Q&A: Sommelier talks virtual tastings, food pairings and pro tips for newbies
Sommelier Brianne Cohen wants to help you up your wine game
Is a virtual wine tasting the same as the real deal? What should you look out for when tasting and ordering wine? And is becoming a sommelier really as difficult as the big screen would have us believe? We got to grill a real-life somm and ask her these burning questions and more. Brianne Cohen is a WSET Diploma certified sommelier, wine educator, judge, and writer based out of Los Angeles.
What’s it like to host a virtual wine tasting?
It is VERY different than in person, but it's exciting because you have less control. In an in-person wine tasting setting, I'd curate the wines and be face to face with people to guide them through a flight. In the case of virtual, people select their own wines and I have to do my best to help them activate their senses through a computer screen. It's challenging... but exciting at the same time.
Has there been a big interest in virtual wine tastings?
Yes, a huge interest. I hosted my first Virtual Vino online tasting last month. I thought a handful of my friends would join. Well, I had over 100 people sign up to attend. The response was so overwhelming and gratifying.
Since then I have hosted six virtual wine tastings with over 250 people in attendance. Since COVID-19, many wineries, wine influencers, wine shops, regional marketing councils, wine educators, and wine schools are offering some sort of virtual wine content – whether it's on Zoom, Facebook Live, or Instagram Live. If you love wine, want to learn more, and have some free time, now is the time to take advantage of all the free content online.
Do virtual wine tastings also serve to support wineries?
Yes – many wineries are offering virtual wine tastings. They encourage consumers to purchase a certain selection of wines (that can be shipped or picked up) and will taste through those wines with a group of customers, usually through Zoom. As a wine educator (even pre-pandemic), I encouraged people to step outside of the grocery store/big box wine retailer and into a wine shop. The selection in a wine shop is more diverse and generally features smaller, boutique wineries. And in this time, those are the ones that need our support.
Have there been any silver linings to the pandemic?
To be honest, no. I am not on the service side, but the bar/restaurant industry in this country has been decimated. It is too early to tell what the long-term effects will be, but those who work on a floor (a server, waiter, somm, etc) were already making less than a living wage – and now they've been reduced to making nothing. But there are some great groups out there looking to help, like the United Sommeliers Foundation to help provide financial assistance to somms in need.
In the times of COVID-19 it's all about staying connected; to each other and to our communities. Now, more than ever, we are searching for things that bring us joy. Wine is one of those things (along with food) that bring people together. That has turned into one of the most fulfilling things we can do in these times.
How did you get started as a sommelier?
Like most people, I love wine. I decided to take a wine education class (the Wine & Spirits Education Trust Level 2 program) just for fun. It was a great intro course that I completed in one weekend. I then moved on to Level 3, which was one night a week for a couple of months. Still fun, and I wanted to learn more.
The Level 4 was a whole other ballgame. A two to three year program requiring at least 10 hours of study per week (on top of a full-time job). That's when it got real. In 2018 I completed the Level 4 Diploma certification and have not looked back since.
The next step would be the Master of Wine certification, but I don't think I'm going that far. As a certified sommelier, you have many career path choices. I knew that working in a restaurant/bar was not for me, as I am an avid traveler and own and operate my own business.
I decided to go the wine education route. I offer educational, fun, and approachable wine classes in people's homes. I also work with corporate clients who are looking for a non-work related team building activity. For example, I recently gave a Wine Tasting 101 class to a sales team, then broke them up into small groups to blind taste two wines and compete against each other.
What made you want to become a sommelier?
I saw the movie SOMM and was hooked. I thought the people pursuing the Master Sommelier certification were both intriguing and crazy. It was a level of wine nerdiness that I had never seen... and I was into it.
After I watched that movie, I learned there were wine blogs written by regular people, wine social media personalities, and wine classes I could take here in LA. Within a month I started my wine blog, registered for the Wine Bloggers Conference, and began my WSET Level 2 class. The rest is history.
Is the training to become a sommelier as notoriously difficult as we’ve heard?
Yes, 100%. It's harder than you think! Watch SOMM, and you will see. People literally study for a decade to take this exam. It's bonkers!
What’s the most challenging aspect of your work?
The most challenging aspect of my wine work is that people generally start out very uncomfortable about wines. Wine is a topic that stresses people out. It's perceived to be a highbrow topic only for a certain group of people. My goal is to erase all of that. After my class, I'd like people to feel empowered in their wine decisions. I hope to help them drink better and up their wine game.
What are some of your favorite wines/vineyards?
I am an equal opportunity wine drinker... I love all styles, regions, and wines. My favorite category is sparkling. I can have a glass of sparkling wine everyday. I live in Los Angeles, so I love local wines from the Santa Barbara wine country, and I think that Valle de Guadalupe in Baja Mexico is the most exciting wine region at the moment.
What should newbies know about wine?
Wine is a tough nut to crack. Every week on my Instagram I share a tip to help newbies learn about wine.
This one tip will help you stretch your wine dollar: seek international wines. Wines made from places other than the US. Don't get me wrong, I love a good domestic wine, but there are many values to be had when you grab your "wine passport" and try something from say Spain, Portugal, or Italy.
Another tip is to step out of your wine comfort zone. Say you love Merlot and drink it every chance you get. There is nothing wrong with that. But, I challenge you to try a new grape every time you drink wine, whether you are ordering off of a wine list or at a store purchasing a bottle. Expand your horizons and you just might find something you love.
What’s your best tip for ordering a bottle of wine in a restaurant?
Utilize the sommelier! They are there to help you. Your experience will be infinitely better if you communicate to them what you like or don't like. Any tidbits you share will help that person direct you to a wine that will (hopefully) blow your socks off. The intel you share helps them move through the encyclopedia of wines in their head to get closer to the perfect wine for you.
What are some unusual varieties of grapes that people should look out for?
These are some great "off the beaten path" grapes that I enjoy: Albariño (a crisp, refreshing white from Spain), Pinot Meunier (the oft-forgotten red grape of Champagne that makes interesting reds and varietal sparklings), and Aglianico (a deep, dark and brooding red grape from southern Italy).
What’s your approach to pairing wines with food?
For one, don't get boxed into the idea that you can only drink a specific wine with a specific dish. Drink what you like; that's the most important thing. Some basic pairing guidelines: tannic wines go well with fatty foods (e.g. steak and Cabernet Sauvignon); high acid wines work well with high acid foods (e.g. a lemon based dish with Sauvignon Blanc); and spicy foods go well with low alcohol wines that are slightly sweet (e.g. Thai food with Riesling or Gewürztraminer).