A weekly interview series about the work and dedication of sommeliers from all around the globe. We kick off with Andrew McNamara MS. Andrew is the Vice President of Wine Development and Master Sommelier for Breakthru Beverage Group. McNamara oversees the Luxury Wine Team and Augustan Wine Imports in Florida. He works closely with Breakthru’s suppliers and customers to strengthen relationships. He also provides education to both Breakthru’s Sales Associates and customers.
What inspired you to become a sommelier?
AM: I was in a transition from another career and took a part-time job at a small fine wine retail shop in Charlotte, North Carolina. I had a small amount of knowledge about wine but was intensely passionate about it when I started the job. Within a matter of weeks, I was hooked on wine. From there, the owner of the shop suggested that I pursue the Master Sommelier Diploma. I took the introductory course and was hooked even more. After that, I took as position as cellar rat at L’Escalier at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. I had an opportunity to try some of the greatest wines of the world and really form my palate. I wanted other people to experience the great wines of the world that I had been fortunate enough to try.
What is the role of a sommelier in your opinion?
AM: The role of the sommelier is very simple – to guide the guest’s beverage experience. It sounds simple, but it’s more like watching a duck float on the water. It looks elegant and easy on the surface, but underneath the action is furious. A sommelier should be everything in the restaurant – from food runner to fill-in captain to expediter to bussing tables. And, help guide the guest to an excellent experience – be it wine, beer, cocktails, sake, water choices, non-alcoholic pairings – everything. And they should be served in a manner that lets the guest feel cared for and that no matter the experience they were looking for, that the sommelier helped exceed it.
The path to become a Master Sommelier is tough. What were your biggest lessons during these years of hard work?
AM: I learned quite a bit about myself during the process. One, was how hard I could work. Two, that failure is necessary. The two of them create a vicious circle that can blog one down if you don't stop to enjoy the process and remember why you were pursuing it In the first place. The process was incredibly humbling - there Is always someone better, that knows more about an area or wine or producer or whatever. The last lesson is perhaps the most important - I have yet to have a conversation with someone about wine that I didn't learn something from. Everyone has a different perspective and perceives things differently - all those perceptions and perspectives are valid when It comes to taste and smell and experience, so they are all valuable.
How do you analyze something like a wine which is a very subjective experience?
AM: Wine is incredibly subjective. The idea is to take the parts that are less or not subjective and compare those to all the other wines that exist. Once you calibrate your palate for alcohol, acid, tannin, texture and many other elements, you can place wines in groups. It takes tasting thousands of wines both blind and non-blind to really be able to do this. I also smell everything in the world around me - from trees to grass to mulch to mushrooms to different fruits and vegetables in different stages of ripeness. Smelling the spice rack at home over and over Is a great way to Identify those things. Like anything, to master it, you must repeat it thousands and thousands of times.
What has been the biggest change in the wine world since you started your career?
AM: For me, it's the access to wine. It has changed at all levels. The "great" names have gotten more allocated and much more expensive which makes them more difficult to acquire. On the other hand, we have access to so many more great wines at inexpensive price points from so many different regions. Wine doesn't have to be from one of the famous spots to draw attention anymore. Napa, Bordeaux, Burgundy, etc. will all continue to produce the best of the best, but we are now much more aware of wines from Greece, Croatia, Washington State and many other places.
What are the qualities to look for when purchasing a wine?
AM: For a consumer, the most important thing is do you like the wine you are drinking? If so then nothing else matters. I've always believed that you should drink what you like, not what other people say you should like. Try a few different wines and see what you like and what you don't, and most importantly, why you don't like it.
Who is your biggest inspiration, and do you have a mentor right now?
AM: Geez, this Is a tough one to answer because I have so much admiration for so many people in our industry. The people that paved the way for the profession of sommelier: Fred Dame, Larry Stone, Nunzio Alioto, the late Gerard Basset, my mentor Virginia Philip, but so many more. I am leaving out way too many names, but as I said before - I've learned something from everyone I've come in contact with. Most of my mentors are now my great friends, so every time I see my friends I grow. I've been fortunate to learn from people like Ronan Sayburn, James Tidwell, Shayn Bjornholm - again, the list is miles long!
For what wine can we wake you up?
AM: There are a lot of wines that will get me out of bed - Burgundy (Chablis especially), Rioja, Barolo - so many. But as far as what you should wake me up to drink - I have a motto that I try to live by - no matter the question, the answer is always Champagne.
Which wine house deserves more credits?
AM: I think so many of the old school classic Napa Valley wine houses get overlooked in favor of the new and flashy. Producers like Inglenook, Hanzell, Mayacamas, Groth and many more all continue to produce top-notch wines.
Which Master Sommelier should I interview next and why?
AM: My very good friend Andy Myers, MS from Jose Andres’ Think Food Group. He’s an all-around fantastic guy with a great perspective.
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