Every wine lover can attest to the fact that a single, spectacular glass can create a lifelong memory. But what if your job involved tasting tremendous wines day in and day out? Here, five Wine Spectator Restaurant Award–winning sommeliers weigh in on their most meaningful, life-changing wine experiences, from the humbling to the surprising to the inspiring.
Wine Spectator: What has been a life-changing wine moment for you?
Jean-Charles Mahé, wine director at Grand Award winner Print Hall in Perth, Australia: I think it’s when I had the 1990 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti grand cru monopole in my hand when I moved it from one cellar to another when we first moved into the Print Hall restaurant.
WS: What did you feel at that moment?
J-CM: That I had a lot of money in my hand!
Ian Brosnan, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Ely Winebar in Dublin, Ireland: The first was on a trip to Champagne, where I was a guest of Billecart-Salmon, and we had dinner in their house, with Mr. Billecart. We had been discussing their 1959 and 1961 Cuvée Nicolas François coming first and second in the Champagne of the Millennium competition, and he mentioned he had very little of either left, but then disappeared and returned with a magnum of the ’71. This was one of his favorites. It is to this day one of the most incredible things I have ever tasted, and drinking it there, with the family, was a really special occasion. I was totally speechless.
Another memory was from a trip to Tuscany, my favorite wine region—after Champagne, of course. We had spent the morning with the wonderful Giovanni Manetti of Fontodi. After the winery, we went for lunch at a local restaurant. There is a special breed of cattle in Tuscany called Chianina, which produces the most incredible beef, so we sat on the terrace overlooking the rolling vineyards [and] eating this beef char-grilled in front of us. To drink, we had magnums of Flaccianello della Pieve 2004—Fontodi’s 100 percent Sangiovese—and one of my all-time favorite wines. Everything about that moment was perfect, especially the choice of wine. It’s a moment that will stay with me forever.
Richard Matuszczak, wine director at Grand Award winner La Toque in Napa: Wine is very dependent on everything around it—time of day, the lighting, the weather, the person you're with, your mood, anything. Sometimes, we'll enjoy a wine and we'll buy some bottles, and we'll open it six months later and it won't taste like we remember it. Not only has it changed a little bit, but now you're in a different place and it's not the same wine.
After working a long party at an estate [as a private dining catering manager], the house's butler put a bottle of wine in my bag and told me to enjoy it when I got home. And I take it home and it's one of the best Champagnes vintages in recent memory, from a producer I'd never had. It was a 1990 Pol Roger rosé. I'd never had the wine in my life and at that time wouldn't have been able to afford it. I opened it at two in the morning with a friend I'd worked the party with. It was one of the best Champagnes I ever remembered drinking. It had this weight and texture. I don't know if it would taste the same, but at the time, it was one of the best wines I ever had.
Shelley Lindgren, wine director for Best of Award of Excellence winner A16 and Award of Excellence winner SPQR in San Francisco: The original A16 list was not going to be just southern Italian. I didn’t know I could get the wines at first because there wasn’t really a lot in the market. When I came back from Naples, I literally was sitting down crossing my fingers making the call to this importer to see if they had the wines. It was Caggiano Taurasi, which I learned about from some sommeliers in Naples, and then we went to go visit Antonio Caggiano. Now if you go, there’s a picture of [him] and I—he’s a photographer—in his winery in Taurasi, this gothic town, on the wall with the A16 [road], and then there’s the exit to Taurasi. [We’re] arm in arm, it’s really cute. So that moment where I realized we could get those wines, that was my biggest aha moment.
Andy Myers, wine director for ThinkFoodGroup, including 16 Restaurant Award winners: One or two days after I took the introductory exam at the Court [of Master Sommeliers], I came home and I was really excited that I passed. I said to my now ex-wife, “This is really exciting. These Master Sommeliers are so smart. It seems like such a cool thing. I wish I could be a sommelier.” And she said, “Well, why don’t you do that?” And I said, “I don’t know, I’m not that smart.” And she agreed with me that I’m not that smart, but then said, “So go get smarter.” That day was really meaningful to me, that challenge that she set down and I set down for myself: “Hey, you can do this if you want. But you have to go do it.” So that really changed my life.
[I got] to drink Riesling early in my career with Terry Theise [of Skurnik Wines]. He used to let me sit at his feet while he’d be writing tasting notes, and he’d let me taste the wines with him. He’s the one who first said to me that he only really liked the wines [that] met him halfway. It took me almost 10 years to figure out what he was talking about, and then I fell in love with the idea—you know, as opposed to a wine that gives you everything, wines that only meet you halfway and invite you to participate.
And the great man Ray Tilch [founder of Silesia Wine & Spirits], who at a tasting in the back room of his old shop had me open a bottle of ’67 Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour. I opened it up and I checked it, and he said, “How is it?” I said, “Oh, it’s dead.” And he goes, “Give me that bottle.” And he tasted it and goes, “No, it’s not dead, it’s old. Its back hurts. Give it a minute.” I came back 10 minutes later and the wine was wide awake and gorgeous. [It] ended up being the wine of the night. That moment was a revelation for me.