Years ago, George Miliotes was on his way to work when he happened to see Tiger Woods – at that time one of Orlando's most famous residents – striking balls out on the golf course. It was about 9 am.
"Now I happened to get off work a little early that day," he recalls, "and I was driving home around 5 or 6 o'clock. It was raining, a real Florida downpour, and there he was, still at it, hitting balls out of a sand trap in the pouring rain. One after the other."
Miliotes, whose eponymous Wine Bar George opened at Disney Springs last year to rave reviews, ponders for a moment.
"Why? Because at some point in time in his career, he would have to hit a sand shot when it had been raining. And that's why he's out there practicing. Whether it's Tiger Woods, or any other golfer at the top of their game, they all have to do it, they all want to have every single shot in the game down – so even when it looks like they're winging it, they aren't."
Miliotes says there's no difference between this sort of devotion to craft and that which helps make a Master Sommelier, a designation that less than 300 people, worldwide, have achieved since the first examination in 1969.
Only those who pass the Advanced Sommelier Exam (25-30 percent, per the Court of Master Sommeliers) may apply to take the MS, where the pass rate drops dramatically. Only 10 percent make it through the Theory portion. Some make multiple attempts, spending thousands in their pursuit.
The regions. The subregions. The districts. The soils. The varietals. Master Sommeliers must know it all, from food pairings and wine laws to storage specifics and distillation methods. The exam's three sections – theory, practical restaurant wine service and salesmanship, and practical tasting – are the gateway to greatness in the field of oenophilia.
Selecting the right bottle can be an art form — Photo courtesy of iStock / boggy22
A 2014 poll by the Guild of Sommeliers placed the average salary for a Master Sommelier at $150,000; the next highest certification, Advanced, garners $78,000. This diploma, and the gold pin that comes with it, are the wine world's ultimate credentials.
For Brian Koziol, whose love of science, geography and history collided with wine while in a college hospitality program, the path to the MS designation was a 10-year journey, four for the first three designations, six for the final. Koziol, Food & Beverage Concept & Development Director for Walt Disney World Parks & Resorts, remembers the moment he began to think it could be attainable.
"When you taste your first wine in a blind setting and you get it correct, you get this mojo in you," he laughs. "Especially if it's something rarer than a classic chardonnay or cabernet."
Miliotes took a decade to earn his as well, including a two-year hiatus from study to open Darden Restaurants' Seasons 52 concept. He went at it like a golf pro, with two shoeboxes full of question cards that took five hours to go through, every day, in preparation.
"They practice every single shot they could ever hit," he says. "You taste every single wine that could be on the test. You have to have that game."
About George: Owner of Wine Bar George and Master Sommelier since 2007
George Miliotes cut his hospitality teeth while working in his father's restaurants. He could decipher a German wine label by the time he was 16 years old. — Photo courtesy of Ine Quinn Photography
- Rosé: Sabine grenache, Provence. "People will ask us why we serve a keg wine – it's because rosé is best as fresh as possible and this is the freshest way to get it to the guest. It's crisp, it's clean, it's beautiful and delicious."
- Red: Triton tempranillo. "It's from the Toro region of Spain...where you have 60- to 80-year-old vines, all sandy soils, all head-trained – so they're low-yielding – and it just makes for as delicious a red wine as there is in the world today, both for power and smoothness."
- White: Pewsey Vale riesling. "Pewsey Vale is a winery in Australia...It's a crisp, dry Riesling. It's linear. I just love it. It can go with so many different things."
Cheap date (bottles for under $13): Excelsior chardonnay. "It is from South Africa and is as fine a wine as is made today – 100 percent chardonnay from a growing area called Robertson, which has limestone soils – that's chardonnay's favorite soil to grow in."
Guilty pairing: "A McDonald's double cheeseburger, no onions, a small fry and a good red wine are pretty darn yummy."
Tips for wine at home: "Red wines need to be in the 60s, temperature-wise. If it's sitting on your counter and your house is 72 degrees, put it in the fridge for 15 minutes before you drink; it will taste better. Flip side for whites. If they're sitting in your fridge at 38 degrees, take them out for 15 minutes before you serve them – because in the 50s is where they will show their full flavor."
Master Sommelier myth he'll dispel: That they only drink expensive wines. "It's absolutely not true! Here's the thing: $200, $500, $2,000 bottles? They'd better be good, right? Those are the easy ones! My trade is finding those things that show brilliant value at every price point. I enjoy all types of wine and all types of wine have different uses for the guests and for me. I taste everything, and we drink everything in my house."
A first-timer's guide to beautiful Finger Lakes Wine Country
A first-timer's guide to beautiful Finger Lakes Wine Country
About John: Vice President, The Spire Collection (a luxury portfolio for Jackson Family Wines) and Master Sommelier since 2004
"One must have a plan both physically and mentally for this journey," says Master Sommelier John Blazon. "You have to believe in yourself and cast away self-doubt." — Photo courtesy of John Blazon
Favorite food/wine combination: Margherita pizza with a California sauvignon blanc. "If I have a salad comprised of heirloom tomatoes drizzled with EVOO, fresh herbs and a slice of burrata or bufala mozzarella, I am reaching for all the nuances of the sauvignon blanc varietal...The salad is nothing more than the deconstruction of the pizza, simplistic in general terms."
Cheap date: "Carmel Road Unoaked chardonnay or Murphy Goode pinot noir. Both over-deliver at that price point."
Guilty pairing: "Chick-fil-A sandwich with a glass of California chardonnay – try it!"
Tips for wine at home: "Refrigerate your open bottles of red; it slows down oxidation. Invest in quality glassware. Research the shape of the glass to proper varietal expression; it makes all the difference."
About Brian: Food & Beverage Concept & Development Director at Walt Disney World Parks & Resorts and Master Sommelier since 2007
The Disney portion of Brian Koziol's resume includes a two-year stint at Victoria & Albert's, an environment he says helped build the necessary drive and confidence to pursue his MS diploma. — Photo courtesy of Walt Disney World
- Rosé: Domaine du Gros 'Noré Rosé, Provence. "South of France is still the best!"
- Red: "Spain is still delivering great value; I'd go with a classic producer, like Marqués de Murrieta Rioja Reserva or something new form the Southeast region of Jumilla where Casa Castillo makes great Monastrell."
- White: "I've been enjoying German riesling: Robert Weil riesling trocken, Rheingau or Selbach-Oster Bernkasteler Badstube riesling spätlese, Mosel."
Best food/wine pairing: "Oh, man, some truffled risotto with some Barolo (an Italian red) would be delicious right now! But I am a Chicago boy of Polish ancestry, so I love sausages, any kind of sausages. And sausage goes great with riesling! And if you like spicier grape varietals, you'd probably enjoy something a little jammy and juicy, like malbec."
Cheap date: "New Zealand's sauvignon blanc is still delivering good quality for the dollar. The brightness of the fruit, the crispness, really lends itself to hot weather; it's great in the afternoon and you could pair it with any seafood you want! You can still find decent quality malbec from Argentina. From the United States, I think the best value for your money are the reds coming out of Washington state."