Imagine you’re in Tampa’s Cru Cellars. You’re sharing a glass with one of the planet’s foremost wine experts, not only one of 269 Master Sommeliers in the world but one of 15 who passed the exam on the first try.
Now, imagine you buy a lot of BOGO wine at Publix. But the Somm has ordered a bottle of Evolucio Furmint from Hungary, made from the same grape used in wine presented to Russian czars.
He swirls, sniffs, sips and says:
“It’s simple, floral, there’s a good citrus note to it. It’s medium-bodied on the palate. It finishes nice and crisp.”
And you say:
“I love wine.”
Great start, informed and brilliant! I tell Andrew McNamara that I wish I knew more about this libation so many of us consume.
“And that’s a common thing,” he says. “Wine tends to be viewed as this very noble status symbol. Wine is for everybody.”
He’s at the bar with me on an October afternoon to share wine tips and his professional journey. That’s been a bit like navigating wine. Taste, adjust, taste, adjust.
He lives in South Tampa with his wife, Emily Pickral, who — this is so casual — also is a Master Sommelier. He’s got a daughter and stepson. And after getting laid off during the pandemic, he’s rebuilding.
McNamara, 47, grew up around wine. His father had a cellar of Bordeaux and German wines, and he’d let his children try them in tiny amounts. McNamara loved and respected it.
“Even when I wasn’t the best teenager at home, I would never touch any of his wine.”
But instead of a wine career, McNamara tried engineering, then majored in math. He became a stockbroker, where he was, well: “Miserable. Absolutely hated every second of it. I just didn’t like who I was.”
He was hanging out in a wine shop a lot, though, so he started working there. He stocked shelves, worked the registers, hosted tastings. He made $10 an hour but felt happier than ever.
On slow Sundays, he’d spread out wine books and study for six hours. He got involved in wine groups and exposed to new tastes: a first-growth Bordeaux from the 1960s; a 1990 Louis Latour Corton-Charlemagne he calls his “epiphany” wine.
“I didn’t know it could be that complex and powerful,” he says, “and that mind-blowing.”
He met the wine director of The Breakers in Palm Beach, who was looking for a “cellar rat” to pull bottles. He got the job. All those experiences built on each other, leading to the 2007 Master Sommelier Exam at the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco.
Let’s pause to reiterate: this is an extraordinarily hard test. Some people try for years. It’s split into theory, service and blind tasting, and you have to pass all three sections.
“I just didn’t want to embarrass myself,” he says.
He became the 10th person in the world to win the Krug Cup, passing on the first go with the highest score.
Dig in to Tampa Bay’s food and drink scenes
Subscribe to our free Taste newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Becoming a Master Sommelier opens doors, he says, but you have to find your way in a restaurant, on a vineyard, in a business role. And you’re not insulated from the woes of the economy.
McNamara tried to open a wine school in the recession, which didn’t work. He settled into a job with distributor Breakthru Beverage Florida, running the fine wine team, finding suppliers, developing seminars.
Then came the pandemic.
“I looked at selling roofs,” he says. “I was like, ‘What am I going to do?’ There are only so many jobs at that level out there, and nobody was hiring.”
With time now, he poured himself into an idea that he’d been working on, then launched ACE Wine and Spirits with two partners. From lockdown, they sourced wines of the world and distributed them around Florida, locally at spots including Cru, Bern’s Steak House in Tampa and Ed’s Fine Wines in Clearwater.
That’s 90 percent of the business, he says. The other 10 is what he calls “crafting,” or tweaking products from small wineries, adding percentages of grape varietals, aging, changing barrel regimens. Then ACE buys cases from the wineries and sells the new wine.
ACE has two crafted wines, including a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon called Ghost Somm — get it? That’s on the menu at Bern’s for $600. More are in the works.
His wife works for Jackson Family Wines, behind brands like Kendall-Jackson and La Crema. She has an amazing palate, McNamara says — better than his — and tastes everything he produces.
“I thought it was a great idea with all of his connections and experience in the industry,” Pickral says. “He is so well-positioned to succeed.”
They believe he can do it in Tampa Bay, where they bought a house in 2017. It’s a better atmosphere to raise kids than Pickral’s former home in Napa Valley. And the community is on the precipice of food and wine glory.
“You’ve got arguably the single greatest wine destination in the world in Bern’s Steak House, and then you have places like this that are relatively new,” he says. “There’s this food scene that’s still small, but, man, is it good.”
At this point, I have to stop drinking the Hungarian Furmint, because it is so delicious it might get me in trouble. This, of course, is one of the wines McNamara imports. He’s no fool.
I walk out with a new bottle to bring home.
Master Sommelier wine tips
I asked McNamara and Pickral for pointers average folks can use regarding wine.
Legs are fun to look at, but that’s about it.
When the wine sticks to the glass, it’s just a science trick. “Oil evaporates faster than water,” McNamara says. “And alcohol acts like oil, and prevents the water from coming together. So as the alcohol evaporates, the water comes together and runs down the side of the glass. It doesn’t really tell you anything.” Except if it’s a red wine. “Because if you’ve got a really big, heavy, deep red wine, it’ll often stain the glass. And you’ll see color and depth of saturation that way.”
Speaking of color, it can indicate taste and quality.
“The first thing I do is look at the color,” McNamara says. “I want to see how bright it is. I tend to put my hand behind it and use my wedding ring or a watch and see if I can see through it. I’m colorblind, but it doesn’t mean I can’t see colors. I’m trying to see how dark it is, to see if anything’s wrong with it.” He decided the wine we were drinking “looks nice and clean, it’s bright, it’s reflecting really well.”
“The geeky term is ‘volatilizing the esters.’ As mentioned, the alcohol evaporates, and when you swirl it, you give a greater surface area to allow the alcohol to evaporate. But attached to the alcohol are little flavor molecules and smells. When you swirl, you’re allowing more of that to go into the glass. And the reason we have these curved glasses is to capture that aroma. We always say to smell like a dog... which is in really short, clean sniffs, because you get more.”
Put your hand over the glass, then swirl again.
“Now instead of that alcohol going out into the world,” he says, “it’s staying in the glass, and when you stick your nose in, it’s even more intense.”
Smell for clues.
“How intense is it? Is it really floral? Is there something that really sticks out in it? And then I’m looking for fruit. And this is where people tend to get tripped up. Because we spend all of our lives going to school. ... And in none of that do we ever learn or are we ever taught how to use our nose and our mouth to identify things. This is part of what makes wine so intimidating, is that we think we should be amazing at it, because we’ve been eating and drinking our entire lives. But it doesn’t work that way. You have to practice at it. And that’s what’s really hard. I’m trying to search out what the dominant things are. So things like peaches, and there are a lot of peaches coming through in this one, and lime.”
Say weird things!
“I tend to say things that are a bit out there, because I want to make them laugh,” McNamara says. “We’ll be drinking a Rioja and I’ll say, ‘Doesn’t it taste like you’re riding a horse on a hot, dusty day, and all of a sudden you decide you want to bite the horse’s mane?’ Oh, wait, but that’s exactly what it tastes like! It’s amazing the power that visualization can give you.”
It’s fine if you don’t get it.
“I think people are a little too caught up with exactly trying to be correct, instead of just having fun.”
Expensive does not always equal better.
“Drink what you like,” says Pickral. “It’s a personal experience, and it’s about experimenting with different types of grapes and different regions and having an understanding for your preferences.”
A finicky child might be a future wine pro.
“You have to have a natural, inherent ability to smell and taste well” to be a sommelier, Pickral says. “In hindsight, I was probably the pickiest child on the planet. I think I was born with an acute sense of smell and ended up falling into this line of work.”
Get Stephanie’s newsletter
For weekly bonus content and a look inside columns by Stephanie Hayes, sign up for the free Stephinitely newsletter.