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Swallow your nose

A Sommelier teaches Whistler servers and wine lovers the basics

It takes more than a good nose and a good cellar to sell wine in this town

Wine, when taken to the next level, is as much of an intellectual pursuit as it is a guilty pleasure, and picking up a good bottle is like picking up a good book. It has a beginning in the vines, a middle in the barrel and an end on the dinner table. Whether it’s a good ending or a disappointment after all the buildup is largely up to the author, but partly attributable to the tastes of the reader – while there’s no arguing that James Joyce’s Ulysses is a literary masterpiece, it’s clearly not for everybody.

To get the most out of a book or a bottle of wine, you have to study the art, the context, the content and the creator. You have to read between the lines.

In Whistler, where our finer restaurants are in the same league and serve the same clientele as the finest restaurants on the planet, it’s important to have a good wine cellar. Customers have come to expect it.

However, without the knowledge to back up the cellar, a server is like a guide in an art gallery who has no idea who the old guy in the painting is or why the painting is important.

That’s the concept behind the Fairmont Chateau Whistler’s decision to open their basic sommelier courses to resort employees in the food and beverage industry, and locals who just want to know more.

The Chateau recently received approval from the Canadian Sommelier Guild to offer their accredited Wine Appreciation Program to the public, under the direction of David Smuck, a graduate of George Brown College in Toronto and the Sommelier for The Wildflower restaurant at the Chateau.

"The people I plan on teaching, they may not necessarily want to go on to become sommeliers, but the course is designed so that the food and beverage staff at our hotel will have a firm grasp of wine and food knowledge," says Smuck. "Right now they have varied degrees of knowledge.

"I believe that the more knowledge you have as a service professional, whether you’re actually serving the tables or managing a room, makes your job easier."

When you’re prepared to spend a small fortune on dinner and a bottle of wine, you have every right to expect your server to know how the meat was cooked and what wine will go best with the meal, says Smuck.

"The clientele we serve are becoming more and more sophisticated – they come from parts of the world where wine is a significant part of their life, and they have very detailed knowledge. We need to be able to meet that level of knowledge and have intelligent conversations with them, know what to suggest, and show them new things in case they’d like to try something different."

The Chateau is offering two courses, the basic IIA Wine Appreciation, and level IIB, which is a little more advanced.

The first IIA course begins on March 29 and runs for the next 10 weeks, between noon and 6 p.m. All 24 spots have already been booked, but more courses will be made available in the future during the resort’s shoulder seasons.

"Level II is split into two sections, IIA and IIB, and it essentially covers vinification, vitification, all of the various regions, the different grapes, all of those things. It has to be split into two halves of the world because it’s so intensive," says Smuck.

Once you have completed the IIA, you can move up to IIB. Smuck wouldn’t suggest going right into the IIB course because unless you have taken a basic course or were raised on a vineyard, "you’re going to be behind."

Smuck has been teaching a culinary program for the Chateau’s food and beverage staff for almost three years, but with food as the main focus and wine knowledge limited to the basics of pairing and varietals.

Two months ago he was approved by the sommelier guild to teach wine courses, and he originally intended to limit the classes to Chateau staff.

"We saw there was a demand in the resort for this kind of course. Some of my colleagues in other restaurants and hotels said that they would like to be able to take this course here. Before your only option was to spend lots of money and commute to Vancouver once a week," says Smuck.

"We look at this knowledge as power, to be able meet the needs of our sophisticated clientele. Not just at the resort either, but everywhere because our guests go to our competing restaurants and vice versa.

"If everyone in the community, especially all the service professionals in the community, had this basic knowledge then we’ll do nothing but get better and bring more and more people back here.

"I know if I go out for dinner and have a server who knows nothing about the bottle of wine that I’ve ordered and it’s $200 a bottle, I get kind of upset because I think they shouldn’t be in that line of work."

Anybody can learn the basics, says Smuck. Becoming a sommelier is a little more difficult, requiring a good sense of smell and, above all, a well-trained memory. "After a while it becomes a matter of putting yourself into that mindset and recognizing similarities and very distinct smells. I have a sensitive sense of smell, but that’s not the reason I became a sommelier – it’s because I have a good memory."

Recommending the right wine for dinner also takes a bit of detective work. "I always ask the kitchen when I’m pairing what the dominant flavour is on the plate because that’s what’s going to make or break your wine pairing. You look at the weight and consistency of the food. Something like a rack of lamb, for example, is quite heavy, it’s very dense, so you wouldn’t want to pair something really light with that. You want to be able to match it.

"There’s also a lot of fat with lamb so you’d want to have something that would cut through the fat, so a full-bodied red wine, be it a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Zinfandel with some tannin and some sort of a backbone is recommended."

If the sauce is more powerful than the meat, you have to pair the sauce – the wine and the meal should end up complementing and enhancing one another.

It also doesn’t have to cost a lot to try a premium wine, with B.C. vineyards producing some excellent wines these days. Smuck’s personal favourites are a Semillon from La Frenz, a delicious and affordable white wine, and the 1998 Merlot from Tin Horn Creek. "1998 was an amazing vintage for this part of the world, so really anything red from the Okanagan is going to be delicious," says Smuck.

The Fairmont Chateau Whistler is the third Fairmont to offer the sommelier guild’s program – both the Fairmont Empress in Victoria and Fairmont Banff Springs are hosting courses.

For more information, or to register for a future Wine Appreciation IIA Program, contact the Chateau’s food and beverage training manager at 938-2027. There are still open spots in the IIB program if you have the background prerequisite knowledge.