The Wine Master

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

On a recent Sunday morning, Busch's Grove's back room is transformed into a veritable lecture hall, with a PowerPoint presentation on Australia and New Zealand ready to play on a projection screen. The majority of the students — a server at Charlie Gitto's, a South County paint-store manager, a Chesterfield interior designer — have arrived a quarter-hour early with their three-inch-thick curricula.

Hoel shares the stage with Browne and their new partner, Jennifer Johnson. His faux tan glowing, Hoel struts about the room, gesticulating and drawing vivid pictures with his words. "This wine is ruby on steroids, with tattoos and body piercings," he says, eschewing the abstract terms typically used by oenophiles — "muddy," "brooding," "feminine," "complex."

The "nose," or aroma, of a Marlborough sauvignon blanc "jumps out of the glass like a ninja," imparts Hoel, "and gives you a karate kick in the face —and this ninja is wearing grapefruit booties. On the palate, this is a three-alarmer in acidity," he goes on. "Call the fire department!"

Stanley Browne and Chris Hoel drench their students with wine lore for three straight hours a week.
Jennifer Silverberg
Stanley Browne and Chris Hoel drench their students with wine lore for three straight hours a week.

An Eden Valley riesling "is sex in a glass, and she's wearing red pumps." A McLaren Vale shiraz is so "big" on the palate "that if I were to describe this wine like a person, it'd be a guy who walked by me on the beach, kicked sand in my face and stole my girlfriend."

The last wine of the day is a sultry Rutherglen muscat, about which Hoel says, "I've poured this on Tahitian vanilla ice cream before, and then — I had to go and be by myself."

Many of the tasting groups Hoel has observed in St. Louis involve "a bunch of people sitting around and pontificating. You taste blind and you give points, and every bottle you bring has to be expensive. It's a who's-got-the-bigger-dick kind of thing."

Wine is a complex beverage, but simplifying the discourse, Hoel says, can help people relate to it. This populist approach has roots in Hoel's upbringing. "I didn't come from a wine family at all," says the Francis Howell North High School graduate. "My mom used to drink wine out of those old carafes with plastic tops like the lids on a can of Pringles."

Hoel worked in numerous restaurants while pursuing a finance degree, first at Southwest Missouri State University and later at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He caught his wine bug while working as the maître'd at Bellerive Country Club in 1996, when he and a colleague shared a nightcap of 1991 Sterling Vineyards Three Palms, a Napa Valley merlot.

This first sip launched his trajectory as a sommelier at area restaurants, including Faust's (under Bob Kabel) and Truffles. Soon after passing the Advanced Sommelier exam in 2005 — it took him three tries — Hoel left his position as a wine distributor and took over the beverage director's helm at Monarch, adding 150 wines to the restaurant's 700-bottle list.

More important, Hoel is dusting off his table-service skills. Legend has it that during the latter portion of the Master's exam, the judges intentionally spill glasses and surreptitiously light the tablecloth on fire, to see if the candidate responds with aplomb.

There's no substitute for a real restaurant setting when it comes to the gentle art of coddling high-maintenance patrons — the churlish types never satisfied with their cocktails, or the smart-alecks who offer up challenges, says Hoel, like, "If you're so good, match a wine to my personality."

Hoel gets excited by bad behavior: It means more chances to practice. "My servers at Monarch love the fact that they can come back to me on a crazy Saturday evening and say, 'Table 31: She's a bitch!'" says Hoel. "I'm like, 'Yes!'"

A private room with a wine cellar, a chef's table and a wine list teeming with pricy reserve vintages, say, a 1949, 1955 or 1961 Bordeaux. Those were the things Pat Shannon thought might set her steakhouse apart when she reopened Mike Shannon's last year.

But after three months of calling distributors, Shannon was only able to acquire a selection of special-occasion wines dating back to 1989. The Calgary Flames hockey team proceeded to buy up all of her oldest bottles — 1989 Château Mouton Rothschild and Château Margaux — in a single evening last month.

Because of a 70-year-old Missouri liquor law prohibiting retailers and restaurants from buying wines from anyone but a licensed wholesaler, it will take Pat Shannon many more months to replenish her supply.

Says Shannon, "It's such a stupid law. Obviously, I would have access to much, much more if I could purchase at auctions and on Web sites."

The decades-old regulation preserves what is known in the liquor business as the "three-tier system." Manufacturers must sell to wholesalers, who in turn are the only authorized vendors for retailers and restaurants. Nearly every state in the country enacted a similar law in the early 1930s, following the end of Prohibition.

Now, with the heightened thirst for wine, a growing number of state legislatures — including Illinois' — have made exceptions to the three-tier hegemony and allowed auction sales. This means both new and long-established restaurants in Chicago, for example, have an equal shot at procuring the oldest and most-coveted vintages. In St. Louis, though, sommeliers have scant hope of picking up a single bottle, let alone a case, of similar wines if the Missouri distributor is sold out.

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