Advanced sommelier Wanda Cole-Nicholson shares her strategies for making wine less intimidating
Advanced sommelier Wanda Cole-Nicholson got her start in wine while working as a server at Blue Water Grill in Chicago. Through weekly wine classes and regular tastings led by the restaurant’s sommelier, “I found out there was this huge world of wine and involved in it was not only art but also geography, geology – just the study of multiple crafts within the winemaking world,” she said. After 13 years in Chicago that included eight years working as a sommelier, the pandemic prompted Cole-Nicholson to return home to St. Louis to be closer to family; today, she’s a biweekly guest on Studio STL’s Wine Down Wednesday program on KTVI. Here, Cole-Nicholson discusses her strategies for making wine less intimidating and the wine region and grape varietal she’s obsessed with right now.
“I had an opportunity to take the first level sommelier exam because we were hosting the exam at our restaurant, and they gave us a free seat. I was like, ‘A $600 exam for free? What's the worst that can happen? I fail, and I'm out nothing.’”
“So, I bought a wine encyclopedia and studied it from front to back every waking moment and tasted a bunch of wine and took the test and passed, which I didn't think I was going to do. I was like, ‘I'm just gonna throw this out there, and we'll see what happens.’”
“I started teaching wine classes. And then I took the certified exam here in St. Louis at Monarch. That was in 2009. And then I just kept working in restaurants. And I eventually transitioned from server to a sommelier role in 2010 after I took the certified exam.”
“When I talk to guests and customers, I'm always careful to use … wine descriptors that they're familiar with, like fruity, racy, elegant, full-bodied, dark, dense, rich, staying away from some of the sommelier jargon that kind of goes over people’s heads. I had to learn how to take my somm hat off for a moment and just be the wine girl.”
“Not everyone wants a perfect wine experience. I tell people all the time, if you like sweet wine, and you're eating a bone-in ribeye, and you asked me, ‘What's the best pairing?’ I'm gonna tell you it’s probably going to be a Napa [cabernet] or Argentinian malbec or a Bordeaux. [But] if you don't like dry red wine, that's not going to be a good experience for you.”
“So that's why I say, ‘You're the boss, I'm here for you. I'm your wine guide.’ That's all I'm here for. I'm the wine geek that likes to drink a lot and read about it.”
“I'm a huge riesling nut. I’m excited that riesling has really grown over the years. And that's because a lot of people are realizing there's more than just sweet riesling. There's also like really bone-dry rieslings. … It has high acidity, it goes great with food, it has beautiful aromatics, and the alcohol tends to be on the lower-to-moderate side, so you're not getting drunk very quickly.”
“Washington state is one of my favorite [regions]. Everything that comes out of Washington state is delicious. Their wines have a unique sense of place, they have root, they have earth, they have depth and they have complexity. Some of them tend to be on the more expensive side, but you get way more bang for your buck.”
“I tell people all the time how St. Louis has grown – not just the wine scene [but also] the beer scene, gastronomy, the fact that we're getting James Beard [Award] nominations, the fact that Michelin is looking at us now, the fact that the Court of Master Sommeliers has their master sommelier exam just about every year here.”
“I would like to see more [wine industry] trade shows come here. I definitely think that it has expanded: In 2019, before the world shut down, Pinnacle Imports had a huge portfolio tasting for their 25th anniversary, and that was fantastic. Bommarito Wines and Spirits has theirs every year; I'll actually be working on that one. … I think that may have been trending in that direction, but I think Covid threw a wrench into it.”
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