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Savannah Food & Wine Fest: Advice from the Master Sommeliers

  • Courtesy Savannah Food & Wine Festival

Savannah Food & Wine Fest: Advice from the Master Sommeliers

08 Nov 2016

This year’s Savannah Food & Wine Festival features something special: three Master Sommeliers.

The Master Sommelier diploma is the highest distinction for a professional in fine wine and beverage service. To say this achievement is hard to attain is an understatement; the test has one of the lowest pass rates in the world and only 147 professionals have earned the title of Master Sommelier as part of the Americas chapter since the organization began.

While the distinction sounds quite grand and maybe even a little stuffy, these Master Sommeliers who have come to the Savannah Food & Wine Festival this week are anything but pretentious; educating and getting to know festival goers is what they are here for. And festival goers will have several chances to meet these beverage and fine dining gurus.

From noon-1:30 p.m. Nov. 11, Jackson Family Estates Master Sommelier, Larry O’Brien, will host a Master Class Series at The Mansion on Forsyth Park. The intimate learning event features the Jackson Family Estates wine tasting along with small plates by Chef Peter Russo, executive chef from 700 Drayton Cooking School. Tickets are $45 per person or you can purchase a combo pass for $99 that includes all three classes at The Mansion that day, including “Southern Chicken: Roasted, Fried and Fricasseed” with Cynthia Graubart and the Big Green Egg Grilling demo. For the full schedule of Master Class Series events and to purchase ticekts, go to

Now, while there are 147 Master Sommeliers as part of the Americas chapter, only 23 of those are women, so the festival is lucky to have one of those women at the festival. Laura DePasquale is vice president/general manager of Artisanal Wine & Spirits Florida, a division of Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits.

DePasquale is considered a trailblazer in the industry — she earned the Master Sommelier diploma in four years.

“I’ve always had an insatiable curiosity; I’m always wanting to learn something new,” she says. “… I’m trying to promote more women in this industry, but it’s slow — definitely too slow for my taste.”

And while she has an insatiable curiosity to learn more and become a known leader in the industry, it’s her dedication to education where she shows passion. DePasquale is a popular and engaging wine educator, examiner and judge in regular demand conducting seminars and tastings at numerous high-profile events such as the Boston Wine Expo, South Beach Food and Wine Festival, New York Food and Wine, Aspen Food and Wine Classic, TexSom, Vino Italia and Simply Italy. She is a regular lecturer and examiner for the Court of Master Sommeliers at all levels, and she was elected to the board of directors of the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2010 and served as the first female vice chair for three years and a board member for five years.

But while all those accolades may seem intimidating, she says she wants to show people at the festival that trying new wines and learning new things is nothing to fear.

“I think wine is super intimidating to people,” she says. “… It’s a huge subject. People know they like it and what they like, but many times they don’t know how to describe it …

“Always sticking with the same brands is fine, but liking wine is all about trying new things … It’s important to talk about it in a new way … There are people who can help you with that … and they are trained to help you and happy to do it.”

She says she thinks people are sometimes afraid to ask for help or suggestions.

“Wine does have that reputation of being stuffy … but it’s ultimately a grocery if you think about it.”

And if you are wanting to expand your repertoire or perhaps just learn something new about wine and spirits, you will want to stop by the Jacksonville Magazine Stage at Taste of Savannah on Nov. 12. The Master Sommelier Pop-Up will take place from 1-2 p.m. and will feature O’Brien and DePasquale along with Michael McNeill of the Winebow Group.

McNeill was the first Master Sommelier from Georgia and is a two-time national champion of the “Best Sommelier in America,” and he says the focus of his career is to promote the education of wine.

“What we do for a living as sommeliers is promote education … and everyone is fascinated by our careers.”

When asked how festival goers can get the most out of their experience at Taste of Savannah, he says you don’t need to be an expert on wine to enjoy it, but you need to stop and take the time to get the story behind it.

“Enjoying wine is based … on an emotional experience,” he explains. “… It doesn’t have to be the best wine you ever tasted. Learning about the wine … and enjoying the moment adds to the overall experience … and the little details add to the enjoyment of wine as well.

“… I love going to restaurants that don’t have TVs so you are forced to talk to each other; … break bread and talk. It makes all the difference. Wine is a happy beverage and is meant to be enjoyed.”