It was probably a year ago when I first saw the the documentary entitled “Somm,” which followed four Sommeliers across the country and their journey to become Master Sommeliers. At the time I was a casual wine drinker that had no idea of what a sommelier was, let alone the rigorous tests they faced to become what is known as a Master Sommelier. Literally these guys would have to smell and taste wines and give the geological origin of each wine as well as the approximate year it was produced. As I sat in amazement, I realized how much of an art form being a Sommelier really was.
Many people love wine and scores of kitchens have wine fridges and racks, but not many people are truly knowledgeable about wine. Sure we head to Wine & Spirits every so often to pick up a bottle but most of the time price and basic categories guide our purchases. However, the real kicker is when we sit down to eat and want a glass a vino to accompany our meals. Many people are lost in the sauce when trying to figure out which wines pair best with certain meals. I for one am pretty oblivious when it comes to these things. Enter the Master Sommelier, a well respected profession oversees that is slowly gaining demand here in America. Sommeliers and Master Sommeliers are the artists who create memorable dinning experiences with their expert selections of wine and food pairings.
In Philadelphia the number of restaurants that have Master Sommeliers in-house may pale in comparison to larger metropolitan cities, but it is well worth the efforts to patronize the restaurants that do have them. Penne Restaurant & Wine Bar, located in University City (3611 Walnut St) happens to be one such place. I recently visited this establishment and sat down with their resident Master Sommelier Marco Avigo. I had tons of questions for this Italian born Somm who grew up in a wine producing family and eventually became the youngest Master Sommelier in Italy when he passed his exams back in 1986 at the ripe age of 26. “I consider myself really lucky. I grew up in the restaurant business. My father was one of the 15 guys that in the 60’s actually created the Italian Sommelier Association. So I started to work around the wine when I was a kid and visit wineries with my father. This made me fall in love with wine and the wine business,” Marco recalls his childhood.
What many people here in America may not understand that in places like Italy, dining isn’t just something you do when you’re hungry, it’s an experience. It is not uncommon for dinners to last hours. Those who orchestrate these food adventures are the Sommeliers. Highly regarded and respected, Sommeliers are held at the same regard as any profession, Marco explained to me. “For us in Italy we are recognized as a profession on the same level as engineer and architects.”
Different countries have different curricula to become a Master Somm. In Marco’s case he had to complete three strenuous years learning about wines and pass several difficult tests including written tests, verbal tests, and service tests. “It is difficult. If you do the first level it is really fascinating because you touch base with a little bit of everything not just wine but alcohol, beer, pairing food and wine. If you want to become a Sommelier you have to spend a lot of time learning. Second year us only about vines, grapes, and area and you have to memorize everything that is made in Italy and everything that is made around the world,” Marco explains.
Essentially when you reach the level of Master Sommelier you are the authority on everything wine. After completing his exams, Mr. Avigo eventually went on to open a successful restaurant in Italy. He eventually sold his restaurant and came to Philadelphia sixteen years ago to continue his profession. With almost two decades under his belt as a Master Sommelier here in Philly, Marco has already asserted himself as an industry leader and has garnered a fair share of press. His current role as Manager and Master Sommelier at Penne Restaurant & Wine Bar, allows himself to not only mingle with guests but also influence the menus and wine offerings to ensure that every visit feels like the first time. “My job here as manager and Sommelier is to help the customer choose a nice glass of wine that will pair with the food very well. We have over 20 wines by the glass that I rotate every three months, so people who come back will find new wines and new dishes because we change the menu seasonally, explains Marco.
For those of you that may not be wine connoisseurs, Mr. Avigo often times lends his expertise in and out the restaurant as well. Oftentimes called upon in regional culinary schools and classes, Marco speaks to aspiring chefs and Sommeliers. In addition Marco also lends his expertise to private wine parties. So if you were looking to gather some friends and family and throw a wine party Marco is definitely the man to contact. To top things off if you’re really feeling adventurous, Marco also organizes wine tasting trips to Italy. “I also organize wine tours in Italy with small groups. The last one was last April. I am organizing another one for next May. We will go to Italy in a way that’s connected to just food and wine and learn about food and wine,” Mr. Avigo happily detailed.
However, what about those that can’t make it out to posh establishments such as Penne or lavish trips such as wine tours? Well Marco is always looking to share his knowledge with everyone. For wine novices that are unsure where and how to start, Marco has a few tips:
Tip 1: Start With White Wines
“I always suggest for people who don’t drink wine, you don’t want to go with heavy stuff because you can love it right away or you can hate it. If you hate it you will not go back to the wine. Definitely start with something light such as whites instead of reds.”
Tip 2: Don’t Start With Really Sweet Wines
“Start with Something aromatic and not too sweet because if you get too used to the sweetness you will not drink dry.”
Tip 3: Start with Affordable Aromatic Wines
“Wines like Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc are aromatic also affordable on the price especially today, if you’re looking to buy wines that can give you a nice sensation of satisfaction.”
Tip 4: Explore Different Regions and Ease Into Reds
“Today you have products on the market that’s really inexpensive. South America is working very well in that direction. In Europe, Spain is doing interesting wine. Slowly as you like it [white wines] you can move to young reds and slowly move to the big bottles.”
Whatever you’re level of interest is with wine, the industry itself has been steadily improving. According to Silicon Valley Bank and The Wine Marketing Council, the estimated retail value of 2013 wine shipments was $36.3 billion, which a 5% increase from 2012. This makes the US the largest wine market in terms of revenues. In addition wine sales have been growing at a rate of 2 to 3% per year in the US market for the past 21 years. In 2014 Silicon Valley Bank expects sales in the fine wine business will increase 6-10% to ten percent over 2013. This trend may result in an increase demand for Sommeliers.
As the love for wine grows in this country so too will the level of interest and Marco is very optimistic about the future of his craft. As he continues to showcase his art form as a Master Sommelier he looks forward to an increase of people seeing dining as more of an experience as they do overseas. “I see opportunities are happening in America. So slowly people realize the importance of Sommelier in the restaurant business and they will start to look for them.”
For Restaurant Bookings, Private Parties, or More Info on the Wine Tours:
Contact Master Sommelier Marco Avigo