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Sommelier masters the fine art of wine

If Orla Murphy-LaScola had to buy a bottle of wine today, she would choose Erna Schein Cemetery 2006 or a bottle of Martinelli Vineyards Zinfandel Zellutini Ranch 2007, both food friendly wines, with a big, round flavor.

As sommelier of American Seasons restaurant in Nantucket, Mass., Murphy-LaScola follows the precepts of chef James Beard, an early champion of local products and markets. From her frequent vineyard travels, she creates a one-of-a-kind boutique wine list of over 500 American produced wines. The wine cellar, located in the former mill building, houses at least 5,000 bottles, a collection acquired through the years from scouring vineyards throughout California and Oregon. “A wine label is like a pedigree,” said Murphy-LaScola.

“You have to understand a wine maker’s style, the vintage, geography of the land, and the weather where the vine grew, for the wine you are buying.”

Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Murphy-LaScola’s interest in the world of spirits first began when, as an undergrad student studying fine art, she spent a summer working as a tour guide for Pernod Ricard in its Cognac facility in France.

“I had to learn everything there was to know about Cognac,” said Murphy-LaScola, who subsequently became fascinated in viticulture – the science, production and study of grapes. One wine course led to another, until she began working on her Masters in Wine, typically a three-year term of study that leads to an internationally recognized certification. And, of course, along the way, among other things, she learned that oh-so-crucial art of spitting.

“If you have to taste a lot of wine, you suffer palate fatigue quickly,” said Murphy-LaScola. “You need to rinse so you’re not numb to what’s coming next, or everything can taste the same.”

The role of a sommelier is mainly wine, but as with most wine stewards, Murphy-LaScola follows the general drinking trends. “Right now there’s a big interest in cocktails, and some years, the clientele want more beer than wine.” She remembers after the 2004 movie, Sideways, when the wine snob character Miles tells his friend, “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving” – suddenly Merlot was uncool, and Pinot was in. “After that film, I couldn’t give away a Merlot for three or four years,” said Murphy-LaScola.

Q: What does it take to become a certified sommelier?
A:
Anyone can be a wine steward, but a certified sommelier requires classes and an exam, which are offered by a variety of educators. The highly rigorous Master Sommelier Diploma is available through several examining bodies that are usually supervised by a group of trade associations.

Q: Give me an example of a recent wine request that you’ve received.
A:
One night, a gentleman visited our restaurant. He was a regular beer drinker but had never had a glass of wine in his entire life. I knew as long as it was cold and white, he’d be happy. I recommended “Bee Block” Santa Cruz Mountain Chardonnay, because it had a level of flintiness, was super dry, with a nice roundness on the front. After tasting it, he promised me he would try many more white wines.

Q: What’s the best way to become a sommelier?
A:
Start by working for a restaurant with a good wine list as well as taking some classes in a wine program. Try to work under a sommelier as an apprentice so you can learn as much as possible about wine.

Q: Do you always need to use terms like “jammy” and “herbalicious”?
A:
I personally think you need to be able to describe a wine but in terms that someone will understand. “Wet dog,” for example, is an actual smell that a wine can give off, but I don’t want to say that to a customer.


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