A Passion for Pouring
Ventura County’s only Advanced Sommelier helps people build on what they enjoy
If you find yourself regularly sampling wine at 9am, if your important friendships focus almost exclusively on wine and if the countertops of your hotel room are covered in opened wine bottles, you might have a problem.
If you are Zacary Welch of Ventura, you don’t have a problem, you have a goal: certification as an Advanced Sommelier.
Welch, retail manager at The Cave at Ventura Wine Company, is advancing up the ladder of sommelier certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers. It’s one of a handful of organizations that offers sommelier certification and is highly regarded worldwide.
He passed levels one and two in 2014, and this past March successfully completed the level three exam, held in Portland.
“It’s pretty cool,” Welch says of passing each of the exams on his first try. “Because for a lot of people who were taking the advanced exam it was their second or third time taking it. They are from large markets like New York and San Francisco and for me to go in there from Ventura and crush the exam was nice.”
In the world, there are approximately 512 Advanced Sommeliers certified through the Court of Master Sommeliers. In Ventura County, there’s only Welch.
Advanced Sommeliers have knowledge not just of wines but also of cocktails, aperitifs, spirits and liqueurs. They must know how to select, prepare and position glassware for every type of beverage. They are versed in serving wines—opening, inspecting for quality, decanting, pouring—and can make wine recommendations. They are also able to identify wines by grape variety, country and district of origin, and vintage in a blind tasting setting. And know why the wines taste the way they do based on history, tradition, available raw materials and production methods. Whew.
The three-day advanced exam has three parts: a practical section, where candidates wait on two tables, mixing obscure cocktails from memory (a White Lady, anyone?) and performing formal restaurant wine service while being peppered with questions (“What’s the main grape of Jumilla?”); a blind tasting of six wines to be completed within 25 minutes; and a written test of theoretical knowledge.
Clearly, this was not a test for cramming. “Any moment I had, even if it was only 10 minutes, I studied,” he says. “I’m getting gas and I’m flipping through index cards.”
He also tasted a lot of wine. “I had a group that met here at The Cave at 9am and we would taste whites and reds every Friday for months,” he says. “My wife, Sara, poured lots of flights for me at night.” During the month before the exam, he met with a friend “every single day and tasted wine.”
“The blind tasting was a make-or-break point,” he recalls. “I got two neutral wines, meaning wines that don’t really smell like anything or have obvious characteristics, in a row. At that moment I thought, ‘Do I fall apart right now or do I keep going?’”
The biggest challenge, he says, was getting out of his own way. “All the training that you’ve done is leading up to this, so you have to fall back on all that training. It was a nerve-wracking, sleepless three days. Because you don’t receive the results until the third day, my mind created all of these ‘what if?’ scenarios for both the practical and tasting portions of the exam.”
Welch, who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Sacramento State University, has worked in a variety of restaurants. Before joining The Cave, he was the wine merchant at Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Café and has been the sommelier at Herzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard.
At The Cave, Welch oversees day-to-day retail operations, teaches wine classes, hand-selects and individually customizes all Cave wine club shipments and has a club within the wine club called World of Wine.
An effective sommelier helps people build on and expand what they enjoy, sometimes suggesting unfamiliar choices. As the main cook at home, Welch’s sommelier sensibilities kick in when he introduces his nearly 2-year-old daughter, Margaux, to new flavors. “I gave her blue cheese, and you could tell it was surprising how intense it was,” he says. “Then I gave her another piece and she didn’t have that reaction. It was, ‘OK, this is good.’ We encourage her to be adventurous.”
While his wine knowledge is extensive and deep, he does have his favorite. “I would give it all up and just drink Champagne,” Welch says. “It pairs with everything, it’s refreshing; the bubbles create a whole other layer that doesn’t exist in still wine. It’s low in alcohol in relation to other wines, so you can drink more of it and not feel like you are completely sloshed.” He also keeps track of trends, such as wine in cans, which he says have a place at picnics or at the beach.
His next step is the ultimate accomplishment for any sommelier: certification as a Master. It’s an extremely rare accomplishment, as there are only 249 Master Sommeliers in the entire world. Welch is up for it.
“It seems silly not to go forth and check it out,” he says. “It’s a matter of when.”