HRIM student Amber Stonebraker tastes her wine during the Introduction to Wine course.

Sommelier certification

HRIM students experience lectures, wine tastings during sommelier certification course


8:43 a.m., Dec. 3, 2014--The University of Delaware has become one of only five colleges in the nation to offer the Introduction to Wine certification course to hotel, restaurant and institutional management students.

Last month students in associate professor Robert Nelson’s beverage management class spent a weekend taking a course offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers and the Guild of Master Sommeliers, two of the most respected organizations of wine professionals in the world.

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“It’s an honor to be selected,” said Sheryl Kline, chairperson of the Department of Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Management (HRIM). “Many of these students are going to own or manage their own restaurants or hotels. They need to be knowledgeable in every aspect of the industry.”

Interactive course experience

During the weekend-long course students worked with master sommeliers Eric Hemer, Pascaline Lepeltier and Jarad Slipp, three of only 220 professionals worldwide who have earned the prestigious title. 

“They generously donate their time to teach the next generation in the hope that they will become well-educated members of the food and wine industries,” said Kline.

In a kitchen-style classroom in UD’s student-run restaurant Vita Nova, Hemer, Lepeltier and Slipp lectured and guided tastings. Each wine tasting includes three steps: sipping, swirling and spitting. Rather than being swallowed, wine is spit into a designated cup. 

Students, all of whom must be 21 or older, tasted 28 different varieties of wine throughout the course. After each taste, students worked with instructors to deduce each wine’s region, age, sweetness, alcohol content, quality level and more.

Slipp, who became a master sommelier earlier this year, said that the course focuses on three central pillars: wine theory, tasting and service.

“Introduction to Wine gives you a wide base from which to branch out,” he said. “Tasting isn’t just so you can look cool in front of your friends. It’s so that you can identify specific wine, specific varietals and the qualitative level of them.” 

Hemer has been a master sommelier for over 10 years and serves as head sommelier for Southern Wine and Sprits, the largest distributor of wine and spirits in the United States. The company also donated the wines tasted over the weekend.

“It’s interesting and rewarding to see the next generation become more interested in wine,” said Hemer. “It’s becoming almost a prerequisite to an industry job to have certification.” 

“America is becoming more wine-centric and the average consumer is more knowledgeable today than they ever were before,” he continued. “Sommeliers have to be more knowledgeable or at least as knowledgeable as their customers so it’s really important to have certification. The world of wine is much bigger now than just Europe.”

Nelson, who attended the Introduction to Wine course with his students, agreed.

“Customers are getting more and more sophisticated,” said Nelson. “An awful lot of laypeople are taking this course, which is why it’s so important that these students have a better understanding.”

At the end of lessons on Sunday, students took a multiple-choice test for their certification. An impressive 87 percent of students passed and received their Introduction to Wine certifications.

“I am very pleased with this as most people who take this exam have many years of experience working in the food and beverage industry,” said Nelson. “In contrast, most of our students have just recently turned 21, so their experience with wine and other beverages is comparatively limited. I am proud of the effort that all of the students put into an intensive weekend of study.”

Impact on students

Senior Morgan Charde said that the beverage management course has inspired her to explore a career in the wine industry. She calls it “my favorite course that I’ve taken in college.”

“Six months ago I didn’t know anything about wine,” said Charde, who is now interested in going through all four levels of sommelier certification. “It’s really cool going into the workforce having this because most people our age don’t have this extensive knowledge on wine and beverage.”

“It’s not just the wine itself, but the cultures and the geography” that make wine fascinating, Charde continued. “There are a lot of factors that go into wine and it’s really interesting learning the backstories. Putting it all together and realizing a wine has different flavors because of x, y and z is like a puzzle.”

Senior Joe Bruno also said the complexity of studying wine intrigues him as well. He called the discipline a marriage of his interests in history, geography, food and beverage.

“There’s almost a theatric element to it,” said Bruno. “There’s a story behind everything and a lot of history with the wine. It gives you a very interesting hospitality experience when you can give that to someone else.”

“I really liked the class this semester and I could see myself down the road using this as a steppingstone to get more into the beverage side of the industry,” he continued. “It gives you a lot of credibility to have that certification.”

Seniors Elliott Jones and Sarah Drobnock both plan to work in the hotel industry, where they say the wine certification will help them to provide better service.

“If you’re director of operations you still oversee restaurants,” said Drobnock. “You need to have some kind of base knowledge.”

Jones agreed, saying, “If you’re ever on the floor of a restaurant and you get the chance to walk up to a table, you should have some basic knowledge about wines and be able to answer questions. You never know when you’re going to get called on.”

Jones added that as he and his classmates have practiced tasting in class throughout the year, they have become more sensitive to different flavors. 

“We didn’t know what oak smelled like, or what barrels smelled like,” he said as an example. “Over time, you figure it out and learn from other people. Then you remember and you can spot it somewhere else.”

Nelson has taught the beverage management course, which also covers beer and non-alcoholic beverages, for years without the benefit of the Introduction to Wine course. He compared describing wine without tasting it to explaining visual art to a person wearing a blindfold. He said that now, “we’re taking the blindfold off.”

“It was clear that they all learned a lot over the course of the weekend,” said Nelson. “To me that is the ultimate measure of success: Did the students get better as a result of the exercise? In every case, the answer to that question an unqualified yes.”

Article by Sunny Rosen

Photos by Evan Krape

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