known for its taste in cocktails and beer, has a growing fascination with sommeliers, the industry professionals who broker and serve wine. Second City Sommelier’s well-attended event, weeks before Chicago’s sold-out Certified Sommelier examination, the Court of Master Sommelier’s second level test, exemplified the growth of a professional community that, according to Pilkey, has expanded rapidly.

“Five or six years ago, there weren’t really Masters [the Court’s highest level], or many somms in Chicago,” Pilkey recalls. “Now, our group alone has 10 to 12 candidates that are going to bud and flourish into Masters one day.”

Pilkey, 36, traces the origins of the Chicago sommelier’s rise to 2011, the first year of the Chicago Michelin guidebook. As the publication celebrated Chicago’s fine dining restaurants, it drew attention to the high quality wine and beverage industry that supports them. Local interest snowballed from there.

“It’s like the Kevin Costner thing, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” Pilkey explained. “Once you have the infrastructure, all the producers will come from overseas. There’ll be those market visits from really important producers throughout the world. Then, you start to see the rise of a great metropolitan city like Chicago that has a very colorful beverage scene.”

Local interest has been helped along by national trends. The 2012 documentary “Somm,” which followed four hopeful Master Sommelier candidates as they prepared for the demanding exam, gained widespread appeal through its Netflix distribution and explained a little understood industry to a broad audience.

“So many people have seen ‘Somm’ now,” said Tadd Tanji, 28, a sommelier at Chicago’s Michelin-starred restaurant Spiaggia. “I would say two-thirds of the tables I talk to ask me if I’ve seen the documentary. They want to talk about the wine industry.”

These trends have translated into increased interest in the sommelier’s craft. Since 2011, the Court of Master Sommeliers has seen a 71 percent increase in registration for its introductory course, and a 95 percent increase in test takers for the Certified exam.

“We’ve seen 700 applications for 130 spots,” said Chicago-based master sommelier Fernando Beteta. “We’ve seen growth of like, 9,000 students per year. We sell out every course.”

The increased attention has yielded some positive results for those who make their living in wine. Awareness has delivered a sense of prestige that has at times eluded sommeliers.

“The movie does a good job about putting the trust into people like us,” Pilkey said of the influence of “Somm,” “because if the consumer values and understands the educational side that we go through, it only validates their decision in making us relevant in the restaurant.”

The interest has also sparked a demand for wine knowledge that, in turn, has created more educated consumers. Doug Jeffirs, director of wine sales at liquor superstore chain Binny’s Beverage Depot, said customers have asked for more seminars, tastings and classes to quench their thirst for learning. Spiaggia’s Tanji said he enjoys working with this new breed of wine-savvy customer.

“We hear more descriptors coming out of guests now,” Tanji said. “’Oh, it’s got this like, funkiness, this herbal thing that I don’t like, but I really do like the bright red fruits.’ People are actually starting to say that kind of thing now. It’s really cool to see.”

The sommelier’s intrigue, however, has blurred the line between hobbyists and professionals. Amateurs account for a percentage of the Court of Master Sommeliers’ growth, disrupting a pursuit typically reserved for those in the wine industry. Jason Hiett, a sommelier and server at Chicago’s Roka Akor, encountered this firsthand when he took his introductory course.

“The guy that got the highest score on our Level 1 exam was a financier,” Hiett said. “He was just doing this for fun. As great as that is, this is his hobby. For the majority of the people in that class, this is a livelihood.”

The increased volume of test takers has been matched with more difficult testing standards. For the most recent Certified exams, the Court doubled the number of wines to be blind tasted—a test in which sommeliers must deduce a wine’s grape varietal, growing region and age—and increased the difficulty of the wine theory portion. Test results prove the new level of difficulty. The Certified test typically has a 60 percent pass rate, but by Tanji’s estimates, only one-quarter of those who sat for Chicago’s March 14 test passed.

“I was terrified when I saw the Masters come out with a very thin stack of certificates,” Tanji said in an email. “I’m just glad mine was one of them!”

Even as competition increases, Chicago’s wine professionals remain collegial and supportive. Mastering the information and techniques necessary to move through the Court’s ranks typically requires teamwork among peers and guidance from experienced sommeliers. Robert Woodford, a sommelier at RPM Steak who passed the Certified exam on March 14, said those practices foster camaraderie despite the competition.

“There are very few high-end [sommelier] jobs, and they’re constantly in competition with each other,” Woodford said. “At the same time, a lot of them came through the ranks together. A lot of them had been educated together, either with each other or by each other. Once I started down this path, I quickly found out how small the circle is.”

For Pilkey, encouraging teamwork is exactly what he hoped to cultivate with the Second City Sommelier’s event.

“It should be about camaraderie,” he said. “It should be about a sense of community within Chicago.”

Photo at top: Sommelier Dan Pilkey oversees a blind tasting at the Second City Sommelier’s event at Chicago’s City Winery on March 5. (Kara Voght/MEDILL)