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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, March 6, 2005

Hawai'i's has its share of rising wine experts

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Neither Roberto Viernes nor Aaron Trujillo were raised in wine-drinking households.

Roberto Viernes

Director of education, Southern Wine and Spirits

Honor: Named master sommelier

Hometown: Born in the Philippines, raised in Kuli'ou'ou

Experience: B.A. in French, apprenticeship with Cliquot restaurant, wine manager/sommelier for Neiman Marcus

Aaron Trujillo

Wine buyer, general manager, Vino, Kapalua, Maui

Honor: Winner, Chaine de Rotisseurs regional young sommelier competition

Hometown: Banks, Ore.

Experience: Waiter, Manele and Koele resorts, Lana'i

The only time Viernes had wine was in church. And Trujillo lived in one of Oregon's wine-growing regions and had not a clue.

But last week at the Hotel Monaco in San Francisco, Viernes, 31, received an honor that has been conferred on only 70 other Americans. He passed the grueling series of tests that make him a master sommelier, the highest level of certification for restaurant and wine service. Hawai'i's only other master sommelier is Chuck Furuya of the Sansei-Vino-Hiroshi group, Viernes' mentor.

And a couple of weeks ago, Trujillo, 30, also a Furuya student, was named the year's regional young sommelier by the Chaines de Rotisseurs, a wine and food society; he'll compete nationally in May in Seattle. This test is overseen by the Court of Master Sommeliers, the same group that awards the master sommelier designation.

Viernes and Trujillo represent the up-and-coming generation of wine stewards and wine sellers who will guide the tastes of Islanders in a place once better known for beer and mai tais.

If Furuya feels a twinge at no longer being the only master sommelier in Hawai'i, he doesn't show it. His voice rings with pride in his two younger friends.

He remembers Viernes asking years ago about how to get into the wine service industry. "I told him you have to study, you have to put in the time, and he did . . . To hear him now talk about wine, this kid is on fire. Nobody just gets by in the Master Sommelier exam — you have to have an inner strength to get through it, it's so intense, and Roberto has that."

As to Trujillo, Furuya says he refrained from coaching. "He runs the wine program over there on his own, he studied on his own. This is an opportunity for him and I wanted him to have it without me and he took it."

Furuya is heartened by the fact that neither man intends to leave Hawai'i, though Viernes, as a master sommelier, could have his pick of jobs. "It's about giving back to the community. I am so proud of them," he said.

Both have a passion for wine.

"You can never learn enough. There's an adage among the masters, 'If your wife isn't mad at you, you're not studying hard enough,'" said Viernes. "And you could say my wife was mad at me many times."

"One thing about wine is that the more you know, the more you know you really don't know. The deeper you get, the bigger the world gets," said Trujillo.

Both have earned these honors with a combination of hard manual labor, late nights of study, uncountable wine tastings, seminars, classes.

Mastering a vocation

Viernes credits his wife, Christine Loke, with giving him his start: When he was a struggling student and they weren't yet married, she loaned him $395 to take the certification course that is the first step toward a master sommelier diploma.

He majored in French at the University of Hawai'i but planned to go to optometry school. When he realized he didn't enjoy optical work, he signed up for an apprenticeship under chef Yves Menoret at Cliquot restaurant in 'Aina Haina, where he could at least use his French. His mom is a great cook, and the idea of culinary school in France appealed to him.

But then he heard the wine certification course and — well, he never made it to culinary school. He passed —"just barely," he says, modestly — and got a job at R. Field Wines while moonlighting as assistant sommelier at Padovani's Restaurant. In 1998, he became Epicure wine specialist at Neiman Marcus and later Mariposa sommelier. In 2001, with Neiman Marcus' help, he passed the advanced sommelier course, the second of three steps leading to the master sommelier diploma.

Two years go, he landed a dream job: director of education for the wine distributor Southern Wine & Spirits, where he teaches sales people and customers about wines, arranges tastings, helps assemble wine lists.

His first try at the master sommelier test, in 2004, was a painful learning experience. He passed the service portion but failed the theory and tasting exams. His exit interviewer urged him to hit the books and chided him for not using the proper tasting method. "It was my fault for not being as prepared as I should. I came back very disappointed in myself but the good part was I realized what I needed to study."

The tests cover the full range of restaurant service — wines, spirits, cigars — in both written and nerve-wracking hands-on tests. Anything having to do with wine is fair game — up to and including the newest Australian wine region or the most obscure village wine in Italy.

Viernes came back with a sense of humility and responsibility. "It's really incumbent on the masters to do as Chuck has, to teach others and elevate the industry," he said.

Passing the test

Trujillo, who came to the Islands in 1994 to work as a waiter at the pool grill at Manele Bay Hotel, used to look longingly at the guys upstairs in Ihiliani, the fine dining room, polishing glasses while he was "a burger and Lava Flow slinger." Finally, he climbed the stairs to Ihilani, and still higher, to the Lodge at Koele, a year later. In his years on Lana'i, he came to know Furuya, then a wine merchant who came over for frequent golf trips and training sessions. Furuya brought him to Maui as general manager of Vino in 2003.

Trujillo was invited last November to compete in the first round of the Chaine young sommelier competition, an honor-system online test, and then, with two others, was invited to Honolulu on Feb. 16 for the four-hour finals. The competition included a blind tasting of both wine and spirits, examinations in wine service, red wine decanting and white wine service, proofreading a botched wine list and a knowledge and theory segment. He was asked, for example, to define Morellino di Scansano. (It is one of the smaller regions in Tuscany where sangiovese-based wines are made. But you knew that.)

Viernes said the young sommelier test is comparable to the advanced certification exam — "not easy" — and, though Trujillo has much to learn yet, he praised his knowledge of service and his tasting skills.

Trujillo has no plans to take the master sommelier exam right now: He's got to study for the national young sommelier competition, and he has a busy restaurant to run.

Whatever he does, he said, he will share it, as his mentor has done: "The worst thing that can be done with knowledge is to withhold it."