Nowhere in the job requirements for master sommelier does it say "United Nations-calibre diplomacy skills," but, fortunately for Jennifer Huether, she's got patience and tact to spare. As the person who manages wine programs for the food and beverage holdings of Maple Leaf Sports, Huether, Canada's only female master sommelier and one of just 19 women who hold the credential worldwide, typically flits between Toronto restaurant e11even and the Air Canada Centre's Platinum and Hot Stove Clubs, overseeing the wine needs of everyone from high rollers out to close a deal with a stellar vintage to guys looking to impress a date with the right bottle. In the course of a given evening, Huether manages personalities as much as wine cellars (and the one at e11even alone has more than 600 bottles). One recent night, Huether works a table of food and wine bloggers at e11even, selecting wines to go along with the restaurant's succulent Kobe meatballs and lobster mac 'n' cheese.
One of the writers, though, is a cork dork who seems to be out to impress or, rather, stump her with his knowledge. Huether, who received her certification in February, handles the situation like the consummate pro she has been trained to be. She lets the dork talk, allows him to show off and doesn't engage in the competition he's clearly itching to have. "Being female is an advantage," she suggests, deftly removing a cork from a bottle of Tobia rioja in one fluid motion. "I can disarm someone and be more diplomatic." Clearly, there's no room for egos in this job. The customer rules.
That's fine with Huether. She knows that she has accomplished something truly remarkable. The master sommelier course is downright brutal and it's not uncommon for some sommeliers to take the three-part test more than a dozen times before passing. Huether took it six times over six years before she earned the coveted gold and burgundy lapel pin that puts her among the proud and the few.
The theory portion of the exam is an exercise in thinking on your feet. In front of three master sommeliers, candidates are grilled about winemakers, growing regions, appellations and obscure wine terms for 45 minutes. They have one shot to answer. Sink or swim.
For the service exam, a mock restaurant is set up, complete with "customers" adopting various personalities and acting out myriad scenarios. While candidates perform tasks such as examining glasses for cleanliness and ensuring pinot grigio is served at the correct temperature, questions are fired at them in rapid succession. God forbid you wake up with a sinus cold on the day you need to identify five spirits just by nosing them.
"I never thought I'd become a master sommelier," Huether says. "The process is all-consuming, but I just made up my mind I was going to do it. Originally, I thought it would be great for my career, but I didn't really need it so it was entirely personal." The mother of two children aged three and four would hit the books once the kids were in bed. She studied daily and created her own maps, outlining growing regions, soil type and even wind conditions. At any given time, she would have 20 bottles of wine on her kitchen counter. "I think some of my friends started to think I had a drinking problem."
Huether didn't discover her passion until her early 20s. In her hometown of Wallaceburg, Ont., where the sipping preferences gravitated more toward Old Vienna beer and Crown Royal, she didn't have the opportunity to discover wine. After she left and headed to Toronto, a chef friend served her foie gras paired with a sauterne. In that moment, she realized just how much there was to learn about wine.
As a woman in the male-dominated world of wine, she has had her share of challenges. Other sommeliers sometimes assume that she doesn't know much, so has to work to earn their respect. And Europeans still see a woman pulling corks as an oddity: Of the two female master sommeliers there, both are in the U.K., not the big wine producers like Italy, France or Germany. In those countries, the role of sommelier is seen as a male one, as Huether experienced firsthand during a Toronto charity event that saw her working alongside Frederick Engerer, general manager of French winemaker Château Latour. When he noticed her uncorking bottles, he grilled Huether on her knowledge and technique.
After responding with all the apparent right answers, Engerer was impressed, Huether recalls. He then publicly extolled the virtues of "this female sommelier" and asked her to stick around post-event to enjoy some wine with him. Huether felt vindicated, as she has certainly earned her right to wield a corkscrew alongside the boys in the biz. And that is a feat worth toasting.
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