How to Talk Wine Like a Master Sommelier

Shayn Bjornholm Photo © Kyle Johnson
By Ray Isle Posted February 26, 2015

Shayn Bjornholm, examination director for the Court of Master Sommeliers, recounts his blind-tasting triumphs and tells how anyone can sound like a wine expert.

Shayn Bjornholm, examination director for the Court of Master Sommeliers, recounts his blind-tasting triumphs and tells how anyone can sound like a wine expert.

You test would-be Master Sommeliers on their wine knowledge. What tips would you give everyday wine drinkers who want to learn more about wine?
First, have faith in your own taste. Look, the minute you bite into a burger, you know if you like it or not. Doesn’t matter if Guy Fieri made it or Daniel Boulud. Wine’s the same.

What regions should people concentrate on first?
Start with the classic regions—they’ve figured out their identities over hundreds and hundreds of years. So learn about Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Napa, and the Mosel in Germany. That gives you parameters so you can say, “OK, this is the standard. If I taste the rest of the world, I have these as a yardstick.”

What will tasting Bordeaux do if you’re just learning about wine?
Bordeaux from the Médoc gives you the epitome of Old World Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s a leaner, more elegant, more restrained style, versus, say, big, ripe Napa Valley Cabernets. You learn the European take on one of the world’s most popular wine grape varieties—which is a pretty big chunk of the history of wine in the world, too.

For Burgundy, what would you recommend as a great introduction?
The wines of Volnay, in the Côte de Beaune. They show people the elegant side of Pinot, but they also have the underlying structure and power people don’t really realize Pinot Noir can have.

What about the five most important grapes to start with?
Pinot Noir or Nebbiolo, the Cabernet family (starting with Cabernet Sauvignon) and Chardonnay. Then throw in Riesling, because of its pure deliciousness, and one wacky grape: could be Trousseau, Grüner Veltliner, Grenache—there are lots of options.

What don’t most people know about Cabernet?
The fact that it should be a tad green! A little bit of green pepper. People assume vegetal flavors and wine don’t really go together; they think, “Oh, fruit, that’s it.” But fruit alone doesn’t taste like Cabernet to me. The wine should have a little greenness, too, to balance the oak and the fruit. That’s the secret of great Cabernet.

You mentioned including a “wacky” grape—which is your pick?
Grüner Veltliner, only because it perplexes me! It can be powerful and rich, austere and stony, you name it. It’s one of those varieties that I don’t always identify when I’m tasting wines blind.

“Blind tasting” is tasting wines without knowing what they are and trying to identify them down to the vintage, region and even producer. Is it just a wine-geek parlor trick?
If you want to show off your great wine-tasting abilities and act like you’re cool because of it, I’ve got a Dungeons & Dragons set for you, too. But for regular wine drinkers, blind tasting just to determine what you think of a wine, without any preconceptions, is one of the most fun things you can do. The point isn’t to be able to say, “That’s clearly a 1971 Château whatever.”

What’s your greatest blind-tasting triumph?
In 2003, in a class, I blind-tasted a 1998 Trimbach Cuvée Frédéric Emile Riesling and just knew it. Region, producer, year, that it was grand cru, everything. The Master Sommelier there told me, “If a person could get a perfect score on a wine, you just did.” I’m still talking about it. You don’t forget your first love, and you don’t forget the first blind wine you nailed either.

What’s the best way to sound like a wine expert, even if you aren’t?
I always say, if you don’t know anything about wine, pick up a glass, swirl it, say, “Yes,” sort of thoughtfully, swirl it again and say, “Hmm—no,” then swirl it again and say, “Well, maybe.” Then put the glass down and walk away.

How did you get started in wine?
My career is totally schizophrenic. I have an architecture degree from the University of Virginia, but I wanted to be an actor. So in New York, in ’94, ’95, ’96, that’s what I did. But what do you do as an actor in New York? You wait tables. Then, after I quit acting—I burned out on the lifestyle, basically—I moved back to Seattle and took a sommelier course. The universe must have had a plan for me, because Canlis hired me as a sommelier—I guess for my charm and personality, because I didn’t know a thing about wine!

Shayn Bjornholm's 7 Favorite Bottles
Here, the perfect introductory course for anyone who is interested in wine.

2013 Jamek Ried Achleiten Grüner Veltliner Federspiel ($33)
“Grüner perplexes me, but I love it. This single-vineyard wine from Austria’s Wachau region shows Grüner’s white pepper character, and it also has the rich texture the wine is known for.”

2012 Louis Michel & Fils Chablis Premier Cru Forêts ($38)
“This is a superclean, crystalline Chardonnay—white Burgundies, Chablis included, are Chardonnay—but it’s not so austere that it's going to rip your teeth off. And $38 for a premier cru? Wow."

2012 Franciscan Estate Magnificat ($55)
“For Cabernet-based Napa wines, you’re looking for riper black fruit, fewer green notes, and riper, softer tannins. The 2012 vintage is great, and this balanced red illustrates that Napa style perfectly.”

2012 Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay ($55)
“The other side of the Chardonnay range would be a richer-style version, like this one from Western Australia. It’s also a lesson in winemaking. Oak-barrel aging gives vanilla and toast; nine months of aging on lees (the spent yeasts from fermentation) adds textural richness and weight.”

2011 Château Gruaud Larose ($75)
“With Bordeaux, price really does play a huge role in terms of quality, so you have to spend a little. Gruaud’s wine is a little more fruit-forward than it once was, but in the 2011 vintage it still has all those graphite and green pepper notes that exemplify the region.”

2010 Domaine Marquis D'Angerville Volnay Villages ($75)
“One of the greatest producers in the town of Volnay in Burgundy. This village wine perfectly expresses the lifted, floral, bright side of Pinot Noir.”

NV Delamotte Blanc De Blancs Champagne ($78)
“How can you learn about wine without tasting at least one Champagne? This is a beautiful entry-level bottling in a really clean and crisp style.”

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