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Behind the Scenes at the Wine World's Big Networking Event

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Great entrepreneurs are well aware they don't know everything and, as a result, they surround themselves with smarter people.


Well, if you are an entrepreneurial sommelier, volunteering to work the annual Wine Spectator Wine Experience at the Marriott Marquis in New York City will allow you to do exactly that.

Sommeliers from all over the country volunteer their time for the opportunity to not only taste some of the world's greatest wines, but to network with the elite in their field.

Now, granted, you can't just show up. You have to apply to Wine Spectator and be selected by the woman in charge, Andréa Fulton-Higgins, who currently is the sommelier at the Joel Palmer House in Dayton, Oregon.

She selects around 25 of the best sommeliers to work the four-day event each year.

And she is able to create a list of the greats, like

  • Master Sommelier Larry Stone, Dean of Wine Studies at International Culinary Center, from Oregon
  • Paul Grieco, recently named the second most influential person in wine in New York City, according to a recent survey of industry pros
  • Gillian Balance, Master Sommelier and Education Manager, Treasury Wine Estates, in San Fransicso
  • Virginia Phillip, Master Sommelier and Wine Director at The Breakers, in Palm Beach, Florida

"They have been coming for years now on their own dime because it's an honor to be around these wines and these people," says Fulton-Higgins, who has been running the event as Wine Service Director since 2005.

Related: Wine Ring App Lets Your Taste Shape Your Ordering

"I love the camaraderie," says David Gordon, long-time wine director at Tribeca Grill in Manhattan, who has been working the event since 1991.

The sommeliers who are selected spend most of the weekend in a back room and are rarely seen throughout the event. "We all have to get there at 7am on Thursday and we're tasting wines by 7:15am. It's just fun," he says.

It's the wine world's ultimate bonding experience. And was a dream come true for Shawn Dore, owner of Sommelier Services, when she first worked the event back in 2000.

But it's work. The sommeliers, a.k.a, somms, have to taste each wine to make sure its not "corked," which is an industry term meaning the natural fungi from the cork came in contact with the wine and then it tastes bad.

"They also have to taste for bottle consistency because the goal is to try to give everyone the same experience," says Fulton-Higgins, who started working at the event in 1987.

Each wine producer is asked to send six cases of each wine being served at the seminars given throughout the weekend, and it's amazing that the same wine from the same vintage in the same case could actually taste differently.

"The wine develops in the bottle and some just show better than others," says Dore, who not only found a job, but met her fiancé working the event over the last 16 years.

Related: Popping the Cork on Champagne

But to go through this exercise is a rare occurrence for sommeliers. "Its an invaluable learning experience to taste 72 bottles of same wine," says Fulton-Higgins.

And from a business angle, there is nothing like it, says Gordon, because the producers of all the wines come to the event. "You don't have [Baron] Eric Rothschild [of Chateau Lafite Rothschild] coming into your restaurant showing his wines," Gordon says. "Here you get to meet these people."

Then it's much easier to talk to the producers about getting older vintages or special bottles for his wine list. So it's not just good for Gordon, it's good for business.

While the somms show up Thursday morning, Fulton-Higgins flies in on Monday. She's responsible for the delivery of more than 3,500 bottles of wine and must know where they are at all times. Some wines might need to be decanted for sediment or air, as well. Then she assigns them to the somms to taste. She also manages an additional 30-40 Marriott employees, who help pour the wines.

Fulton-Higgins' grandmother bought her a ticket to her first Wine Spectator Wine Experience back in 1983, where she attended as a guest. She never could have imagined that she would one day be running it. She says she's "so proud and grateful for the opportunity to do it each year and am indebted to Marvin Shanken," the publisher of Wine Spectator, who started the event 35 years ago.

"The event has been instrumental in my development as a somm. That's why I will keep doing it," says Dore.

And that makes great entrepreneurial sense.

Related: Why Large-Format Wines Are a Good Bet

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