Rare wine expert calls area home for a while
BY JACKS WHITEHURST
Newberg Graphic correspondent
Brandon Tebbe has been living in Newberg for the past few months in preparation for a project beginning to take shape. It's been 25 years since he started working in the fine-dining and restaurant business — 12 years since he fell in love with wine on a trip to Europe.
He has since been to Argentina, Hungary, France, Italy and Japan for a variety of reasons: to study the significance of wine regions, become skilled in differentiating between particular taste nuances, to meet some of the most dedicated and knowledgeable people in the world of wine, and to take different levels of what some consider to be the most difficult exam in the world: The Master Sommelier Diploma Exam. The diploma is the highest distinction a professional can attain in fine wine and beverage service.
The Court of Master Sommeliers (pronounced: so-mal-e-ay) was created under the supervision of the Institute of Masters of Wine in 1977 to improve beverage standards in hotels and restaurants, and to standardize wine education at the highest level of certification. Since then, only 249 people (as of the end of 2017) have become certified master sommeliers. The organization tests once per year and offers four levels of advancement: introductory, certified, advanced and master.
Tebbe became a master sommelier in 2011 after passing all three parts of the examination process on the first attempt — one of only 15 people to earn the accomplishment. Usually it takes most people six to seven attempts to pass all three parts.
The three different areas of the exam include theory, service and tasting. The theory section is an oral examination which covers everything from wine and spirit composition to detailed fermentation processes to regional climates to important vintage wines. Service is a test of knowledge in food and wine pairing, spirit tasting and accurate table service.
The last, and perhaps most difficult part of the examination, is the blind tasting. Examinees have just 25 minutes to identify three to six vintages — no labels, no questions, just wine in a glass. Here, the wine taster will discern alcohol content, acids, tannins (which constitutes dryness in wine) and must describe them correctly, eventually ending up at the type of wine, where it's from and what year it was bottled.
"You have three whites and three reds in front of you and that's all you know," Tebbe said. "You actually have to break them down to what grape or blend it is, where in the world it is down to the village — you have to know vintages as well."
It's not enough to know every wine region, village and district in the world — candidates must also know which years were better than others for each region. The blind tasting of six wines requires not only identifying the grape varietal, but the region it came from and the year it was made. The pass rate for the exam is a sobering 8 percent.
"When you smell the wine you are trying to distinguish between hundreds or thousands of things," Tebbe said.
That is why most people who find themselves interested in this field know one thing and one thing only: that wine is their life. Tebbe mentioned that the only way to really progress in this particular field is to dedicate your life to studying, traveling and learning. For him, studying is endless and endlessly fun.
"I advise people that are studying to try and visit the regions because most don't — travel definitely helps," he said. "I really think you become a master (sommelier) about three to five years after you pass … because the knowledge you gain after is infinitely more helpful."
The term master sommelier gained some popularity and attention several years back after "SOMM," a documentary that followed four candidates to the finish, was released on Netflix. It was an award-winning documentary that year, and well-worth the watch as it describes the intricacies of wine making and the sommelier profession, highlighting the progress and failures of each candidate on their road to the exam.
Tebbe recalled some of the people he has met along the way, saying that without them it would have been hardly possible to pass the exam. Since most sommeliers in the field are open to meeting with other candidates to talk wine and learn from each other, he said that students need to get connected in order to be successful.
"The groups are meant to help you study better," he said. "The idea is to sit down with six glasses in front you and go through the tasting grid."
A tasting grid is a deductive process that sommeliers use to break down wine identities in blind tasting. The grid is used during the actual exam, but can and should be used for practice as well. During tasting, every compound and flavor in the wine must be named.
"Grapes are one of the only plants in the world that can create a variety of aromatic compounds, so if you make cherry wine it smells like cherries, blackberry wine will smell like blackberries — you can ferment grapes in different ways and it could smell like rose petals and cinnamon, or blackberry and bell pepper," Tebbe said.
Distinguishing flavors unique to each region is dependent on "how the grapes are planted, the drainage, the soil compositions, microclimate; basically everything that makes that wine what it is for the region," he said.
After Tebbe passed the exam in 2011, he founded Paulee restaurant in Dundee, but he said he "left that project" to pursue other personal interests. At one point he even reconfigured the entire wine inventory system at the Allison Inn and Spa to make it more streamlined and effective.
Since the beginning of summer, Tebbe has been working in the tasting room at Fox Farms Vineyards, as well as teaching deductive wine tasting classes on most Sundays. Although his official title is master sommelier, he considers himself a wine educator or consultant, which has in the past made him a cellar/harvest intern, as well as a spirits/sake specialist.
Because of his diverse experience in restaurants and vineyards, his future plans include something most master sommeliers don't do. "Eventually I want to be able to make wine, come out here during harvest, produce my own label," he said.
Tebbe and his wife, Kathryn, a certified sommelier, have travelled the world since meeting in Japan while they were both there to take exams. Both spend hours every day studying for the next certificate — she will take her advanced master sommelier exam in October; he will be enrolled in University of California - Davis' wine-making certificate program, one of the best in the world.
"Most master sommeliers leave the floor (working the floor refers to working in a restaurant as a wine consultant) after they pass their exam to go work for distributors, suppliers or importers …," he said. "Right now I'm kind of delving into wine and study, but I'll back on the floor next spring to next summer."
Tebbe is seeking to have one foot in both camps. By creating his own label, as well as maintaining a personal, face-to-face interaction with customers and local farmers, he hopes to bring the producer and consumer together in a closer and more effective relationship.
"When sommeliers come out here they are super excited and want to taste the wine and want to learn, but I think the depth and interaction with the right people isn't always there," he said.
That's why he has ventured to Oregon wine country: to meet people and learn about the local wine processes. Compared to some of the other places he has visited around the globe, "the Willamette (Valley) definitely has more farmers and is down to earth, which is what I like about it."