Cheers: Sommelier squad leans on each other for support

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

Being a Certified Sommelier requires a deep knowledge of wine, of course, but the job also entails long hours of study and frequent tastings to keep sharp, not to mention working service industry hours.

In Metro Detroit, a group of young wine experts and restaurant industry veterans have formed a squad to support and encourage each other.

The Detroit Somm Circle is Kat Hawkins of Wright & Company, Gerry Baker of Imlay City’s Mulefoot Gastropub, Rachel Van Til of Mabel Gray in Hazel Park and Justin King, who will soon open his own place, Bridge Street Social in Dewitt.

The four somms, who range in age from 25-35, lean on each other when it’s time to study hard for the next certification. They met through veteran sommelier and mentor Mick Descamps. Though they all work in separate restaurants in different parts of the state, for more than a year they have motivated and pushed each other as a unit. They even applied for the Eater Young Guns awards as a group, instead of nominating each other individually.

“The camaraderie makes a tough road like this, frankly, a lot more fun,” says King, who started his career in the service industry at Goodrich’s wine counter in East Lansing while attending Michigan State University. “Since the four of us started actively working with each other over the last 12-16 months, we’ve all made noticeable strides in our studies.”

The Court of Master Sommeliers was founded in 1977 to improve and set standards for the beverage service industry worldwide. The minutia of being such an expert — wine trends, wineries, history, climate, etc. — can be daunting. All four members of the Detroit Somm Circle are Certified Sommeliers.

Hawkins, who started in the business as a server at the Salvatore Scallopini in Southgate, is also a Certified Specialist of Wine and a Certified Specialist of Spirits. Last year she attempted the Advanced Sommelier certification, but didn’t pass, which is normal. She’s able to offer some additional insight to her study group, who are all gearing toward the advanced designation, which is difficult, time-consuming and expensive to obtain. It’s said that only 30 percent of somms who go for this certification will pass.

“We could not do this without each other, period,” says Hawkins, who is also the manager at Wright and Company. “Studying for advanced levels of testing is something that can be considered a full-time job. The amount of material to cover, the amount of time you spend on something so obscure ... you cannot, and will not be able to get through this without the help of a community of like-minded individuals to keep you going.”

“There’s no excuse not to support each other as colleagues. It’s a hard road to do this alone,” adds King. “Every day one of us is buried in work, studies and family commitments. We all have tough days, and the motivation we get from one another helps push us through the grind.”

With this kind of support, it’s hopeful that, years down the line, Metro Detroit may have four Master Sommeliers. Less than 250 people have obtained this level of certification. “Detroit’s First Lady of Wine” Master Somm Madeline Triffon is one of those experts, and naturally the Detroit Somm Circle counts her as one of their mentors.

Ferndale vodka named best in the world

The results of the World Vodka Awards are in, and Ferndale’s Valentine Vodka was given the top title of “World’s Best Vodka.” Valentine, which is made from a blend of corn, wheat and barley, has a production facility on Ferndale’s east side and a tasting room near the city center at 161 Vester.

Besides this award-winning vodka, Valentine makes an elderflower and grapefruit infused vodka called White Blossom, Woodward Ltd. Bourbon, Liberator Gin and — my favorite — barrel-aged Liberator Old Tom Gin.

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Twitter: @melodybaetens