Practice Makes Perfect

“It’s hard work tasting wine all the time, but it’s gotta be done.” -Jake Assaf
Jake Assaf, owner of Rioja! and study buddy of Stacey Land of 1618, describes the three-part sommelier certification testing as “intense”: “It’s more of a deductive reasoning exercise than anything,” he explains. “Really, what you’re trying to do is identify what it’s not and how you can cut the world in half. In most cases, can we look a little closer and can we pull a little more clues out as to where this wine may come from or what’s going on? There’s definitely a system. The theory portion is a lot of intense study, lock yourself in a room with some highlighters, old school, you know? I think there’s lots of stuff, collectively, that you learn having worked in this environment, travelled, being a wine drinker. You don’t realize it; it’s just stuff that you know and it’s part of your swagger.”

The hardest part of the test, he says, was the service portion. “You really just don’t know how to prepare because it’s different every time. For us, we went into a private dining room. This isn’t what I do. For me, my business is more casual and I try to remove the barriers to entry and make the wine and cheese experience fun and casual.”

So what was it like in there? “So you go into this room, right, and it’s a pretty formal fine dining situation, using trays and whatnot. I’m not used to that,” describes Assaf. “I’m prepared because we practiced. There are some videos online and blogs and stuff and there are other people in the area. I think that’s the key, working with people who have done it before you. I was in my room practicing.” The pair stayed in Raleigh for the exam. “I had my computer and my notes and a little wine and a tray with some plastic champagne flutes and I filled them up with water and every time I’d go to the bathroom, I’d walk that little tray into the hall and bring it back and I dropped it a few times.”

That practice was necessary for the task at hand. “Basically what they’re trying to do is recreate a level of stress that you might experience when you’re at work and you’re making those decisions,” says Assaf. “You have to really focus and do things correctly and be organized and answer questions that are totally unrelated. They ask one question here about a bourbon and now we want to have a bottle of champagne, but two people don’t want it and these are imaginary people. There’s one human at a table set for six and he’s telling you about all these people, ‘this is my mother, this is my wife, my brother, his wife’ and that’s important to remember because you have to serve women first and the guest of honor if it’s a special occasion and you always have to move clockwise around the table. There’s a reason for that, because you don’t want to go the other way because if someone’s working with you, they need to anticipate that you’re going to move in that direction. So there’s all this stuff that you’re trying to keep up and the guy says, ‘Okay, we’re probably going to have quail, but she wants some cheese over there. What should we have with dinner? What kind of wine? By the way, take this away. We don’t like this. We want something different. We changed our mind.’ And it’s all timed.”

Having a vicarious panic attack yet? Rest assured, they both passed, but it was “pretty challenging,” describes Assaf. “It’s expensive to take that test, and I didn’t have any colleagues there, but I had told everyone I know that I was about to take that test. Thinking back now, it’s like what is wrong with you, man? You want to add a lot of pressure, now you’re going to have to come back and do it. It’s stressful and you spend a lot of time studying. Stacey and I spent several months preparing and quizzing each other and making sure we were as ready as we could be.”

Assaf most likely passed the exam not only because of his study sessions, but also because of the sheer amount of his life that he has devoted to wine. As the owner of Rioja!, he is constantly searching for the best wines in the world to cultivate for his shop- he even organizes Napa Valley wine tours as a supplement for his patrons to find off-the-beaten-path wineries that are hidden gems. “I taste wine all the time,” he says. “I go to Africa, I go to Spain, I go to California. I took my tour group to Napa Valley and we look for cool stuff, and if we make a connection, we take wines and bring them back.”

Assaf rightly takes pride in the wine lists that he cultivates for Rioja! “It’d be a crime to drink Cabernet and Chardonnay your whole life when there are literally thousands of grapes.” As he waxes poetic about the wines he has chosen for his bar, you can understand the passion that allowed him to pass the certification with flying colors: “Wines come from a place, the good ones. You can’t really make champagne in a laboratory in Georgia. It comes from Champagne plants. Truly great wines, wine regions that are world class, have been for a long time. This isn’t new. It’s been going on hundreds, thousands of years.” Assaf bears his Southern roots with an apt comparison: “Just like Vidalia onions. Vidalia is a town in Georgia. There’s a soil and climate that makes those onions taste a certain way and they’re wonderful. There’s nowhere else in the country that has that same combination of stuff. You get oranges from Florida, not from Minnesota. It’s that same sort of stuff. People try to replicate Champagne in other parts of the world, but it’s never that good. It’s not. The same is true with all the great wines of the world. They scream where they came from and what they are and that’s what cool- the diversity, the uniqueness.”

For your next party, Jake has put together a fabulous pairing recommendation. He notes:

“In general, there are a couple of rules that work. For me, soft cheeses work better with white wine and hard cheeses work better with red; and what grows together goes together.”

Goat Cheese- Domaine Naudet Sancerre, France
Triple Cream Brie- Foggy Ridge Serious Cider, VA
Aged Cheddar- Gostosa IPA, Little Brother Brewing, NC
Manchego Cheese- Marquis d Marrietta Rioja Reserva, Spain
Roquefort Blue Cheese- Dow’s 10 year Tawny Port, Portugal

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