Dawn of the sommelier-driven restaurant

Historians may someday look back to the third week of October 2011 as the moment Atlanta entered a new era of the “sommelier-driven” restaurant -- eateries dominated not by a star chef, but by a gifted beverage professional, who provides for faultless service, thoughtful pairings and wine, beer and spirits selections of depth and character.

In the course of a few short days in October, the city witnessed two seminal events that put a hot spotlight on Atlanta’s wealth of talented beverage service professionals.

On Oct. 20, Joon Lim of Kevin Rathbun Steak was crowned champion in a hard-fought Best Sommelier competition.

Just prior to the Best Sommelier finals, the Court of Master Sommeliers, the world’s most demanding certification organization, announced that Justin Amick won its prestigious Rudd Scholarship and the $5,000 prize that comes with it. Amick, general manager and beverage director of Atlanta’s Parish Foods & Goods, scored highest of the 49 certified sommeliers taking the court’s advanced exam given in Seattle on Oct. 12-14.

“Merely passing the court’s advanced exam is an accomplishment so few realize,” said Tim Gaiser, director of education for the Court of Master Sommeliers. “To earn the highest score is a feat beyond what most in this industry could ever achieve. It’s certainly a sign that Justin has a very rare talent and capacity for knowledge.”

Two days after the Rudd Scholarship announcement, Amick was sitting with Michael McNeil, education director for Quality Wine & Spirits (Georgia’s only master sommelier), and Eric Crane, director of training and business development for Empire Distributors, who also holds the court’s advanced certification. They judged as Lim, Matt Bradford of Canoe, Jacob Gragg of Aria and Robert Evans of Davio’s displayed their mad sommelier skills, faced down ferociously difficult questions and identified wines merely by tasting them in front of a live audience.

I was honored to be the evening’s master of ceremonies at Davio’s restaurant in Phipps Plaza.

The four contestants on stage represented the top finalists of a grueling preliminary round that saw more than a dozen beverage servers compete earlier in the week.

Later in the evening, after the congratulations for Lim were winding down a bit, I chatted with Lim, Amick, Crane, McNeil and Bradford. There was a palpable energy among these active, engaged wine minds. Their collective goal is to wear, like McNeil, the red lapel pin of the master sommelier, the ultimate wine certification.

In the next two to three years, we will see an unprecedented number of certified master sommeliers from Atlanta. This will raise the bar for beverage programs in the city and position Atlanta on the map as one of the nation’s best places for wine, beer and spirits.

Bradford, the runner-up to Lim, summed up this git-r-done attitude as we chatted. Far from being crestfallen for coming in second, Bradford forcefully stated just how much more determined he is to up his game through study, travel and renewed emphasis on wine tasting. “Next year, I don’t want to come back and compete. I am coming back to win.”

Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a wine consultant for Tower Beer, Wine & Spirits. You can reach him at gil.kulers@winekulers.com.