The Wine Master

A St. Louis sommelier strives to be among the best in the world.

At a mid-March happy hour, Chris Hoel looks unusually anxious for a sommelier with a Friday night off. Sitting at Erato Wine Bar, his laptop whirring as he sips from a pint of Two Hearted Ale, the 33-year-old wine director of Monarch Restaurant reaches for his cell phone and dials information. "Band Box," he enunciates. The dry cleaner hasn't delivered his shirts.

In a couple of days, Hoel will be off to San Francisco, where his invitation to sit for the prestigious Master Sommelier exam awaits. One of his regular customers, an Enterprise Rent-A-Car executive, has reserved a vehicle for him, and St. Louis wine vendors have left credit cards with his hotel concierge. But Hoel absolutely cannot go to California without his Joseph Abboud button-downs.

"I need my French cuffs," he says with characteristic drama. "I won't feel at home without those shirts."

Chris Hoel, Monarch's wine director, aims to become the world's 125th Master Sommelier — and St. Louis' first.
Jennifer Silverberg
Chris Hoel, Monarch's wine director, aims to become the world's 125th Master Sommelier — and St. Louis' first.
Patricia Wamhoff plans to prepare for the Master exam — just as soon as she can clear her calendar for a year's worth of study.
Jennifer Silverberg
Patricia Wamhoff plans to prepare for the Master exam — just as soon as she can clear her calendar for a year's worth of study.

After receiving notification from the London-based Court of Master Sommeliers in late January, Hoel immediately began preparing for the three-hour test. Mornings he studied the racks of local liquor stores and cracked books like The Oxford Companion to Wine. After last call at Monarch, the baby-faced sommelier would loosen his bowtie and head off to other restaurants' bars, hunkering down with his wine buddies into the wee hours. On his days off, Hoel would blind-taste old wines in the cellars of Ladue clients.

Before you decide to switch professions, consider that the Court invites an average of just 35 people a year to sit for the Master's. Only 124 people in the world have earned the honors, which is said to be the decoration for wine experts. Just 3 percent of the test-takers pass.

The exam is formidable, covering the world's wines, beers and spirits — even premium bottled waters and cigars. Hoel must be ready to identify thousands of potential items from a blind tasting — down to the exact vineyard and vintage of preeminent bottles, such as a 1961 Chateau Latour (a French Bordeaux) or a 1978 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (a French Burgundy).

He must also demonstrate proper service of the delicacies in question and explain appropriate food pairings. During the "theory" portion of the exam, Hoel has to expound orally on any number of subjects — the sodium level of a particular water, perhaps, or plant anatomy as it relates to a cigar. As for the wine, there are literally hundreds of thousands of potential queries concerning climate, soil conditions and vintages.

"To take this exam, you have to have a completely abnormal sense of what you want to do, a warped attitude about how hard you're going to study," says Doug Frost, a Kansas City-based wine consultant who became Missouri's only Master Sommelier in 1991.

"For most wine aficionados, knowing about Burgundies and Bordeaux would be enough. But we want you to know about Hungary and Romania, Uruguay and South Africa," Frost explains. "The idea is that if you pass the exam, we could drop you in any restaurant in the world, and no matter what country you end up in — even China — you would know all about the native and other wines on its list."

Frost is an anomaly, one of only three people worldwide to reach the top echelons of both the Court of Master Sommeliers and the Institute of Masters of Wine, a London-based wine school. Hoel met Frost six years ago, poured a glass of vin jaune and asked him to blind-taste the rare "yellow wine" in order to test the Master's mettle for himself.

"Vin jaune comes from the Jura region of France," Hoel explains. "It's a very obscure grape variety, very obscure method. It ages for six years and sits three months in a bottle. They never top it off, like sherry, and flor [yeast] develops on the top. It's bottled in these weird bottles — 620 milliliters — called clavelins. Most people have never tasted one and never will.

"Well, Doug takes one sip and says, 'Hmm, seems like a little high in alcohol for a vin jaune,' and I fell over! I was like: 'That's bionic knowledge!'"

Hoel vowed then to obtain the Master's by the age of 35. And so it is that his Tower Grove home and Ford Taurus are cluttered with index cards describing the beers of Japan and India, while his hard drive contains 1,500 questions amassed via a Yahoo! listserv of Master's wannabes.

"I'm going to try, but I don't think I'll ever fully understand wine, and I think that's why I like it," Hoel says, describing a proliferation of new wine-making regions across the world. "Wine is like a big, Costco-size warehouse, and your job is to memorize every single SKU on every single box in every row.

"One day you're feeling confident because you can recite exactly what sits, let's say, in box number six on the second shelf of row number seven. The next day you notice a door in the back of the warehouse that you've never seen before, and you open it, and there's another warehouse full of wine back there that you get to learn about. At first you're like, 'Oh my God.' But then you get all excited and step on through."

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