The Wine Master

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

Pounding vitamin C and milk thistle for the immune system, Hoel spent the week making sure to wait fifteen minutes for all of his food and drinks to cool. "If I burn my mouth I won't be able to taste anything," he explains.

Hoel appeared confident rushing off to the airport from his Sunday Wine Clinic on March 18. "Bring back the Krug!" yelled one of his students, referring to the coveted Krug Cup trophy awarded to the sommelier who passes the Master's on the first try. Only twelve people in the Court's 38-year history have done it.

If Hoel succeeded in San Francisco, there might be a momentous decision to make — namely, whether or not to stay in St. Louis. "The Krug is like the Stanley Cup," he says. "It's a pretty big deal for hotels and restaurants to get their hands on it."

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.

Hoel arrived at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel exam site and found he was one of a record 58 contenders — but only thirteen newcomers. "Very disheartening," he says.

The 25-minute blind tasting on Day 1 of the test went well. But during the oral quiz on Day 2, the sommelier's confidence slipped. "They were asking about a liqueur off the island of Cyprus. I was like, 'OK, next.'"

None of the Masters ignited Hoel's tablecloths during the service test on Day 3, but several repeatedly tried to topple his tray. When Hoel referred to a Grüner Veltliner, an Austrian white, as "schizophrenic," one of the Masters berated him. "He said: 'My aunt's schizophrenic! I'm very offended, and I'm two seconds away from getting the maître'd over here and firing your dumb ass!'"

On Day 4, Hoel walked into the judges' chambers, where the verdict would be rendered by a Master from Texas. The Court only gives each candidate a few details on his performance, in private.

Hoel learned that he successfully identified four of the six wines in the tasting, when five are necessary. The Court also took him to task for not spelling out each wine's characteristics — earth, fruit and wood — in the same order each time.

As for the oral exam, Hoel flubbed enough "obscure" questions — "Where is Meerlust located?" (Twenty-four miles from Cape Town) — to fall six percentage points short of the 75 percent needed to pass.

In the table-service category, Hoel was told his style is "cold and rigid," and that he needs to loosen up and not be so formal. "Another criticism," says Hoel, "was giving too much information. I think they thought it was showing off or cocky or arrogant."

He was finally informed that he's at a disadvantage not having any Masters in St. Louis to tutor him.

Hoel failed the test.

With eleven months to get ready for next year's exam, Hoel wandered into a cocktail bar at the Mandarin and ordered a drink. "I had a Manhattan, up, as strong as I could get her to make it," he remembers. "I think it was Booker's. It's a lot higher in alcohol — about 124-proof bourbon."

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