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Baltimore's wine professionals hit the books — and the bottles

Sixteen years ago, Baltimore's wine community was practically nonexistent. Today, however, it's vibrant and growing, with a wine study group that has met weekly for the past four years.

Sixteen years ago, when Chris Coker first started his career as a sommelier, Baltimore's community of wine professionals was practically nonexistent.

Coker, who was working at the now-closed Corks restaurant in Federal Hill, was thrilled by his job. But he was lonely in his profession. Though some Baltimore restaurants boasted strong wine lists, there were few sommeliers in the city.

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"I was asked to be a sommelier by [Corks owner] Jerry Pellegrino in 2000," Coker said. "It was door-opening for me. I had a passion for wine. But there was only one other sommelier in Baltimore at the time — Tom Capo at Charleston."

In 2005, Capo moved to San Francisco, leaving Coker by himself.

Today, however, Baltimore boasts a vibrant and growing community of wine professionals. Coker, now the sommelier at Aggio, credits much of the change to Julie Dalton, sommelier at Wit & Wisdom and the founder of a wine study group that has met weekly for the past four years.

Sommelier Julie Dalton, second from right, holds a wine study group at Wit & Wisdom in the Four Seasons Hotel. She chooses red and white wines that other members of the group taste "blind," and take turns describing the properties of the wines, like the age, variety and country of origin.
Sommelier Julie Dalton, second from right, holds a wine study group at Wit & Wisdom in the Four Seasons Hotel. She chooses red and white wines that other members of the group taste "blind," and take turns describing the properties of the wines, like the age, variety and country of origin. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

"When we started it in May of 2012, it was just a core group of four or five of us," said Dalton. "Now we rarely have less than 10."

Dalton joined her first study group, one based in Washington, in 2008. At the time, she was the wine director at Ranazul Tapas and Wine Bistro in Fulton while also working full time in the biotech industry.

After starting at Wit & Wisdom in 2011, she started organizing weekly meetings for the Baltimore-based group, formed from her contacts in the wine world.

While every session includes some serious tasting and discussion structured around sommelier certification exams, the group is about more than test prep. Jokes fly, digs are traded and everyone has a good time.

On a recent Wednesday, 12 sommeliers gathered around a table in a private room at Wit & Wisdom in Harbor East. Over the course of the next hour and a half, the group would taste and try to identify six wines: three white and three red, all presented "blind."

The group included representatives from some of Baltimore's best-known restaurants: La Cuchara, Bond Street Social, Barcocina, Volt, Fleet Street Kitchen, Magdalena, Aggio and Cosima.

For each of six wines, one group member took the lead, evaluating the sample based on how it looked, smelled and tasted, attempting to identify the wine's region, year, grape and even producer.

Zac Adcox examines wine during a meeting of the wine study group at Wit & Wisdom in the Four Seasons Hotel.
Zac Adcox examines wine during a meeting of the wine study group at Wit & Wisdom in the Four Seasons Hotel. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

It's a high-pressure task, but one sommeliers have to master to be certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Some of the professionals around the table, like Dalton, Coker and La Cuchara's Greg Schwab, had taken and passed multiple levels of the exam. (All three are Advanced Sommeliers, having passed three of four certification levels.)

Others are just starting out in their careers.

Dalton, who chose the wines and led the session, gave Schwab the task of identifying the first wine.

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Glancing at the worksheet he'll use during exams — with sections on sight, nose and palate — he rattled off a detailed description of the contents of his glass: "Wine No. 1 is a clear white wine, brilliant, youthful, green apple, under-ripe, tart, skin-on. Tart green. Peach, like toward the pit, Valencia orange flesh and pith. Lemon and lime zest. Green onion."

And that was all before he took a sip.

As the group sipped, chewed and swallowed (and sometimes spat into paper cups), Schwab continued, describing the flavor ("caramel popcorn, lemon curd, Greek yogurt, oak drives the bus"), texture, finish and complexity of the wine.

In four minutes and 40 seconds, Schwab talked his way to a conclusion: The wine was, he thought, a chardonnay, made between 2010 and 2013 by a reputable producer in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, Calif.

That decision made, the group moved on to the next white.

After the three whites were evaluated, the floor opened for discussion, as group members debated the scents and flavors of each wine. They talked about climate, oak, residual sugar and flavor, referencing everything from Trader Joe's ginger candy to wet creek pebbles to stale beer.

The first wine, Dalton revealed, was a 2014 chardonnay made by Rombauer Vineyards, from the Carneros region of California, located at the southern end of the Napa and Sonoma valleys. She congratulated Schwab on his close-to-dead-on assessment.

Wine study group participants fill out an extensive form describing the qualities of each wine.
Wine study group participants fill out an extensive form describing the qualities of each wine. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

Sessions like these are invaluable for sommeliers studying for their exams, most of which include a six-wine blind tasting.

"When I took the advanced exam, I learned you do not pass on your own. I passed because I was pushed and challenged by my group on a weekly basis. It takes a village," said Coker.

"Each of us has our strengths, so we learn from each other," said Dalton. "One of my strengths is champagne. Tim [Riley, of Bagby Restaurant Group's Fleet Street Kitchen] is Burgundy. Chris is Italy and California. We all contribute something and get something from someone else."

Rudiger Eilers, director of education for the Sommelier Association of America, agrees.

"I like to stress with our students, from day one, to form these tasting groups," he said. "Naturally, you can learn about wine by reading and studying. But at the end of the day, that doesn't mean you can taste."

Coker said he draws on what he learns from the study group when he is working, too.

"It challenges you, forces you to study and, with that, when you approach a table with guests, you have resources you never knew you had," he said.

That doesn't go unnoticed by management. Schwab's participation in the study group keeps education at the forefront of La Cuchara's wine program, said the restaurant's co-owner and head chef, Ben Lefenfeld.

"Overall, it shows the importance of learning the craft of wine service and staying abreast of different wines," he said. "We have a good amount of Level 1 and 2 sommeliers on staff, and a lot of that is due to Greg's dedication and knowledge."

But the study group's impact is broader than improvements at a single restaurant.

"I think this group has created a rigorous wine culture among professionals in Baltimore," said Riley. "For a long time, there was a small number of people doing good work — Tony Foreman at Charleston, Nelson Carey at Grand Cru — but not a lot of people really rigorously studying wine and pushing wine education as a goal for front-of-house professionals, and I think this group does that."

The bulk of each group meeting is dedicated to tasting, but after that portion is complete, Dalton shifts gears, quizzing the group on wine trivia questions that could pop up in the theory portion of the sommelier exam.

Questions like "What are the Sauterne years to avoid?" devolved into a conversation about the colors of the French sweet wine, books about wine, opinions of famous wine professionals and, at one point, what to drink with food from Taco Bell.

What happened during the official part of the tasting and discussion was educational, but much of the group's magic occurred around the edges, when their language loosened up and their love of wine, of the culture surrounding it and of Baltimore shone through.

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Though the study group members represent different restaurants, they create opportunities to work together when possible, with events like the Fork & Cork dinner series, during which sommeliers and chefs from Aggio, Wit & Wisdom, La Cuchara and Fleet Street Kitchen collaborate on multicourse meals. The 2016 series kicked off this month, with the next dinner scheduled for Sept.13 at La Cuchara.

Coker, Riley and Dalton also occasionally team up for private events that pit their pairings against one another in a competition judged by guests. "It's really fun," said Coker. "Julie and Tim are unbelievable talents. If they beat me, that's fantastic."

For him, the group and the wine community as a whole are gratifying personally and professionally.

"We get together on a regular basis because we truly enjoy each other's company," he said. "We've forged strong friendships."

Dalton agreed. "Yes, we want to pass exams, but really, it's fun to learn from each other. Wine is really cool and fun to share with people."

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