- The Little Nell is thrilled to share the news from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Our very own Nick Barb of element 47 has passed the grueling Advanced Sommelier exam, held in April 2015. Nick shares his insights into this distinction and the work involved to reach this crowning achievement.
- The Little Nell: Tell us a bit about your rise in the wine/hospitality industry – from your first job in the field to your current role here at The Little Nell.
Nick Barb: Growing up, different foods and cultures were always interesting to me. I was drawn to the restaurant industry in high school as a way to make a little spending money. I went to college to study economics, but soon realized that I wanted to turn my enthusiasm for food into a career so I decided to go to culinary school. During my time at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., I interned in Vail, Colo., where I was introduced to wine. It was a subject I didn’t understand, but wanted to learn about more and more. By the time my internship was finished, I was fully immersed in the subject and wanted to be a sommelier. When looking for my first job, I came across Eleven Madison Park, which had a wonderful service team and wine program that I wanted to join. Over the next five years, I worked my way from the bottom to becoming a sommelier on their team. Along the way I learned about every detail that goes into fine dining while enhancing my wine knowledge. When I felt like it was time to move forward I turned to my wine director at the time, Dustin Wilson, and looked for his advice on what to do next. A Master Sommelier and former Wine Director at The Little Nell, he recommended looking to The Little Nell where I’ve been since the fall of 2013.
- TLN: To prepare for the Advanced Sommelier exam, can you share details about what goes into studying – what areas you focused on, wines you tasted/familiarized yourself with, any courses you took in preparation.
NB: The test is divided into three parts – service, theory and blind tasting (having to pass all three at once in order to pass the exam). The Advanced also covers every wine growing region in the world. Because of this I was blind tasting two times a week – once with Carlton McCoy and once with Jay Fletcher – to understand grape varietals and the differences in growing regions. Studying for theory involved a lot of memorization; drawing maps to understand location of sub-regions really helped me, since I am a visual learner. Studying was nonstop all season long and took every minute of my free time. Making sacrifices such as missing ski days to get to this point was something I had to do.
There is an advanced course everyone takes before taking the exam, but the majority of the work is done with your own time. Having mentors and a great team around you to help in this process was essential for me.
TLN: How did working at The Little Nell help you prepare?
NB: The wine program we have here at The Nell allows me to be exposed to wines that not everyone gets to experience while honing my service skills. Not only do we work hard, but we have a lot of fun in creating the best experience we can for the guest. Carlton and I are always looking for new ways to make wine approachable and relaxed; after all most of our guests are on vacation.
Carlton played a major role in getting me ready for this exam. He sat down with me every week to discuss and go through blind tasting. He also gave me pointers and areas to focus on for the service portion. Occasionally he would ask me theory questions while I was working the floor which made them more difficult. Lastly, he would just make sure I wasn’t too stressed out with the upcoming exam by joking around and talking to me about something other than wine…. That was really needed. He has become a great friend and mentor.
TLN: Where was the exam held and can you describe what the testing setting, process was like – how many candidates tested and of that number, how many passed?
The exam was held in Portland, Oregon, at The Hotel Monaco. One part of the test was administered a day then results were given the last day of examination. Day 1 was the service exam which consisted of two tables’ mock Champagne service and red wine decanting. Day 2 was blind tasting where you have 25 minutes to go through six wines and come up with a conclusion. Day 3 was the written theory exam which covered questions about wine regions all over the world while also including questions about spirits and wine program management. After each exam there was a lot of waiting and wondering about how you did on that part while trying to get your mind focused for the next exam. This spring, 66 candidates took the test (their largest class ever) and 18 people passed.
- TLN: What are some of the most fascinating things you learned in this process?
NB: During preparation for this test, you really learn a lot about yourself and how hard you can push yourself in order to accomplish your goals.
- TLN: What other mentors, both locally and nationally, did you have and what role did they play?
Locally, both Carlton McCoy and Jay Fletcher. They gave up so much of their free time each week to ensure I was prepared for this exam. Without these two gentleman I wouldn’t have been as confident about my chances to pass this exam. John Ragan, Wine Director of Union Square Hospitality Group, gave me my first shot at being a sommelier in New York City. John taught me a lot about service and that being a sommelier just isn’t about serving wine, but being able to master and skillfully accomplish anything required on a restaurant floor. Lastly Dustin Wilson, Wine Director of Eleven Madison Park, was very influential in my growth as a sommelier when I was in NYC. He showed me that wine service can be done in a fun and approachable manner, even in a fine dining setting. I am very thankful and lucky to have the support and mentorship of these four great sommeliers.
TLN: Do you have a favorite wine…or a summer wine recommendation?
NB: The first thing I opened when I passed was a great bottle of Chablis! So that is what I would recommend for the summertime. You can still find great value in this area.
Come visit Nick at The Little Nell and celebrate his success at element 47, open this spring through April 19, then reopening for summer in late May. For reservations, please call 970.920.6330.