In Crystal River Cruises™, Onboard Pursuits

Mealtime Matchmakers: Crystal’s Certified Sommeliers

by Katie Jackson

It’s 7 a.m. on our European river cruise along the Danube, and while most people are waiting for their coffee to percolate, Crystal Mozart’s sommeliers are already pouring wine. The four of them are seated around the dining table in the Vintage Room. Where their plates should be, piles of notes—slide printouts from the PowerPoint showing on the hi-definition flat screen TV hidden behind a painting at the head of the table. The PowerPoint’s pilot is Robert Bath. “Bob” is one of only 236 master sommeliers in the world. The third-generation Northern California native was one of the first 25 master sommeliers in the U.S. For two decades, he’s worked with Toni Neumeister, senior vice president of hotel operations and former vice president of food and beverage operations for Crystal, to create and curate the most advanced wine culture on water.

An early morning study in port styles with Crystal Mozart’s sommeliers and Bob Bath. (Photo courtesy of Katie Jackson)

Currently, Bob is training Crystal Mozart’s sommeliers to be certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers, an English-based authority celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2017. Crystal Cruises is the only cruise line who arranges for its sommeliers to be trained in the Court’s best-in-class curriculum. What the sommeliers learn from Bob’s 100 PowerPoint slides per day and extensive tasting exercises, they are then tested on for one of the Court’s three levels of certification: certified, advanced and master. The “master” level requires passing an exam with a pass rate of less than one percent. Even the most dedicated and experienced sommeliers spend at least six years of studying before taking that exam.

“There was a period of five years when I was studying for that level that I didn’t even want to look at wine,” says Bob candidly. Yes, he loves to drink wine, but for the son of a university professor, the teaching aspect of his job is what makes it really worthwhile. After the results of an aptitude test in high school said he’d make a great accountant, Bob majored in business administration in college. But it was his minor in history that ultimately led him to a career in wine—a culture that dates back to 4,000 BC. While there are 16th generation wine producers in Europe, in America it’s rare to find a second-generation producer. Consumption differs too.

Sommeliers aboard Crystal Mozart have the serious task of learning every nuance of the world’s wines (Photo courtesy of Katie Jackson)

“The difference between wine in Europe and wine in the U.S. is that in Europe, wine is looked at first as a beverage and second, as alcohol,” Bob notes. “In America, it’s the opposite.” Bob’s job is to teach Crystal’s sommeliers how to determine what a guest’s experience with wine is, and how to translate that into the right glass for the occasion. Of course, the sommelier works in tandem with the waiter. On many cruise ships, waiters also act as pseudo-sommeliers, but on Crystal voyages, guests are treated to a more complete experience with a certified sommelier.

When asked what three traits all Crystal sommeliers have that make them excel at their jobs, Bob answers: “Knowledge of wine, the ability to connect with guests and interpret their needs and finally, humility.” Traditionally, sommeliers were haughty, rather imposing tuxedo-clad characters known for intimidating diners and pressuring them into higher priced bottles. While Crystal Mozart does have a $4,000 bottle of Chateau Petrus on board, its sommeliers can recognize if guests will be happier with a $20 bottle of wine or even a $3 beer. After all, a true sommelier, as found on Crystal Cruises’ ships, is trained in all beverages—from wine to spirits, beers, ciders and even water.

Master Sommelier Robert Bath and Crystal’s then VP of Food & Beverage Toni Neumeister study the blends on the table during a Crystal wine summit in 2016.

Bob’s curriculum covers all of the above beverages. “Our entire lives, we’ve been tasting things and cataloging them in our brains,” Bob begins. “Most of the time we simply think, ‘Ew, I don’t like this,’ or ‘Wow, that’s tasty,’ without further exploring what makes it taste that way.” That’s what sommeliers spend hundreds of hours learning about. When asked how he gets his students to become proficient in sensory analysis and recall what a particular year tastes like, Bob says it’s not hypnosis. “I just tell them to pay attention!”

Interestingly, Bob says women tend to have better palates. Some even have photographic palates, “They can take a sip of wine and remember exactly when and where they last had it.” In his basement in Napa Valley, Bob stores empty bottles of prized wines. He can pick up each bottle and remember exactly who he enjoyed it with, even if he can’t recall what the wine tasted like or what they paired it with. After all, drinking wine is about the experience, not the substance.

For that reason, Bob doesn’t like to answer questions like “What’s your favorite wine?” “Which wine would you be dreaming about if you were trapped on a deserted island?” And especially, “Which wine would you want at your last meal?” It’s less about the individual and the location and more about who you’re with in the moment.

At this moment, Bob is wrapping up a 10-day training with Crystal Mozart’s sommeliers on the Danube River. In a month, a Court of Masters representative from England will come aboard to administer the certification exam. Perhaps a few of these four men will follow in the footsteps of other Crystal sommeliers who have gone on to the Court of Masters’ next level after official certification, advanced.

And who knows? One could even become the world’s 237th master sommelier.

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Posted on September 13, 2016