Friday, March 20, 2009

A foreigner infiltrates Sommelier School in Napoli

In my naiveté, I decided that I wanted to learn more about wine. My father had always made homemade wine in our basement from imported California zinfandel grapes, for most of the Italian community where I grew up in Sudbury,Ontario. I had watched the process through my entire youth, and this is where I realized that winemaking is about creativity, science and decision-making each one having an impact on your final product. So wine appreciation seemed like a good place to start learning and savoring life in Italy.
I found that there were a variety of courses to be found, but I wanted an internationally recognized program. The Associazione Italiana di Sommelier is that organization. It offers sommelier courses in all of Italy’s 21 regions, they are recognized internationally and I eagerly signed up for the Napoli course.
Remember how I said I could speak Italian? Well, when one finds oneself in a classroom of Neapolitans, speaking at auctioneering speed, one quickly realizes that another level of Italian is required other than fluent, and that would be native. Still I remained in my seat, trying to look calm all the while thinking that above my head there was a neon sign flashing “foreigner” or worse still, “imposter”. During most of those first classes, I sat there like a deer in headlights, terrified that someone might speak to me. Even if I had had a better grasp of the language, there was a whole new “wine, viticulture” vocabulary that I had to learn. I decided I would just take notes, and write down what I think I heard, and then go home and look it up later. In one lesson they kept referring to what I thought was the word “piacca”. I had never heard this word before and quickly looked it up when I got home. No such word in any dictionary. Later on that week as I trudged through my reading I realized what they were referring to. The letter “P” which is pronounced “pi” in Italian and the letter “H” which is pronounced “acca” …it was pH that they were referring to. That’s how confused I was.
I continued to attend, and between classes I spent hours reading the textbook with my trusty dictionary by my side. By lesson 6, I had relaxed and was better able to follow in class, but I still didn’t talk or look anyone in the eye.
Everyone in the class seemed serious and much more knowledgeable than myself. There were about 50 of us, of all age ranges.
As I have previously mentioned, food and wine in Italy are sacred and must be handled with reverence. So if you are studying the nectar of the gods you must know what you are talking about and therefore rigorous training is essential. AIS courses are structured over 3 years, over 3 levels: Level 1 covers an introduction to viticulture, enological practices, the techniques and vocabulary associated with wine tasting, Italian law with regards to wine labelling and the role of the sommelier. Level 2, is an exhausting tour of the 21 regions of Italy, their DOCG and DOC wines and the grape varietals from which they are made. Level 3, and I just can’t wait to get there, is all about food pairing. At every class, at every level, the second part of the course is the tasting of 3 wines served by sommeliers in their black suits, white shirts, black bow ties and their Bling (tastevin on a chain) around their neck. Each wine requires that we complete the tasting chart and give a numerical evaluation to the wine.
After level 2, I can say that I am starting to get the hang of it…no …I’m hooked. I can’t get enough of it. I was even thinking of asking if I could sit through level 1 again, just for the heck of it. The final Level 3 exam is both written and oral. If successful one is awarded the title of Sommelier, and is honored with the tastevin on a chain placed around your neck as deserving and prized as any Olympic medal. This is the point at which I picture it all falling apart for me. My Italian has improved, but can I really converse about wine, at that level in Italian? Usually before I say something to someone in class, I carefully rehearse what I have to say in my head, so that I don’t make a fool of myself with any grammar mistakes or vocabulary errors. The exam will be impromptu questioning. Yes, soon the jig might be up for me. The foreigner in the ranks might be discovered for what I really am…a foreign Italian Sommelier wannabe. I will continue to do my best. I want that BLING!

1 comment:

J Overstreet said...

You can do it - you'll get your bling....I'll be jealous and proud of you! :)