Arthur Hon, beverage director at Sepia, Chicago, ended up
working in fine dining and wine by chance. He grew up in California
and moved to Chicago to study art. “I did this all on my own out of
curiosity,” he says. “Younger sommeliers today may know they want
to do this, but I didn’t until later in life. It started as a hobby. I love
geography and different languages, as well as the ritual of dining out.”
While attending school, Hon worked at Sepia, where a
coworker asked him to take The Court of Master Sommeliers
exam with him so they could study together. “I passed the intro-
level exam, and then I got addicted,” says Hon. “I realized I didn’t
want to do this as a hobby, but as a career.
He moved from server to wine captain at Sepia, and learned
all he could from then-sommelier Scott Tyree. When Tyree left,
Hon succeeded him and took over the wine program.
Reserve’s Marantette dove into wine while working at Bistro
110 in Chicago. He was greatly influenced by Terry McNeese,
general manager at the time, and assistant general manager Chris
Pawlisz. “I had two great mentors there and was encouraged to
be really well-educated about wine,” he says. “I learned how wine
plays with food and pairings and how to answer any question at the
table about food or wine.”
In July 2010, he returned to his home state of Michigan to
serve as assistant general manager of the newly opened Reserve.
Greg Van Wagner, wine director at Jimmy’s, Aspen, Colorado,
grew up Pennsylvania and moved to Boulder, Colorado, to pursue
road bike racing. He had worked at more casual restaurants in the
past, and got a job at Frasca in Boulder. “This was a wine-focused
place, and they took a shot on me,” he says. “My mind was blown
about the whole world of food and beverage. It was definitely an
‘aha’ moment. I knew I wanted to work in the industry.”
He eventually moved to Aspen to be maître d’ at The Little
Nell, and to enjoy an active outdoor lifestyle and a vibrant food
and arts scene. Then he joined Jimmy’s as wine director. “Aspen
is very much a wine town,” says Van Wagner. “It’s a little town
of 6,000 people with three master sommeliers.”
The goal is to have his own restaurant. “I wanted to be well-
rounded, so I knew I had to work all sides of the industry to
someday have my own place,” he says.
Whitney came on board at Eastern Standard as a bartender,
but knew he wanted to focus on wine. “I was just waiting for
the right opportunity. I offered to do any task that I could,” he
says. “I loved the restaurant and really wanted to be a part of
the wine program here. I worked hard and showed value, and
communicated to them that I wanted to move forward in wine.
Eventually, the opportunities came up.”
He moved up from bartender to full-time management of the
restaurant. Then, six months later, he became assistant wine director.
Test your knowledge
Marantette decided to take the first-level test from The Court
of Master Sommeliers in October 2010. A few weeks later, he
took the level-two test. “There are multiple organizations that
test, but the court focuses on service,” he says. “Being in a full-
service environment, it made the most sense for me.”
Industry professionals who take wine seriously can pass level
one, he says. In level two, there is blind tasting to identify a red wine
and a white wine, as well as the theory part of the exam, which is
tough, he adds. There is also a service scenario in level two that
involves role play with a master sommelier in front of the class.
“It was terrifying, but you have to go into it confidently,”
says Marantette. “You’ve prepared and dedicated so much time
and resources, including buying books and buying wine.”
He has considered testing at the next level, but doesn’t feel
it is necessary at this time. “I may if I move to a larger market,”
he says. “It would be years of studying.”
Hon plans to take the level two exam in 2017. “The Court
of Master Sommeliers format has changed drastically,” he says.
“It’s now more flexible and relevant to wine buyers and not just
fact-based. It’s more in tune with what actually happens on the
floor and when serving guests.”
The increased popularity of sommelier as a career means that
those in the field feel more of a need to become certified, Hon says.
Now, many of the higher-level positions require certification. He
adds that the two most popular certification programs in North
America are The Court of Master Sommeliers and Wine & Spirit
Education Trust (WSET), with headquarters in London. “Neither
is better or worse, they just have a different focus. WSET is more
focused on vineyards and wine.”
Whitney passed the level-one test through the court right after
starting at Eastern Standard, and about six months later, passed
the level-two certification. He is currently studying for level three.
He credits the Guild of Sommeliers, a partner organization
to The Court of Master Sommeliers run by a couple of master
sommeliers, with helping to advance the career of sommelier.
The guild provides education for those studying for the exams.
Van Wagner took the level-one and level-two certification
tests within a few weeks of each other. He is preparing for the
CAREER TRACK cellar masters
above: a shift in customers’ wine preferences includes younger people looking for
natural wine or certain styles.