With a bit more than a sniff and a swish of the tongue, she can peg the origin of a Tempranillo near Rioja, Spain, and a Zinfandel near Paso Robles, Calif.
She can ferret out a mislabeled 1961 Chateau Mouton Rothschild "grand cru" at the blink of an eye.
And at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue in New York City last weekend, Virginia Philip of Palm Beach, Fla., used all those powers in winning the title of "Best Sommelier in America."
Philip, 35, the sommelier at The Breakers resort in Palm Beach — one of the toniest resorts in the country — beat 31 other sommeliers to become the third person to take the title in the American Sommelier Association's biennial competition.
A sommelier is different from a wine steward because the job implies more training, experience, and authority in purchasing beverages and constructing wine lists, Philip said, adding, "most sommeliers have traveled the world … and touched the grapes" at the vineyards.
"I was a little surprised; my goal was to make it to the [final four]," said Philip, who admitted initially being slightly intimidated as one of just two women competing with 30 men.
‘It Doesn’t Get Any Better’
Her win came on the heels of her Nov. 2 certification as a "master sommelier," which according to Philip makes her one of just 10 women among 105 master sommeliers worldwide.
"I think both accomplishments coming within a three-week period, it doesn't get any better than that," said Philip, who is married with no children. "I've accomplished what I want to do, but I won't go back [in 2004] and try to retain my title. … I want to start a family now."
Philip was not the first woman to win. Andrea Immer, who worked at Windows on the World restaurant in New York City, won in 1998. Lawrence O'Brien, who now works at The Palm restaurant in Orlando, Fla., was the defending champ, having won in 2000.
Philip has loved wine since college, and described her path from childhood in Kent, Conn., and Millerton, N.Y., to becoming a sommelier as "pretty straightforward."
"I knew at the age of 13 that I wanted to be in food service," she said. "My aunt and uncle had bowling-alley-slash-pizza-parlor and it was the coolest-type thing to me."
The honor of representing the American Sommelier Association next year at an international best-sommelier competition will go to Herve Pennequinn of Bruno Jamais restaurant in New York, last weekend's top finisher who had the requisite multiple-language skills.
‘Please as Many People as Possible’
Philip said the skills of a sommelier go beyond knowing the perfect wine to go with the "pan-sauteed pompano with quinoa and shellfish jus," but also the exact temperature to which the wine should be chilled, how it should be stored, and the exact flair needed to serve it.
"A wine has texture, it has flavor, it has color, it has relief," said Andrew Bell, a retired sommelier who now is president and CEO of the American Sommelier Association. "You're trying to match those sensations of the wine on your palate with the food on your plate."
The decisions on which wine or other beverage to pair with which food are not always set in stone, sommeliers say, and often depend upon the customer's tastes.
"The sommelier goal … is to please as many people as possible," Bell said. "There are no wrong and right recommendations, but only what you like and don't like."
For example, for a typical Thanksgiving turkey dinner, Philip and Bell came up with different wine-pairing options.
"I think any light kind of wine, but it all depends on the sauce," Philip said. "If I was in a wine shop and people were coming in for things to serve with turkey, I would definitely go with a lighter style."
"Riesling is always a good safe bet, or Gewürztraminer — but from [the French wine region of] Alsace," she added. "Beaujolais is a good safe pairing with turkey because it's fairly light. … Pinot Noir [goes with turkey], whether it be from [the French wine region of] Burgundy or California."
Bell suggested initially serving a French "Viogner-style wine" with appetizers such as shrimp or oysters, and then leading into dinner with a Chardonnay, which also could offer a white-wine alternative during the meal. But he prefers a red wine with a big, traditional Thanksgiving meal.
"Thanksgiving is about turkey and stuffing and things that come out of the ground, things that are very earthy," he said. "You have sweet potatoes. You have yams. You have cranberry.
"If you're having dinner at my house, you would have a stinky, earthy, sort-of-barnyardy Syrah from the Rhone Valley," he added. "And then, just to appease the American side of my family, we'd probably have a delicious California Cabernet that's rich and fruit forward, and some of the fruit profile is cassis and blackberry."
To accompany more modern, sweeter recipes, glazes, sauces or side dishes — or perhaps to please different palates — Bell said he might serve fruitier or spicier wines, perhaps an Australian Shiraz for red-wine lovers.
For those who would like to try something off the beaten path, Bell suggested looking for Austrian wines that use the Zweigelt grape, describing it as "smooth, red fruit flavors, somewhat earthy, but very elegant."
To find a personalized choice at a wine shop, Bell suggested "describ[ing] with three adjectives the type of wine you want."
"Describe the name of the closest wine to what you like and ask them to come up with another suggestion in your price range," he said. "A person who's going to give you good advice will probably come in lower than your maximum price, because they want to show that they're giving you value, and they want you to come in again."