In some communities, you go to a party and it's all about the ice-cold beer. In others, it's about offering the most exquisite bourbon, vodka, or Scotch.
But in South Walton, it's all about the wine.
Two venues, Sandestin and Grand Boulevard, are readying to host two different world-class wine festivals this month back to back. The events are expected to lure thousands of wine lovers and vintners to the area.
As all thoughts turn to wine, The Sun looked to area wine experts, specifically sommeliers, for some insight into what makes the grape so great.
'Like a great pair of jeans'
Brooke Gontarek, sommelier and restaurant manager at Santa Rosa Beach Club, has been certified at Level 1 since 2004 by the Court of Master Sommeliers.
Gontarek tested at the Breakers Hotel, but she said most of what she learned was from her experience working at Vin'tij Wine Boutique in Miramar Beach, which was her first job. She said working there taught her above all about the flavors of wine and how to pick apart people's personal flavor preferences without being long winded or snobby. She also was mentored by a sommelier from the Windows on The World restaurant, which was a top the World Trade Center.
"That taught me the most about working with collectors, country clubs, hotels, and allowed me to meet and befriend farmers who happen to make amazing wines, as well as my circle of cork-dork friends," she said. "You have to believe in the wine and its message in order to love it, otherwise it’s nothing more than a score from a magazine and a means to get tipsy."
For her, the most challenging aspect of achieving certification wasn’t the tasting aspect, it was memorizing the names of the grapes that belong in the different villages and the wine laws.
"Italy is especially difficult because there is so little rhyme or reason — only blurry suggestions of the laws," she said. "I’ve met a lot of sommeliers who are more or less book smart but have a tough time connecting with the soul of the wine and the meaning it stands for. Wine should really be, above all, about stories, good company, and the joy a great glass of wine can add to that situation."
Gontarek says the hallmark of a great wine is balance.
"Just like food — too much sauce can overpower a meal. The best wines are like the best dishes. Each flavor is balanced with the others and melds well. When you have too much of any one flavor the wines can still be really great but it get difficult to drink more than one glass," she said.
Her go-to wine for every day?
"I get this question every day. My answer is there is the wine that I would compare to a great pair of jeans — something you drink everyday and pairs with everything. This would be a great dry Rose, especially for this area that is hot and has such great fish," she said.
Her go-to wine for special occasions? "Then there is the wine that is like that sexy little dress that isn’t appropriate for all occasions and takes two hours of prep time but makes you feel so sensual ... That wine to me would be a fabulous Brunello. There are few wines sexier or more seductive then a perfectly aged and decanted Brunello."
Gontarek has four wines that stand out as crème de la crème: Quilcede Creek from Washington State; La Pergole Torte from Radda, Chianti, Italy; Rouciallet Blanc, Rhone, France; and Jean-Marc Morey Chassagne Montrachet, Burgundy, France.
"These are tear-inspiring wines," she said. "You pair your food around them; not the other way around."
'Credentials are good' – but not everything
Kevin Moran of Crush Wine Bar in Seaside has been certified as a Level 2 by the Court of Master Sommeliers and Society of Wine Educators (CSW) since 1991. He said he received his schooling from the Chicago wine school, from years of travel, tasting and discussion, books, and magazines, following years of being in the trade.
His motivation in becoming a sommelier was to teach about, buy and sell wine.
The most challenging aspect in achieving certification for him were the laws, and remembering all the book information.
He is not done, however, as he plans to go higher in certification by eventually pursuing his certification as a Certified Wine Educator from the Society of Wine Educators. He will not pursue a higher level with the Court of Master Sommeliers, though.
"Credentials are good to have when you are looking for a new job or doing a press release," he said.
In everyday life, Moran manages Crush, and says he faces "the everyday challenge of predicting and avoiding human error on his part and his staff's."
If he were not a sommelier, Moran said he would want to be a chef.
"I first wanted to be a chef, then my attention turned to the front of the house operations, and then to wine," he said.
The hallmark of a great wine, in his opinion, is one that gains complexity the longer it is in the bottle.
His go-to wine for every day is either a pinot noir or chardonnay, and he said almost all the wine he drinks is taken with meals.
On special occasions, for him, it's gotta be champagne.
And his crème de la crème of wines: Romanee-Conti, which can sell for more than $1,000 per bottle.
In 12 years, a wine expert
Michael McIntosh, who lives in Sandestin, is a second-level sommelier who has held certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers for eight years. He is a salesman for Republic National Distributing Company and a consultant to many area restaurants.
McIntosh said he said he went for certification for the asset it would bring to his career.
"Accolades always make restaurant owners happier to work with and they trust your opinions," he said.
For him, the most challenging aspect of receiving certification was the intensive blind tasting of wines in order for his palate to grow.
He is now taking classes for certification as a Certified Specialist of Wine.
If he was not a sommelier, McIntosh said he would want to be a restaurant owner. Prior to this career, he owned and operated bars in South Carolina and never drank wine until he moved to Florida 12 years ago.
For McIntosh a good wine begins with the terroir, the impact the geography, geology and climate have on the grape.
"Terroir and a talented winemaker," he says, "must have both to be a classic."
His personal go-to wine for every day? "Maybe Louis Martini Sonoma Cabernet," which sells for between $14 and $58.
For special occasions? "Scarecrow," which can sell for up to $2,500 retail.
The crème de la crème of wines? "Harlan, Scarecrow, Quintessa and Champagnes are always a great way to start any meal," said McIntosh.
According to an online definition of the term, a sommelier is defined as:
"A sommelier works in wine procurement, storage, cellar rotation, and offering expert service to wine consumers. A sommelier may also be responsible for the development of wine lists, delivery of wine service and training for other restaurant staff. Along with the culinary team, they pair and suggest wines to best complement each particular food menu item. Becoming a certified sommelier requires classes and an examination. The certification is offered by a range of educators, and a basic education may be attained for $800–$3,750 over the course of six months. The Court of Master Sommeliers, established in 1977, is the examining body for a variety of certifications. Since the Master Sommelier Diploma was introduced in 1969, 186 people from around the world had become Master Sommeliers by 2011."