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Inside the Process of Wine Expert Victor Valdivia

The head sommelier at Grey Oaks Country Club is on a quest to earn the rare honor of master sommelier.



Brian Tietz

With the precision of a chef polishing his blades, Victor Valdivia folds 10 serviettes and stacks them neatly on a wheeled cart. Each crease must be a right angle, and there’s no room for asymmetry. Aren’t they just napkins, you might ask—and I did when he was showing me this ritual. “In French it sounds better, more formal,” he says, returning to his mise en place.

Valdivia, head sommelier at Grey Oaks Country Club, prepares his cart the same way every day to take to “the floor,” restaurant-speak for making the rounds from table to table in the dining room. In addition to those crisp cloths he’ll use to envelop bottles so as not to let a drop of wine escape and mar the white surface below, he also lays out his two decanters, three silver coasters, a wine cradle, a candle

for decanting older vintages (the glow cast allows him to make sure the sediment stays back and the good stuff moves forward), and, “of course, my wine lists, clean and free of any debris,” he says. All of this is done in a 55-degree cellar to preserve the precious cargo that’s symbolic of what Valdivia has worked the majority of his adult life to amass—and in which any Floridian would likely get frostbite if they spent as much time in there as Valdivia does.

“Before I came here, the club had about 50 wines. Now we have a list of 140 bottles for the pool restaurant alone,” he says, hinting that it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

As soon as I was introduced to Valdivia, 50, and we exchanged a few emails, his signature caught my eye. Under the generic “Sent from my iPhone,” it read, “Humble student of the Court of Master Sommeliers.”

This hallowed group, which over the past five decades has regulated what it means to be at the top of the field, is the pinnacle for career sommeliers. There is a rigid four-tier ladder to climb, each step with a rigorous examination, before one is allowed to wear the red pin that proclaims him or her a “master sommelier” and member of the court. Since the first master was anointed in 1969, only 229 other professionals have earned the distinction worldwide.

Most, like Valdivia, are self-taught, and Valdivia’s quest to be among those ranks is what drives him each day and speaks volumes about the direction of Naples’ wine culture as a whole.

Grey Oaks was a natural place to invest in someone like Valdivia. It’s a private club where monogrammed hand towels take the place of paper, and it spent upwards of
$20 million recently to transform the facility to rival any Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons. Valdivia came there in 2013 after curating a 300-bottle collection at Naples National Golf Club over the previous decade (prior to that he was on the team at the former Registry Resort). He has built an astronomical cache. In just three years, the cellar has grown to 600 bottles, indisputably among the best in town (many clubs and restaurants have between 50 and 150). He even keeps 27 wines by the glass. When asked if he uses the high-tech Enomatic dispenser system to prevent spoilage, he says no: “My standards are that if it’s not consumed in a day, we dump it.” The printed pages of his master list are leather-bound and could be mistaken for a novel; like a writer, he peruses it daily and makes edits as needed. “I’m really smart about my wine purchasing. I buy small amounts rather than buying cases and cases and being stuck. I usually buy about six bottles (half-packs), and I have a quick turnover on the wine list,” Valdivia says, adding gracefully, “Grey Oaks has been very instrumental in my success, to achieve this wine list and my goal toward becoming a master sommelier. They support me 110 percent.”

But, he insists, it’s not about having a fancy collection of niche bottles, although that’s what he’s constantly chasing. “Most sommeliers, we study, taste wine and work the floor. I’m most happy when I’m working the floor. It’s a job that people think is glorious and glamorous. It’s the farthest from that. Out of a 12-hour day, I’m on the floor for three hours. The other hours are spent cataloging, sourcing wines, counting inventory, checking in 50 or 60 cases a week, working on bin numbers, working on the wine list. It’s not glamorous at all. You must be a people person,” Valdivia says. “It’s about hospitality. Anyone can sell wine, but a sommelier is creating a dining experience. They come in, and 99 percent of our members don’t even look at the wine list. They tell me they’re choosing an entrée, and I’ll pick something appropriate. When I suggest a bottle, and we open it up and they say, ‘Oh my God, where did you find this?’—seeing the smile on their face, that’s when I know I did my job correctly.”

 

There may not be a personality type for sommeliers, but discipline and determination are certainly common threads. Like a pole vaulter running faster, jumping higher, Valdivia keeps pushing himself.

He volunteers his time to both of the wine festivals in our community, the Naples Winter Wine Festival in January and the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest at the end of February (he will be the sommelier for the Staglin Family Vineyard dinner). He also maintains a home cellar with 2,500 bottles.

On the job, he’s never without gusto—whether he’s working with the Grey Oaks chef to create weekly wine pairings for specials or hosting monthly themed wine classes. He’s even launched monthly blind tastings in which he teaches members the grid system used by the Court of Master Sommeliers to evaluate pours for acidity, tannins, tertiary aromas and more.

Art Cherry, a trustee of the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest, has been a member of the country club for 12 years and praises Valdivia. “Every time he does something, it’s a positive thing for the club,” Cherry says. “He’s grown our wine cellar and our wine program so much since he started, it’s absolutely among the best two or three here in Southwest Florida.” 

For Valdivia, he wants to take members on a ride, metaphorical or literal, through centuries-old vineyards. Another Grey Oaks first, Valdivia and his wife brought a group of 30 members to Napa last July, arranging tastings and dinners at vineyards with the vintners and owners themselves. Back in Naples, Valdivia’s regular vintner dinners read as a who’s who of the winemaking world: Piero Antinori of Marchesi Antinori, Joe Donelan of Donelan Family Wines and René Schlatter of Merryvale are just a few who have made the rounds on the club’s floor. One scheduled at press time for Jan. 12, 2017, has been the focus and pride of Valdivia’s for months on end.

The event, inspired by his love of Louis XIII Cognac by Rémy Martin (“It’s my favorite cognac when I can afford it—it’s $3,000 per bottle,” he says, laughing), will have representatives from Paris flying into Naples just for the event, and attendees will receive customized engraved Riedel cognac glasses as favors. “That will be the ultimate dinner in my career. I don’t know how I’m going to top that. It took a lot of phone calls to even get them to talk to me, and now it’s a done deal.”

 

That’s not to say Valdivia hasn’t had setbacks.

After passing the Introductory exam for the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2012, and just a week later passing the Certified exam, he felt the wind in his sails. But today, after weathering a rocky four years, he freely admits he’s been thwarted not once but twice by the third test, the Advanced exam, rendering him in a state of inertia ever since.

To put things in perspective, there’s a 995-page book on the suggested reading list for the first level alone—and that exam has the highest passing rate by far. Only 60 percent of the thousands who take the second level are successful. The jump to the third rung is a quantum leap: Only 210 pre-screened candidates are selected once a year to take the Advanced exam, which includes a written test, blind tasting and simulated restaurant service. Just 30 percent of those move on to the Master exam, where 5 percent pull through and are anointed master sommeliers.

“I have a goal, and that goal is my Mount Everest to climb and conquer. I already have this job. It’s a personal goal that I will hopefully accomplish,” Valdivia says. “It’s a long journey. It has many ups and downs, more down than up. But I believe if you persevere and you apply yourself, you have a very good shot at becoming a master sommelier.”

He was supposed to join five of his fellow Naples sommeliers in October to attempt the Advanced exam for a third time. Yet again, it was more heartache. The first time he failed, he knew he had taken it too soon. The second time, he had suffered brain damage from a cycling accident (“a car plowed right into me; my helmet saved my life”), and in hindsight he rushed himself when he wasn’t ready. But this time, he was feeling good, optimistic, when a few weeks before the test he fell grabbing a bottle of wine from a high bin and broke his arm in two places. A friend of his, Mladen Stoev, sommelier for Bay Colony Golf Club, wound up becoming the first person in Southwest Florida to pass the Advanced exam, which made Valdivia proud—and renewed the stream of light at the end of the tunnel.

While Valdivia has to apply and wait another year for his chance, two bigwigs in the wine world agree he’s a class act and on the right path.

“It’s such a grueling process,” says Bruce Nichols, a wine consultant and honorary trustee of the Naples Winter Wine Festival. Nichols created a weekly tasting group a few years back to help aspiring master sommeliers, of which Valdivia is a charter member. “Some of them are studying for five or six years. The return has to be more about self-fulfillment than actually getting the red pin because few of them will ever obtain it. I hope I live long enough to see a master sommelier come out of Naples because we are such a strong wine community. I have always believed and still believe Victor will be one of them.”

In conjunction with the tasting group, Valdivia participates in an online study thread with Advanced-level candidates. He’s also mapped a year’s study syllabus, one month diving into the Rhône, its varietals, producers, climate and more; the next, Tuscany; the next, South Africa; and so on.

But as Andrew McNamara, chair of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, is quick to point out, the sommelier profession is rooted in the guild system of Europe, and that’s based on apprenticeship. “How do you know how to open a bottle of a 1961 Château Lafite Rothschild without doing it?” McNamara says, reminding me the final two exams are heavily rooted in service. “Victor, gosh, he is so passionate and just driven with all of it. It’s a really remarkable thing to see. To me, he enjoys the learning. It’s first and foremost about learning. It’s about how you get there and what you learn along the way. I firmly believe you can’t teach passion. He has an intensity, and it’s wonderful. I’m hopeful that he’ll be successful with it.”

 

As Valdivia and I walk around the clubhouse one afternoon, I feel like I’m with a yearbook’s “Most Likeable Person.” A friend of mine in the distance spots the two of us and starts frantically waving. She sends me a text message later saying she and her husband are among “Victor’s fan club.” As we snake through the rooms, women and men eagerly greet him with a kiss or handshake. “The members love me. I feel like I’ve won the lottery. I’m so lucky,” Valdivia says.

Cherry, who spends a lot of his social time at Grey Oaks, is impressed by Valdivia’s outgoing nature and effort to connect with members. He thinks Valdivia has done a lot to give people more confidence in talking about wine.

One member, Chris Fraga, a wealth manager, told me he met Victor on his very first day on the job. “It was clear there was a new guy in town,” Fraga says. “I wasn’t a wine person at the time—I wasn’t a drinker—but it’s all evolved since I have known Victor.” He and his wife were among those on the Napa trip in July. Reflecting on visits to Buccella, Carter Cellars and Chateau Montelena, Fraga takes a pause before saying, “It was the trip of a lifetime. It was more than a trip; it was an experience.”

 

The Lightning Round: Questions for Victor Valdivia

Favorite beverage: “Champagne—you can have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I like to keep a bottle of Krug Grande Cuvée in my home wine cellar.”

Favorite wine region: “Bordeaux. I think it’s the gold standard. The commercial success is just jaw-dropping.”

Up-and-coming wine region: “I’m really excited for Virginia. I tasted the 2012 Lost Mountain from RdV Vineyards for the first time last week, and I can’t believe Virginia is making wines of this magnitude. Absolutely delicious. I blind tasted it and almost said it was from Napa.”

Unsung varietal: “Syrah. I don’t know why it’s been on the decline. I wish people would embrace it. It’s a beautiful grape. It has a beautiful color, wonderful aromas, black fruit and red fruit, cherries, plums—it has incredible finesse.”

Best underrated wine: “Ancillary Cellars Pinot Noir, from Sonoma. It’s only their third vintage. They’re going to be very well-known. It’s a boutique with a very small allocation, by winemaker Mike Smith.” [Editor’s note: He is the vintner for Carter Cellars, Myriad and Quivet Cellars as well.]

Recent favorite vintages: “2013 Buccella, jaw-dropping delicious. It’s one of the most mind-blowing wines I’ve had in my life. They’re so powerful yet with finesse. They’re 100 percent Merlot. Reminds me of Chateau Pétrus, they’re that good. 2013 Donelan Obsidian Vineyard Syrah. It’s pristine, 99 points. What Joe Donelan is producing in Sonoma is just out-of-this-world. I think he’s a genius. He did his homework and found the right vineyards.”

Most prized personal bottle: “1989 Châuteau La Mission Haut Brion. That’s a 100-pointer.”

Naples restaurant picks: “My favorite restaurant is Tulia. The Continental is my favorite restaurant for a wine list. I really enjoy 7th Ave Social’s beer and cocktail selection—it’s truly inspiring. For the size that they are, I’ve been so impressed with the quality of cocktails.”

Tastevin or no tastevin [Editor’s note: It’s the silver mini-chalice sommeliers sometimes wear around their necks.]: “Yes. Once in a while. My tastevin is from the early 1900s from Christofle. I bought it at Sotheby’s at an auction. I wear it for fine dining. When I’m at [Grey Oaks’] Estuary Clubhouse Friday and Saturday nights, I’m in my glasses, tastevin, bow tie. I definitely look the part.”

 

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