The Wine Master

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

Apr 18, 2007 at 4:00 am
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."

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."

Wine was once a highbrow hobby, the milieu of blue-bloods and academics. But the past two decades' swell of new money has democratized the pastime and propelled unprecedented growth. Today the marketplace is rife with connoisseurs clamoring to pay more than $5,000 for a single bottle of 1961 Chateau Pétrus Bordeaux, or plunk down $500 a pop on the Bordeaux futures market. A raft of get-rich-quick investors flip prized wines without ever taking a sip.

St. Louis came a bit late to the party, says Patricia Wamhoff, a sommelier who moved here from her native Toronto in 1993. As she puts it: "There was a lot of demand here for white zinfandel."

Wine lists were not a priority for most local restaurateurs. In fact, they were updated just once or twice a year and, Wamhoff adds, manipulated by distributors. "Restaurant owners bought what the salesperson told them to buy, because they didn't know any better," she explains. "The distributors said, 'Oh, I'll take care of your wine list' and 'I'll print it for you.' There was this old buddy-buddy attitude."

Wamhoff and the late Bob Kabel, former beverage director at Faust's in the Adam's Mark downtown, were St. Louis' lone sommeliers in 1993. Now, interest in the untapped trade is finally pouring forth. Eight St. Louisans are vying to join the ranks of Wamhoff and Hoel, the state's only Advanced Sommeliers (one step below Master). What's more, St. Louis' Introductory Sommeliers (three steps below Master) now number at least 100, by Wamhoff's count.

Dozens of tasting groups — outside the elite Commanderie de Bordeaux and Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin (a Burgundy club) — now abound in St. Louis. The city has at least five wine bars, with another slated to open this summer in Webster Groves. Busch's Grove sommelier Darin Link doesn't bat an eye when a four-top drops $8,500 on four bottles of a prized Bordeaux, as was the case one recent evening.

Four wine consultants, meanwhile, including Wamhoff and Hoel, maintain brisk businesses appraising local collectors' cellars. One of the consultants, 30-year-old Marc Lazar, caught the wine bug while working at the Wine Merchant in Clayton to put himself through graduate school. He now has a national client base for his full-time wine advising services.

Says Lazar: "The cocktail-party version of what I do is: 'I'm your stock broker, your financial planner and your wealth manager for wine.'"

Last October the Washington, D.C., native opened a 7,000-square-foot wine storage facility in Richmond Heights, where local collectors safe-keep overstock from their home cellars. It's the first storage site in the country, Lazar says, to come tricked out with a remote humidity- and temperature-control system that allows customers to check cellar conditions via the Internet.

Collectors can even print years' worth of temperature records to prove a history of proper storage to potential buyers. As in the art market, where a painting's provenance can make or break its future sale, wine collectors — especially auction-goers — have stepped up their demand for such quality assurances.

Auctions are a collector's nirvana, and they take place monthly or even weekly in Chicago, New York and San Francisco. More than $166 million worth of collectible wines changed hands at auctions throughout the country in 2005. One auction alone in New York last fall rang up a record-breaking $24.7 million, reports the New York Times.

"In every major wine auction, there are usually at least one or two parcels from St. Louis collectors," says Lazar, who is loath to divulge specifics about his local clients. "Put it this way: St. Louis has several dozen world-class wine collections."

The auction scene, though, is lacking. The lone St. Louis sell-off took place at Ivey-Selkirk in 2000, says Jon Gazzoli, then the cellar master of the Clayton auction house. The parcels came from cellars across the country — but buyers stayed home.

"We didn't gather as much out-of-town or phone business for the auction as we would have liked," says Gazzoli. "The auction was also a missed opportunity for the majority of wine collectors in St. Louis. A small number did show up and get some very interesting wines for their cellars, but the majority didn't take advantage of it."

Two major local collectors who did hoist their auction paddles remember eyeing the small audience and salivating. "John Joyce was sitting right next to me, and every lot that came up, he'd mutter, 'Don't raise your hand! I'll share with you. Don't raise your hand!'" recalls Jeff Lehman, a St. Louis pharmaceutical executive. "We were scooping up 1985 Dom Perignon Rosé for $75 a bottle. That stuff normally goes for $400."

"Oh!" says Joyce, who lives in Webster Groves. "It was deals beyond your dreams of avarice!"

While Patricia Wamhoff works to ratchet up St. Louis' wine literacy through small tutoring groups, Chris Hoel brings it to the people.

Two years ago he and sommelier Stanley Browne debuted the St. Louis Wine Clinic, an eight-week class that covers vast terrain — from viticulturalists' biographies to the virtues of the screw-top.

The class has grown from a dozen to nearly 50 enrollees this semester. Local wine distributors recently began supplying the tasting wines for free. A host of industry folk — everyone from servers on up to restaurant general managers and owners — have completed the clinic, along with country-club employees, wine representatives and average wine-loving Joes.

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!"

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.

"The only person that loses is the customer," says Hoel. "They aren't allowed to enjoy beautiful, aged wines."

The three-tier system rattles consultant Marc Lazar. "St. Louis can never have world-class restaurants without world-class wine programs," he says. "Because of this archaic law, there are so many wines — aged classic Cabernets, for example, like 1974 Heitz and 1980s Dominus — that are long gone from the St. Louis market and that a new generation of collectors have never had the opportunity to try."

New restaurants face the biggest barriers, since the only way to offer old bottles is to buy them young and fill the cellar. That explains why St. Louis' most sweeping wine selections are found at long-established haunts like Riddles Penultimate Café and Wine Bar and Starrs Market, whose owners, Andy Ayers and Bud Starr, have been laying back wines for decades.

"To do what I do requires significant capital," notes Ayers. "You invest money that you could have in a CD somewhere. My bookkeeper rails at me for it."

Lazar believes the retail market should have the opportunity to buy at auction as well as through vineyards and mailing lists, the typical distribution methods for newer boutique producers.

Wine aficionados like Jeff Lehman agree. Lehman dines out several nights a week, frequently bringing his own wine from his 2,500-bottle cellar. Every Tuesday night he and ten other "wine geeks" convene at Trattoria Marcella to share bottles from their collections over a four-course dinner.

At one recent gathering, there appears a 2001 Kongsgaard chardonnay from California, a mailing-list-only wine. "There might be one or two bottles of this that gets into the state," says Lehman. He also passes a 2005 Vare Bianco. After learning that Thomas Keller's highly-acclaimed French Laundry restaurant in the heart of the Napa Valley had purchased all of George Vare's 2004 vintage, Lehman paid a visit to the winemaker last fall and managed to get on the mailing list.

In such a controlled regulatory environment, a restaurant's so-called gray-market bottles (wines purchased outside the three-tier system) are a cinch for wine buffs to recognize. That was the case when the new Busch's Grove reopened after a multimillion-dollar renovation in late 2005. The local wine trade "got in a tizzy," says one sommelier, after noticing a cult cabernet called Screaming Eagle flying off the wine list.

"If it were distributed in Missouri, everybody like us who has a really deep wine list — we would all want it," explains Andy Ayers. "We all saw it and said, 'Wow! What's up here?'"

The California vineyard only produces several hundred cases a year, and distributes its wines only by mailing list. The cost: $500 a bottle. The wait to get on the mailing list is said to be seven to ten years long. On the resale market, Screaming Eagle nets $1,500 minimum.

"I've heard of horror stories in divorce battles here in St. Louis," notes Hoel, "where the couple didn't care about the house. They cared about who got to stay on the Screaming Eagle mailing list."

"It's a $2,500 bottle of wine," says Lester Miller, Busch's Grove's principal owner. "We were able to get some. We bought a few bottles, and after we opened Busch's, it was determined that Screaming Eagle is not registered [with wholesalers] in Missouri."

Miller says the restaurant subsequently withdrew the gray-market wine from its menu. Although Missouri's Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) investigated the Ladue-based eatery, Busch's Grove was not cited for any violations.

That was not the case for the Wine Chateau, a Chesterfield retailer. In late 2004 ATC fined the store's owner, Brian Hartsfield, $1,500 for purchasing a 2001 Tua Rita Giusto dei Notri, a Tuscan red, directly from an importer. Says Hartsfield, "Tua Rita is one of the greatest wineries in Italy, and that was a wonder year."

Hartsfield wishes he had the freedom to buy on the gray market. "Distributors carry a lot of inventory, but they also do things they're not supposed to, like bundles: To get the good wine they make you buy the bad wine," he explains. "I personally don't see the difference between going to an auction and buying an antique piece of furniture versus a bottle of wine."

Pete Lobdell, commissioner of Missouri's ATC, says the agency rarely prosecutes violators of the three-tier rule, partly because it doesn't have the resources to seek out cheaters. Investigations only begin when rival establishments snitch on one another.

Nonetheless, the agency wants to ensure "an orderly marketplace" and keep organized crime out of the liquor business, Lobdell says. "We will fight to preserve the three-tier system."

"One more thing," complains wine consultant Marc Lazar, "to keep St. Louis in the dark ages."

The week before the Master Sommelier exam, Chris Hoel took time off from Monarch to brush up for the exam. His cramming began on a bittersweet note when a friend returned from Florida toting the dessert-wine list from Bern's Steak House, a legendary Tampa eatery that boasts of having the largest restaurant wine cellar in the world.

Hoel was ecstatic to have the menu for a study aid ("I'd pay $500 for their entire wine list!") but became uneasy when he turned to the section on Madeira, a Portuguese fortified wine he thought he'd mastered. "I came across an entire Madeira sub-region I had no idea even existed. It was very upsetting."

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."

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."