Sommelier. The word oozes world-class elegance, sophistication, knowledge and expertise, and is French for wine steward. When you meet The Herbfarm’s Joey Lopaka, though, you’re greeted by a down-to-earth guy who just happens to be passionate about wine.
Lopaka made news in late April when he passed the rigorous third level of exams to become an advanced sommelier recognized by the Court of Master Sommeliers, established in 1977 to promote excellence in hotel and restaurant beverage service. It is a testing board that runs four hard levels of exams for those aspiring to become master sommeliers.
There are about six masters, 20 advanced and dozens of certified sommeliers in the greater Seattle area, Lopaka said.
“It takes a lot of passion for the wine. There’s so much to learn in the world of wine. You have to almost obsess about it to make the world of wine smaller for yourself and be able to relate one region to another,” Lopaka explained.
In addition to knowledge, a sommelier should be the ultimate host. In fact, service skills are part of the exam process for the second and third level of sommelier certification.
“A good sommelier cares more about the guest and their experience at that moment than the wine itself. They listen to what the guest wants then figure out what is available on the wine list that will meet the guest’s needs,” Lopaka said.
Surprisingly, sommeliers don’t just become experts in wines, but in all beverages from spirits to beer to even non-alcoholic beverages like coffee and tea.
What made Lopaka decide to become a sommelier? If you ask his parents, Lopaka says they might think it’s because he likes to drink. But, Lopaka believes it’s because he had some really great people to look up to that made wine cool and not snobby, including Chris Sparkman of Sparkman Cellars who at the time was a wine director for a restaurant on Pier 70 in Seattle. “He made wine cool and service, too,” Lopaka said, who was a waiter at the restaurant.
Lopaka took about three to four months to study for the level one exam. “The first course gives you a kind of whirlwind tour through the world of wine with two days of tasting finished with a written exam,” Lopaka said.
He studied for another six months before taking his level two exams to become a certified sommelier. To prepare for the level three advanced sommelier exams he spent about 18 months studying and participating in tasting groups with others studying for the exam.
“Seattle has such a great ideology of paying it forward. There are so many somm’s who are willing to help out the guy below him to help him to get up to where he’s going,” he said. Lopaka believes anyone can learn the subtle nuances that are distinguishable when evaluating different wines, but a support group of people who are further along the learning curve is helpful.
“You want to know the grapes and the laws of a certain region, from what is permissible to be grown which can be different from what is permissible to be used in the wine. You need to learn the percentages, different yields particular to specific regions, soil types, different terminologies, and knowing the key producers and history of each region. I think that ties it all in and makes it less about memorization than about actually learning about a culture,” he said.
Before coming to The Herbfarm in 2010, Lopaka travelled and worked doing wine in restaurants in ski towns across the country, the Hamptons and even Dublin. But Washington called him home.
“I grew up on the wines of Washington. I’ve always had a soft spot for Washington wines even in my travels. I would get a little out of sorts when people didn’t recognize the world-class wines we do here. When The Herbfarm job opened up, what a great way to get back into the scene where the focus is Northwest cuisine and Northwest wine in Woodinville, a bubbly cauldron of new wineries and great wines,” he said.
Five years from now, Lopaka hopes to have passed the master sommelier exam. Only 205 people in 45 years have passed that exam, he said.
Lopaka’s advice to novice wine drinkers is simple. Get to the tasting rooms and taste wine and just drink it. “Don’t get too involved in the book learning. Just drink it and learn to describe what you like. If you can do that, then you’ll learn to get what you like.”