DENALI PARK — Like many seasonal workers, Ryan Aguirre first came to Alaska for a little diversion. Instead, he found an unexpected career path.
As of last month, Aguirre is believed to be only the second certified sommelier working in Alaska. The first is Tom Laret, a sommelier at Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage.
A sommelier is a trained and knowledgeable wine professional who specializes in all aspects of wine service as well as wine and food pairing. Normally, you would expect a sommelier to work in restaurants known for fine, upscale dining. Aguirre happily works seasonally as food and beverage manager at McKinley Creekside Cafe in the Denali area and loves it.
He never realized he had a passion for wine until he got a job in 2011 at a fine dining steakhouse in Austin, Texas. The restaurant offered 65 red and white wines.
“I was totally in over my head,” he said. But instead of being overwhelmed and quitting, he became intrigued and began researching wine.
“I bought ‘The Wine Bible,’” he said. “A 1,000-page holistic, educational layman’s approach to wine. The more I read, the more interested I got. I didn’t even know what a sommelier was.”
There are apparently four different levels of sommelier, and each is more complicated and intense than the level prior. Both Aguirre and the sommelier in Anchorage have achieved second level status, which means they have earned the right to publicly use the title certified sommelier. Since 1975, only 265 people worldwide have passed the fourth level and become master sommeliers.
Intrigued by the possibilities of learning more about wine, Aguirre watched “Somm,” a documentary following four people trying to earn master sommelier status.
“I got a competitive spirit,” he said. “I always push myself to get better. I thought, ‘This is super cool.’ Once I saw that documentary, I was hooked.”
Besides, it was unsettling to be serving guests who knew more about wine that he did. He began to study and passed level one on April 2, 2016. Level one is a 75-question written theory exam. Level two is a whole different story, requiring a written exam as well as exams in tasting and service.
“There is a blind tasting component, where you have to identify four wines, two red and two white,” he said. “You have 30 minutes to identify the type of grape, and based on that, tell whether it’s old world or new world or United States or Australia.”
You learn to identify acid level, alcohol level, sugar level. Tasting can determine whether the wine was stored in oak barrels, for example. When that kind of wine gets sipped, and you exhale heavily, it leaves a woody flavor in the back of your palate.
“It feels like you licked a 2-by-4,” he said.
Guessing is not an option. It’s a deductive process, he said.
The service exam lasts 17 minutes, serving four master sommeliers at four different tables. It tells the judges how well the candidate works under pressure.
“It can be a very quick or a very long 17 minutes,” he said.
Then comes the longest four hours of your life as you await the results, he said. Only 12 people in his class of 30 passed level two and became certified sommeliers.
Aguirre learned about more than wine during this process.
“It’s the people you meet along the way,” he said. “And the mentors who pay it forward. “
Just the term “sommelier” sounds highbrow, maybe even snooty, but Aguirre said that is not a true depiction. He feels responsible now to educate others and to share his knowledge about wine.
He intends to do that during his fifth season at McKinley Creekside Cafe and make the entire dining experience more enjoyable and valuable for guests.
“Part of my job now is to help you understand what you like and why you like it,” he said.
And by the way, he did meet that sommelier from Anchorage who once drove north to attend Creekside’s annual spring Chili Cook-Off.
“He brought a bottle of 1988 Dom Perignon champagne,” Aguirre said. “I had never tasted anything that old. It was one year older than I am. I was born in 1989.”
“Life just happens to you sometimes,” he said. “I never dreamed that working in a restaurant could be a career path that is sustainable, enjoyable and fun.”
Nor did he ever imagine that he would come to love working at a small business in the Denali area every summer since 2014.
“I love being here,” he said. “People here are incredible. They are unlike people you meet anywhere else.”
He’ll be planning some fun wine-related events at McKinley Creekside this season as he figures out ways to best utilize his new knowledge and position.