Grape expectations: C’ville’s collection of wine experts seems to be growing

By Shea Gibbs | 4/29/15 | published by The C-ville

Tavola’s freshly minted Certified Sommelier Wells Blanchard is part of a growing group of local wine experts. Photo: Martyn Kyle

There’s a new wine expert in town, and he’s helping a Belmont eatery stay on top of its already well-respected vino game.

Wells Blanchard came to C’ville last year with plenty of experience on the vine—a coveted viticulture/oenology degree from the University of California, Davis, several years of winemaking experience and an extensive background as a sommelier. This year, he reached a new level of expertise, passing Level II of the Court of Master Sommeliers examinations.

That makes Blanchard, who manages tavola in addition to serving as its wine steward, a Certified Sommelier, just two steps away from Master Sommelier, a distinction boasted by only 220 individuals in the world.

Blanchard brings his abilities to a wine scene that 25-year industry veteran Christine Iezzi said could really use it. “We have very few restaurants that have sommeliers that really promote the wine program,” said the Western Virginia district manager for distribution outfit Country Vintner. “Charlottesville is a smaller market, but I would like to see more sommeliers in our midst.”

Iezzi said that as Charlottesville continues to attract top-level restaurant talent, it should grow its vat of wine knowledge. A prime example? Justin Ross, who earned his Advanced Sommelier certification (Level III) about 10 years ago while working his way up the ranks of D.C.’s food service scene.

Ross came to C’ville two years ago to launch Parallel 38, a Mediterranean spot that’s quickly established itself as a major local wine player. Ross said the secret to his success as a sommelier is listening to people. Rather than being obsessed with the minutia you have to learn to pass all the exams, he’s focused on translating what customers ask for into a pleasant food and wine pairing experience.

“The hardest thing is that some people use different terms,” he said. “Guests might refer to fruity wines as sweet. I didn’t go into it to be a know-it-all. You’re supposed to take some of those pretensions out of it.”

Liz Broyles, who buys wine for perennial Best Wine List winner C&O, agreed, saying her goal is to keep the list accessible. She’s not a certified sommelier, which is sort of the point, and she is an expert on three things—the history behind the restaurant’s wine approach, where she and her colleagues want their wine program to go and what her customers like.

Those who do sit for the Court of Master Sommelier examinations, on the other hand, are expected to know wine history and theory up and down, all while being able to pinpoint the grape varietal, place of origin and even vintage of any glass placed in front of them. To hone that craft, Ross said two strategies are indispensable. One, tasting everything you can get your hands on—rocks, clay, dirt, you name it. Two, trying to identify the tartest elements in a glass first.

A decade after passing his Level III examination, Ross admitted he’s not necessarily at the top of his tasting game. But he said he made a conscious decision to back away from serious wine study and focus on the operations side of restaurants so that one day he could be his own boss.

Blanchard said he too made a conscious decision in his own wine evolution. Not only did he decide to give up the full-time winemaking game when his daughter was born in early 2014—it’s a profession that’s all-consuming, he said—having children also makes it more difficult to study for sommelier exams.

“In the past, it was easy—get some wine, do a blind taste, make some notes,” he said. “Now there’s a small child that needs to be taken care of.”

So while Blanchard’s attempt at the Level III exam is at least eight months off, in the meantime he’s brought some serious skill to tavola, which has long placed emphasis on the curation of its wine list.

Iezzi said she hopes more people like Blanchard find C’ville landing spots. She’s mourned the loss of the old wine guard, as historic restaurants like The Old Mill Room at Boar’s Head have let their wine stewards slip away, but thinks there’s reason to believe the new guard is on the rise, pointing to Michael Keaveny’s consistent pursuit of talent at tavola, Fleurie’s Erin Scala, who has a diploma in wines and spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, and Certified Sommelier Tracey Love of Blenheim Vineyards. (Keaveny is husband of C-VILLE Arts Editor Tami Keaveny.)

“It costs a lot to keep a wine program going,” Iezzi said. “But we are getting more somms. It’s nice that we are finally getting this breath of fresh air in Charlottesville, where it has always been just in the big cities.”