Vintage career: Sommelier pairs wine with food for Madison palates

Late in the afternoon at Fresco, the rooftop restaurant above the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art on State Street, Caitlin Suemnicht, 33, meets with two wine reps from Wirtz Beverage Wisconsin.

“I know you like Californians,” says Joe Tarpey, Wirtz’s district manager, as Suemnicht sniffs, sips, and swirls a small sample of a California sauvignon blanc around her taste buds. Tarpey and Scott Jones, director of training for Wirtz, are hoping to convince Suemnicht, a sommelier for Food Fight Restaurants, to offer some of their wines to restaurant customers. 

Discreetly, she spits the excess into a small cup.

“I think this is really delicious,” she says, nodding. “It is tasting more like a New Zealand sauv blanc. The finish is really nice, really long. I think it would be really good for us here.” 

A pinot noir from New Zealand brings a different reaction: “You want my honest opinion?” she asks. “I don’t love the finish. It’s almost sour.”

The tasting continues … a chardonnay, a Riesling, a cabernet, a sparkling rosé. With each type, Tarpey briefly describes the wine’s background — the family that owns the vineyard, the region, the soil, the climate. Suemnicht takes notes that she’ll later use when ordering or training staff. 

Suemnicht is one of five managing partners for the Food Fight Restaurant Group, where she’s worked for 12 years. By day, she manages all of the group’s general managers. She’s also developed two downtown restaurants — Fresco and DLUX — and she’s currently working on a new, yet-to-be-announced restaurant concept for the 100 block of State Street. Aside from those duties, Suemnicht offers her expertise as a level II sommelier. 

“I taste food and pair wines with them,” she says. “Fresco’s menu changes often, so I confer with the chef to make sure our wine list goes with the food.”

It’s a big part of her job. At least three to four times a week she samples wine brought in from various representatives hoping to get their products on the restaurant’s wine list. “I’ll taste anything and everything I can get my hands on,” she says. 

When she was just 21 years old, Suemnicht was hired as a server at Johnny Delmonico’s, and she quickly advanced through the Food Fight family, which is now 17 restaurants strong. “I love the hustle and the bustle, the customers and interaction,” she says of the restaurant business. About three years ago, she decided to pursue a sommelier certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers, an international examining body. 

She visited grocery stores to help hone her sense of smell, picking up on the subtleties of everything from nectarines to Fuji apples. “I think you can train yourself to have a developed sense of taste,” she says. “But then you need to pick up on the nuances in wines.” Being in the restaurant business for so long certainly helped.

Certified senses

The master sommelier (MS) program has four levels, and the MS diploma is the only internationally recognized credential for those in beverage sales and service. Advancing through the program requires a high level of commitment. “I didn’t have a life for quite a few months,” Suemnicht recalled. 

She attended a two-day, level I introductory course (cost: $525) in Chicago, taught by three master sommeliers. “You go through about two dozen wines and blind test all of them. They teach you how to analyze the wines and help you determine the varietal (type/characteristics of grape) and vintage. A wine’s color, brightness, aroma, and taste offer clues. 

Afterwards, a multiple-choice test (90% pass rate) requires memorization of all the varietals, wine regions, wine laws, specific vineyards, and viticulture (processes used in the vineyard). 

The one-day, level II certified sommelier exam ($325), Suemnicht admitted, was “a lot scarier” and took nearly a year of intense studying. Luckily, she had access to plenty of wine. “Anytime an importer came to town or a rep had a new bottle of wine, I wanted to be invited to taste.

“It’s not as glamorous as people think,” she says. “You take little sips and spit them out.”

Suemnicht took the level II exam in Minneapolis. “I walked in and there was a red and a white wine on a table. You have 15 minutes to taste and examine each, and accurately describe the wine in a glass. What is the grape? The climate it is grown in? The vintage? “The right answers with the wrong rationale earns an F,” she says.

Following the blind test is a written exam with about 50 questions. This part requires experience serving wine, spirits, sake, and beer, and demands extensive knowledge and memorization of wine regions around the world, wine laws, geography, climate, soil types per region, and vintage. 

The third and final part of the level II certification requires the student to serve a master sommelier in a professional restaurant setting. A bottle must be opened and decanted properly, and if it’s sparkling wine, it must be uncorked silently. All the while, formal service techniques must be followed.

Students are graded at the end of the day. In Suemnicht’s class, only four of 12 students passed. “I think the general pass rate is 60% for level II,” she says, “30% for level III (advanced certification, $995), and only 3% for level IV (master diploma, $1,025). In the big cities, if you have a master sommelier diploma, you can earn six figures.” 



But master sommeliers are few and far between, she added. Madison doesn’t have any. In fact, she explained, there are only 134 master sommeliers in North America, and of those, only 19 are women.

Suemnicht isn’t sure she’ll go the distance, though she may consider the level III advanced certification, which would require a couple more years of intense study. In the meantime, she is happy to share her knowledge with staff and the general public. The ultimate goal is to satisfy the customer.

“It’s never as easy as four people at one table ordering the same dish,” she remarks. “Usually, someone’s having halibut; another, pasta; another, steak.” Sometimes, her personal opinion of a wine may differ from the bottle’s description. “My sweet may not be your sweet,” she says. “It’s always tricky. The adjectives are different, and palates are different. In the end, I just want to make my customers happy and maybe open their eyes to a new style of wine.”

Move it, don’t age it

After tasting all of the Wirtz samples, she and Tarpey summarize the results: She liked all the reds, though the pinot was not her favorite. An Italian wine had great potential for a future project she’s planning. The cabernet was “amazing,” but she’ll recommend it for Delmonico’s because of its steakhouse cuisine, and she liked the chardonnay.

Caitlin Suemnicht educates the wait staff about Fresco’s Riesling selections before the restaurant opens for dinner.

Fresco regularly stocks about 100 different types of wine. “I don’t buy wines that will get better in 10 years,” Suemnicht says. “I buy wine that we can sell now. We’ve strategically shrunk our list because I want all those bottles to move. I don’t want to have a wine museum.”

After the Wirtz reps leave, Suemnicht gathers six of the evening’s wait staff — neatly attired in white shirts and black ties — and schools them for about 15 minutes on different Rieslings. “This one has an aromatic finish,” she instructs, “some floral notes, but not a lot on the nose.” The staff dutifully swirls, sniffs, and sips as she describes the nuances of each.

Suemnicht works about 55 hours a week, including Friday and Saturday nights, mostly because she loves the work. It also helps that her husband, Eric — a 50% owner in the Nitty Gritty in Madison — shares a similar schedule. 

She also conducts junk food tastings for the public, pairing wines with “what’s really in your fridge,” such as salt and vinegar potato chips, macaroni and cheese, and even hot dogs and sauerkraut.

“I think there will always be a place for wine programs in Madison,” she says. “People are very savvy here.” Local favorites include sauvignon blancs and pinot gris in the summer, and for red wines, Malbecs are hot. “It’s a predictably delicious grape,” she says.

Suemnicht’s knowledge of wine has not gone unnoticed. “I’ve gotten calls from restaurants in other cities,” she admits, “but this is home. I’m in love with my husband and my city.”

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