By The Glass
Could I be smarter than a fifth-grader?
More than a year ago, I was asked to participate at my elementary alma mater's career day. I wasn't quite sure how to go about it, knowing the school's D.A.R.E. program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) covers alcohol consumption. Would the students understand the difference between abuse and what I do? I politely declined the invitation.
I was approached again earlier this year about a similar event for a different school. This time, the requester was persistent. I was hesitant again, but how could I say no to this particular fan? After consulting the teachers, we all agreed it would be an opportunity to share the artisanal, gastronomical and professional facets of wine-making and service. My groupie (daughter Montana) was elated that I would speak at her fifth-grade career day.
For weeks, I wondered about what to do. I would cover how and where wine is made, its relationship to food -- but how was I going to make it interesting to 10- and 11-year-olds? Props would be a nice touch. My collection of vineyard rocks would be a great way to explain how geology figures into the equation. Hmm, will it embarrass Montana? It might be too geeky. On second thought, if the students got the coolness factor, I might not get the rocks back.
Fast forward to the day of the event. The students had been primed in advance by the teachers. They were well-prepared and asked good questions. How did I become interested in this career and what subjects are needed to become a sommelier? We talked about developing skills in several areas including English, foreign languages, math, science such as chemistry, as well as history. I added that having a good memory was a plus. As I shared more of what I my job entailed, and some of the props I'd brought, they began to understand how all of those subjects came into play.
I commanded a few oohs and ahhs as they tried to guess how expensive a bottle of wine can be. I showed them a memento from one of the most expensive wines I've ever sold -- an empty bottle of rare French Burgundy, Domaine de la Romanee Conti, Romanee Conti, 1989, worth $17,000. Another bottle -- an 1860 madeira by Cossart Gordon -- spurred a mini history lesson in relation -- how madeira was used to celebrate the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence and the inauguration of President George Washington.
I even showed the students my "Tastevin," the sommelier's traditional wine-tasting cup, expecting one of them to ask me if I could rap, too. The thick metallic chain and large medallion-looking cup was reminiscent of the shiny adornments worn by many rappers in music videos. No takers there.
A favorite moment was when a student asked who invented wine. I referred to the caveman days (Paleolithic era, some 2.6 million years ago) and how they hunted and gathered food. I speculated that some unsuspecting caveman must have eaten fermented grapes and discovered its effect. Although I'm no comedian, I managed to reel them in by asking, "Do you want to know what his name was? His name was AAARGH." Yeah, I know -- but, the kids actually laughed.
To demonstrate the essence of what I do (food-and-wine pairing), I offered a sampling of minitoast with French brie cheese and julienned Fuji apples complemented by a cup of sparkling apple juice. You could see in their expressions that they got the connection.
Judging from the letters I received afterward, many of the students found my presentation interesting. I was pleased to read that Aya understood how a sommelier smells and/or tastes wine, yet does not swallow it. I was also happy Tyler will continue his path to becoming an engineer.
Kevin Toyama is at sommelier at the Halekulani and an advanced certificate holder from the Court of Master Sommeliers.
This column is a weekly lesson in wine pairing written by a rotating panel of wine professionals. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org