WWC 35 – Kirsten Valentine


The 35th published entrant in our wine writing competition introduces herself below. Don't forget to keep checking our guide article to keep abreast of all the entries. 

My name is Kirsten Valentine, I am 35, a Certified Sommelier (CMS) and I have recently passed the Level 3 WSET exam. I live in Chicago. 


Each year on December 24th my husband trudges through the Chicago snow to pack our car with bags and boxes of brightly wrapped presents and suitcases with enough free space to accommodate a plethora of new scarves and sweaters and hats. I pack a case or two of wine. The destination, after the skyline from Lakeshore Drive gives way to the smokestacks of Gary and the flatness of Indiana, is a small house in Northern Ohio. Surrounded by cornfields, marked by an American flag flying high and proud, sitting behind a white picket fence is the home of my husband's grandparents, the Stahls. On Christmas morning nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles and cousins join together to celebrate the holiday with presents and dinner. It is a holiday steeped in tradition, dinner is the same every year, the same iceberg lettuce salad, the same green bean and potato chip casserole and the same honey-baked ham. The same Santa figurines appear in every room, stockings with the children's and grandchildren's names, mistletoe and Grandma and Grandpa wearing their Mr and Mrs Claus sweaters.

My husband and I are something like the black sheep of the family. The Stahls live in rural Ohio, all within an hour drive of each other, while we live in Chicago. They are religious, Republican and proud of their small-town ways; we are atheists, liberal and strive to be cosmopolitan. And although they welcome me each year with hugs and gentle chiding about the Chicago Bears' poor season I have felt the need to go to some lengths to ingratiate myself. The first year I offered help clearing plates and washing dishes, the next I took responsibility for the youngest children so their parents could have some rest. I knit socks for every member of the family, which was a tremendous success, and I led a comparative tasting of root beers for the kids. But my greatest achievements over the years have been related to my profession as a sommelier, as well as my greatest failures.

For people in a small town, wine is something very different than it is to sommeliers in a big city like Chicago. There are few restaurants amongst the corn fields, and wine is purchased at the grocery store. The Stahls are intensely proud of their corner of the world and the suggestion that they cannot produce something to match the quality of the French or Italians or even Californians is insulting. Wine, to them, is foreign and expensive and slightly effeminate. Wine may be sophisticated, but sophisticated people may be conceited. They respect that I have a profession, but don't quite understand that profession. They see blind tasting as a hilarious party trick equivalent to correctly identifying your card, and still try to trip me up on wine trivia. 'I've been to Châteauneuf-du-Pape', Aunt Sarah informed me. 'Do you know where that is?' 

One year, while passing a casserole of potatoes and cheese, Uncle Kirk informed me that he had recently watched SOMM and when he retires as County Prosecutor he thought it would be fun to become a sommelier. I became very excited. Whenever anyone expresses a desire to become a sommelier, or even mentions watching a wine documentary I want to encourage and help them. Having gone through both the Court of Masters Sommeliers system and the WSET I am passionate about educating people. Likely he was making polite conversations but he quickly found himself dragged into a dialogue about wine books and the best online resources for studying. Just when I was about to recommend laminating maps so he could put them up in the shower my husband intervened to rescue the poor man and turned the conversation to Ohio State football.

It is expected by the family that I will pair wine with dinner, and I always want to offer something unique. I know perfectly well what they want, but I cannot bring myself to serve a big, oaky Napa Cabernet Sauvignon with honey and brown sugar-glazed ham. Non-vintage Tasmanian Jansz Brut was well-received, and a few will drink sparkling wine as an aperitif, but they are not convinced them that it pairs with food. (Although that ham cries out for Moscato d'Asti.) There is little interest in white wine, and rosé is dismissed entirely. I thought a bottle of Friedrich Becker Pinot Noir would impress, a German red is not likely to be available at the local grocery store, but they were so insistent that the Germans only produce white wine that I was, eventually, cowed. 

The greatest disaster, however was a bottle of Sauternes, 1988 Ch Guiraud to be exact, a bottle I was proud to bring and excited to drink. I had not at this time considered that wine could be political. I am very liberal but keep my opinions to myself on Christmas day as it can only lead to family conflict. When I presented the bottle, offered as an accompaniment for apple pie, Uncle Stan, an ardent fan of Rush Limbaugh, was genuinely offended that I would bring something French into an American home. His remarks were followed by a flurry of jokes about capitulation and Freedom Fries. The few who agreed to taste the wine hated it, and I ended up sitting on the basement carpet, ostracised by my unwillingness to politely accept their disdain, playing Matchbox cars with a six-year-old boy, nursing an elegant bottle of Sauternes.

It was this failure that lit a fire in my soul. Come hell or high water, I would make these patriotic, right-wing, red-blooded Americans drink some fancy, sweet, European desert wine and love it. Now I just had to select the right one. But which? Port is a masculine drink. Perhaps the spectacle of seeing the top of a bottle cracked off with red-hot tongs would impress. Sherry is hip, maybe an appeal to trends would be of interest, maybe a Manzanilla would open the door, dry but unctuous. Or Amontillado and a reminder of Edgar Allen Poe's dark tale. Why not Vin de Constance? The very wine Napoleon requested to keep him warm in exile.

Then I realized that it was precisely their patriotism that must be exploited to expand their palates. Their angry response to that Frenchest of French wines, Sauternes, could be countered with the wine of fife and drum, of humiliated redcoats and the Founding Fathers – that the Stahls might be, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, 'softened by degrees... (by) drinking madeira wine.'

In the 18th century, water was often not safe to drink, and Colonial America was no exception. Bodies of water were used as dumps for human waste and animal carcasses, particularly in cities, and alcoholic beverages were consumed from morning to night, even by children. Americans drank great quantities of cider and whiskey, but madeira was prized above all. The combination of fortification and exposure to heat that creates madeira meant that it would not spoil during the long sea voyage from Portugal to the New World. Dry wine was delicate and apt to spoil, madeira was hearty. Thomas Jefferson maintained an extensive wine cellar, and tried, in vain, to cultivate Vitis vinifera. He succeeded with cork trees, which he grew so he could bottle the madeira he ordered by the barrel. George Washington ended each night with several glasses of madeira, while John Adams wrote to his wife telling of the massive quantities of madeira he quaffed as a delegate at the Constitutional Convention. Years before the Boston Tea Party, the city erupted into riots over import duties on a shipment of madeira, and after drafting and signing the Declaration of Independence it was glasses of madeira that were raised.

With this narrative, the Stahls were, at the very least, curious. I had selected a bottle of The Rare Wine Company New York Malmsey (the Thomas Jefferson Special Reserve seemed a little dank on the nose). The dark brown colour startled them, but with the first hesitant sips I could see I had won. Cousin Shane, whose barn is completely covered on one side by an American flag, drank and gazed into the fireplace, as if gazing into the past. 'So this is what George Washington drank', he said, and the room murmured in approval. 'I have never liked wine', his girlfriend admitted, 'but I've never had one that tasted like this'. Everyone had a second glass, and even the youngest children were given tastes. I like to think that I created a new Christmas tradition that day, and I won't fail to include a madeira this year or the next. It does, however, raise the issue of how to outdo myself. There is no amount of Yuletide cheer that could induce me to purchase a bottle of Trump wine. Perhaps I will break out the port tongs after all.


Recently I attended a cocktail party. It was one of those events where everyone knows each other and the entire party consists of politely greeting them, working your way back around, and politely bidding them farewell. The guest of honour was not a retiree, or a birthday celebrant, or someone recently promoted, it was a bottle of 2006 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Rosé. This was no ordinary party, it was gathering of Chicago sommeliers. The vintage rosé was offered after we had sipped glasses of Taittinger Brut La Francaise and Taittinger Prélude. The rosé, with aromas of brioche and cherries, was paired with the most delicate foie gras macaroons. I giggled and kissed cheeks as I made my way through the room of men in summer scarves. There I was, a sommelier among sommeliers, and very far from where I began.

The family farm in rural Ohio may be less than a day's drive from Chicago, but it is a world away from that party. We raised horses, not crops, for dressage and jumping. Up at dawn, I filled their water buckets, cleaned their stalls, brushed and curried them, and, in payment, I received riding lessons. I was especially fond of a red pony with a blond mane called Abby, and we won several blue ribbons together in competition. No one drank in my household, except my grandmother who would have an occasional glass of red wine with dinner. 

I knew nothing about wine when I began waiting tables at an upscale restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. My first experiences with drinking were in high school, mostly cheap beer in cans, maybe a swig of liquor. By the time I had entered college I had discovered Long Island Iced Teas (only $3 at a dive bar that never asked to see ID). When I wanted to appear sophisticated to the hulking, corn-fed OSU fans I sipped vodka martinis, of course, showing myself to be a woman of rare taste. 

In college I dated one man who drank wine. He was also a restaurant server. He smoked a pipe and recited poetry from memory and wore a fedora. He loved to cook and entertain. His tiny apartment featured a foldable card table covered with a chequered tablecloth, a vase of flowers and candles in the centre. One evening he made me a plate of chicken parmesan and brought a glass of wine. I assumed it was the leftovers of a jug of Carlo Rossi Chianti we had enjoyed the night before but it smelled and tasted different. I was perplexed. 'Does wine get better overnight?' I asked him. He laughed and explained that it was not Carlo Rossi, it was a bottle of Opus One he had won in a sales competition at work. I had not realised that people drank wine because it tasted good. My martinis certainly did not.

I did not leave Ohio for Chicago; I took a detour in the form of two years in New York. I lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn which is tremendously hip today but was populated by Polish retirees when I was there. I worked in a bar in the East Village that had a lax policy on shift drinks. We closed at 10 pm, therefore 9:30 was officially renamed 'Wine Thirty'. As we were seating the last guests we were chugging Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc behind the bar. After our checkouts were complete and the doors locked we filled 16 oz paper coffee cups with wine and went carousing through the streets. I did not know or appreciate that New Zealand was only just coming into its own in wine production. I did not know that this new style would become a benchmark. I knew that it tasted alcoholic and citrus and good. I knew that I liked to stand on the Williamsburg bridge and look back at the skyline while sipping it, I knew we could run through Tompkins Square Park, that we could dangle from fire escapes, that we could fall in love while drinking it.

I have heard sommeliers and wine professionals talk about an 'Aha' wine, the wine that first captured their attention, the first wine they loved. The first time I tasted mine was in a staff training. I was newly arrived in Wicker Park, Chicago. It was clear ruby, I could see straight through it. The wine smelled so unusual to me – leather, and earth and hay. It smelled like the wild berries I picked as a child, it smelled like leather saddles, it smelled like Abby's soft muzzle. Catherine et Pierre Breton Bourgueil was a wine that smelled and tasted like my childhood. This was the first time I had been able to pick out distinct aromas in a glass of wine, it was the first time that I looked at a label and felt that it was important to understand the words on it. I wanted to know if there were more wines like this. I wanted to learn.

I have studied with the Court of Master Sommeliers and the WSET and earned my pins. Today I make appointments to taste new wines or request samples. I go to large tasting events, spitting in metal or plastic buckets and jotting down notes like 'pronounced orange zest, pot-pourri, elevated acid', or 'gripping tannin, youthful'. Today I lead the staff training at the restaurant. I work on the floor and recommend wine to guests. Often, after tasting a wine I have selected they will say, 'Are you one of those sommeliers? You know a lot about wine.' 

Yet, it worries me that this measuring and evaluating of wine may detract from it, that in constantly asking what it is, we may lose its essence. I was thinking this at the cocktail party when a friend interrupted my reverie with air kisses. We engaged in small talk, you look wonderful, it's been so long, been meaning to stop by. I wanted to pull him into my oenological dilemma, but he was especially taken with the wine. 'Isn't it gorgeous? Cherry and flowers and earth.' He smiled whimsically. 'Every year I take my daughter cherry picking near Grand Rapids, Michigan. It's a highlight of the year, just a father-daughter trip. You bring your own basket and they have pony rides and it's just beautiful. They give you recipes for cherry pie and jams, but we always eat them fresh. This champagne smells like those cherry orchards.'