Q&A with Michael McNeill

A chat with Georgia's Master Sommelier

Michael McNeill is one of only 118 people in North America to have earned the title of Master Sommelier (saw-muh-LYAY) — and he's the only (active) one in Georgia. McNeill has worked with numerous five-star chefs including Gray Kunz at Lespinasse, Craig Shelton at the Ryland Inn, and Guenther Seeger and Bruno Menard at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead. He is also a two-time national champion of the Best Sommelier in America competition. CL caught up with Master McNeill during this year's Atlanta Food and Wine Festival.

Some people, even people who eat out regularly, are afraid to even say the word sommelier because they're afraid of pronouncing it wrong. What is a sommelier, anyway?
I've heard it pronounced in Georgia a lot of different ways: from a Somalian to things like Sal-mon-yay. But traditionally, the first sommeliers were the guys who tasted the king's wine first to make sure it wasn't poison — a guy that made sure everything the king had was good. But then it kind of evolved into an extension of the chef's cuisine, basically a specific function within the restaurant. The sommelier is someone who orchestrates the pairing of food and wine. They serve wine and pay attention to the temperature and the order of wine, the shape of the glass, and all these little details that heighten the experience of drinking wine.

Back when I started it was a very different kind of thing. There were some very pompous notions surrounding a sommelier in the old days, so I think it's evolved into a much friendlier scene. I think people are much more comfortable with sommeliers than they used to be.

Well what does it mean to be a Master Sommelier?
Since wine is about 90 percent opinion — or 99 percent may be more like it — there were some people in Europe who said, "You know what, we need some sort of accreditation, something to validate that our opinion is meaningful." So they founded an organization that provided accreditation, like a diploma, if you reached a certain level of knowledge.

How do you become a Master Sommelier?
You become somewhat obsessive with information and you taste and you taste and you taste. And basically it's an accumulation of knowledge over time. It involves a lot of studying, but it's actually fun. There's a lot of history and geography, you obviously get to taste a lot of good wine and eat food and there's a lot of camaraderie within the organization, so I highly recommend it.

So what exactly do you do?
A lot of us who become Master Sommeliers start in the restaurant business, and then once we pass our Masters we evolve into different parts of distribution and education.

My particular role is Georgia-based. I work for a company called Quality Wine and Spirits and I am an element of service that we provide for our customers. I can do anything from a special event presentation to wine education to mentoring. I probably host five or six competitions or exams a year.

I thought I heard that you were the only Master Sommelier in Georgia, but your bio says "one of the only." Is there another Master Sommelier in the house?
This is kind of a cool story. There's a guy who lives up in Canton, Ga., of all places, and has been here for 20 or 30 years, I think he's in his early 80s. Anyway, come to find out, this guy passed his Masters in 1972. And I called Master Sommelier Barrie Larvin, who was around back then, and he said, "Oh yeah, I remember that guy. I wondered what happened to him."

So technically, I'm not the only Master Sommelier in Georgia, but I guess you could say I'm the only working one. I'd like to meet him one day, he's probably got some pretty great stories.

On to the fun stuff: the booze. What's the best wine you've tasted this week?
This week? OK, let me see. The best tasting I've done this month was an '82 Bordeaux tasting for the anniversary of the '82s. It was a great vintage. It was the vintage that Robert Parker became famous for. So we tasted 18 of these amazing Bordeauxs, and it was just like one great wine after another. It's probably the best tasting I'd been to in a long time. The '82 Margaux is what's sticking out to me right now. That was a good week.

What's your all-time favorite wine?
A lot of the Masters talk about the old Burgundies, but there's a wine called La Tache, and to this day it's still one of the greatest wines I've ever had. It's gotten so expensive that you hardly get to try it anymore, but when I started, a bottle of La Tache was around $200 or $300, now it's about $2000 or $3000 for a good vintage.

Do you have any advice for people who might be intimidated by wine, but still want to get into it?
My thing is that wine doesn't have to be expensive to be fabulous. That's the first thing. And I think a lot of people have heard that before, but it's true. That's the first barrier to overcome. There are some beautiful, inexpensive wines out there. Next, I encourage people to experiment around, find a wine personality that you like in terms of a retailer and get to know them, kind of like your hairdresser. A good wine person can help you figure out what you like and how to recognize it.C


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