Meet Roland Micu, the world’s youngest Master Sommelier.
Roland immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe at the age of 6. Growing up, wine was common at family meals, but those meals only took place on holidays when nobody was working. Even as a child, Roland took to wine rather naturally, sighting “a different buzz,” and describing it as a “warmer, more relaxing experience as opposed to the aggressive buzz of malt liquor and bottom shelf vodka which could have been poured as rubbing alcohol and no one would know the difference.”
A resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, Roland is currently the associate director of wine education at The International Culinary Center, the very same school where he got his start.
Roland’s teaching is rooted in what he found early in his formal training — fundamentals in the three disciplines of being a sommelier: theory, tasting, and service. “If your fundamentals are solid,” he notes, “you can start working on becoming a bad-ass.”
Check out our interview with Roland below the fold.
When and how did you fall in love with wine?
I didn’t “fall in love” with wine until I was 23 years old.
During that time, I was working 50 hours a week as an associated general manager of an Italian restaurant that was far from providing anything close to a fine dining experience. I had ambitions to work in fine dining, and decided that if I began to study wine — and had a certification to supplement my resume, which at least had years of restaurant service — I’d increase my odds of working in fine dining.
So one night I Googled “sommelier” to see if there were any classes I could take. Sure enough, there was one locally that prepped students for the first two levels of the Court of Master Sommeliers exams. It was also the first (and only) course of its kind approved by the Court. It was during the second or third day of class that I realized I had something. I discovered something that I had been searching for the entirety of my adult life.
How did you end up a sommelier?
After graduating from the sommelier course, I finally got a job at a fine dining restaurant — Alexander’s Steakhouse in Cupertino as a captain. I didn’t waste any time expressing my interest in the wine program to the wine director at the time, Eric Entrikin, a fellow MS now as well.
I happily and enthusiastically broke down boxes and binned wines in the cellar whenever I had the opportunity. I never expected to be handed a sommelier position just because I had a pin. I understood that, just as everyone else in this business, I had to pay some dues. After about a year or so at Alexander’s, I was given the opportunity to work as a floor sommelier two nights a week.
I was thrilled. And I never looked back.
What specific wines have inspired you the most?
The first one I can remember that truly reached me was an ’89 Poniatowski Vouvray Moelleux. Others include a taste of ’61 Chateau Palmer, ’69 Guigal La Mouline, ’78 Jaboulet La Chapelle out of a three liter, and Mongeard Mugneret Grands-Echezeaux was my “oh my God” Burgundy moment.
How did you end up at your current job?
I am thrilled and honored to be running the wine education department at the International Culinary Center (founded as the French Culinary Institute) of California along with Scott Carney, MS, who is based in New York. I am fairly certain that the ICC had interest in me because I graduated from its program — very little time passed before I was fortunate enough to be offered the position.
Tell us something interesting about your past wine programs.
Having worked in Napa, as well as at a steakhouse, I’ve served and tasted my fair share of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. I can definitely say I feel comfortable and confident discussing and sharing my experiences with Napa Valley wines in general.
I ran the wine programs for La Toque in Napa and Coi in San Francisco. Both of them have significant (and successful) wine pairing programs. Around 70 percent total of wine sales were from guests enjoying the pairings. Without a doubt, I am now quite confident in my wine pairing skills, but the programs also prevented a lot of the communication with guests with regards to making recommendations from the list.
What’s your dream food & wine pairing?
A simple pasta dish with butter, mushrooms and tiny bit of parmesan with about 10 grams of shaved white truffles (Umbrian or Alban, I’m not picky) and some 1964 Giacomo Conterno Monfortino.
What’s the best value on wine lists these days?
Obviously, this depends on the theme or style of the restaurant, but generally, I find that there are vast amounts of selections from Spain at fantastic value. Also, selections from Italy from the regions less familiar to the general consumer, and wines from Beaujolais and Chablis are always wines I gravitate towards at restaurants.
Do you enjoy beer? What about hard liquor?
Of the two, I prefer spirits. I am quite fond of gin and enjoy it just as often (if not more often) than wine. I do enjoy beer of course, and prefer lager styles, specifically pilsners. I am of the philosophy that every beverage has its place and occasion.
What is the most challenging situation you’ve been in or request you’ve received as a sommelier?
The most physically (and mentally) challenging experience I can recall was during my time at La Toque. A large group of Masters of Wine — 20, to be precise — was in Napa for an annual meeting and choose La Toque to host one of their dinners.
As you might imagine, they brought a few wines. The wines they brought nearly all required special attention due to their age. The coolest part of this experience was the fact I had to pour the wines around the table of 20 without running out (obviously). Keep in mind, only one bottle of each wine was brought. All of them were super generous and insisted I taste each and every wine I opened. At the end of the night, my body was completely sore. The closest thing I can compare the experience to is riding a motorcycle at high speeds. It requires such an intense focus for relatively long periods of time. It is physically taxing.
What is most rewarding about your job?
The most rewarding aspect of my job is to be able to witness the growth and success of my students. To be able to coach a group of passionate people, who are pushed beyond their preconceived limits, and watch them all come out stronger.
My most recent graduating class had an unprecedented pass rate of 100 percent for the Certified exam. Fourteen of them, all passed. The feeling of elation I experienced watching them, all in celebration of their huge accomplishment with such emotion, which they’ve sacrificed so much to achieve, far overcame the joy I had after passing any of the levels of the exams, including the MS.
What’s your top pieces of advice to other sommeliers aspiring to be better on the floor, better tasters, and theory whizes?
Nearly every time I talk to a group of young or entry-level sommeliers I tell them, “one of my main goals is for you all not to be douche-bags.” That one always gets a great response — and their attention!
With respect to theory studies, always cross reference. Never rely solely on one source unless it is the legal document. Make sure to review often. Likely, you should be reviewing more than you think you need to.
You can learn something from everyone. Never stop the desire to learn and grow. Never think that you are above anyone or any subject. And also very important: reward yourself. And when you do so, tell yourself “this is my reward for the 12 hours of theory I put in today.” Never underestimate the benefits and power of psychology.
If you weren’t a sommelier, and could do anything, what would you be doing?
I would probably be working as a captain or manager at a restaurant. If for some reason I happen to exit the wine industry, I would likely pursue a degree in law and hope to become an attorney. If I were to have pursued my dreams when I was a bit younger, I would have continued to work on improving as a musician.