by Josie Gereszek
Though for many, the notion of an expert in fine wine elicits an image of a mustachioed Frenchman in a far-away, elitist café, there are those much closer than one might think.
Academics in biology, women’s and gender studies, and philosophy might seem unlikely fine beverage connoisseurs, but MSUM has been home to them all. Former WGS professor Anita Bender (of Anita Bender Women’s Center fame) and philosophy junior Anthony Howe are wine aficionados of sorts, and biology professor Ellen Brisch has turned her lifelong love of beer into a certified hobby.
The road to expertise
Bender, who now works at Bridgeview Liquor in south Moorhead, and Howe, who works as a wine curator at its sister store, 99 Bottles, in north Moorhead, are both studying to become certified sommeliers, or wine experts. Though many may claim to be wine connoisseurs, or oenophiles, they’ve got the documentation to prove it.
In June, they passed the Court of Master Sommeliers’ level one exam. The court was established in the ‘70s as an international examining body for sommeliers, and its exam being offered in Fargo was a big deal, Bender said, because the test is usually given in much bigger cities, making it hard for locals to get certified. Travel costs, in addition to the $525 test fee, make the venture a big expense.
“It was one of those things I was thinking I would do later on down the road, but when it moved to being here in Fargo, I decided to go for it,” Bender said. “I went ahead and started studying like crazy.”
The exam process begins with a two-day class, which Bender and Howe took with some other people from Bridgeview and 99. The stores had been willing to pay employee exam fees were they to pass.
Locals apparently blew the 70-question, multiple-choice exam on wine theory out of the water. Everyone who took the class in Fargo-Moorhead passed.
“They actually didn’t even bring along enough pins for everybody,” Bender said. “They give you a little pin that says you’re a sommelier or you passed the level one test, and they didn’t bring along enough because usually, it’s like, 80 percent that passes. But ours was 100 percent.”
Their passing the exam set up Bender and Howe to officially become sommeliers once they pass the organization’s level two exam, which Howe plans to do this summer. He will likely have to travel to Phoenix, Montreal or Portland, Oregon. While the initial exam is more general, his upcoming test will challenge him in the areas of tableside service and wine identification based on a deductive process through taste and smell alone, in addition to wine theory.
“You identify smell, you identify taste, and you kind of go from there.” Bender said, though she’ll need at least another year to study before braving her second exam.
“Anthony really has this amazing palette and is just amazing when it comes to tasting and identifying wines,” Bender said. “I think he’ll be able to take it more quickly than I can.”
While there are many different kinds of wine certifications, that of a sommelier is service- and restaurant-focused. Sommeliers often end up as beverage program curators in fine dining establishments.
“Most importantly, (they) serve the guest, help them find a wine they will love that evening, educate their guest, and give them the best service possible,” Howe said.
An acquired taste
For Howe, the seed was planted at a young age. His parents typically enjoyed a glass of fine wine with dinner in their Bismarck home.
“I knew going into the job that I wanted to work with wine,” Howe said.
But for Bender, the obsession is relatively new.
“I feel I really got started late into this because I grew up Mennonite, so we didn’t drink at all — my parents still don’t drink much at all,” Bender said. “I feel like I didn’t even begin really understanding good wine until I was well into my 40s.
“It was interesting because I was 53 when I decided to leave (MSUM) and try something new. It was one of these things where I just knew I wanted something different and trusted I would figure it out.”
When Bender started working at Bridgeview a little more than a year and a half ago, she said she found a new niche.
“(I) enjoyed helping people think about what they wanted to buy and talking to them about wine and beer,” Bender said. “I get excited when I talk about it. It’s been a good place for me to be right now, and it’s one of those that, no matter what I end up doing, it will always be something that I carry with me in terms of my interests.”
Bender said working at Bridgeview has made her more interested in studying both wine and beer, but especially wine.
“I’m fascinated by the process of wine and making these connections to where wine is grown and what it looks like,” she said. “I love the history of it and the biology of it, and bringing that all together and enjoying the wine. That makes it much more interesting to me.”
A perfect fit
For Howe, too, studying wine has become a part of life.
“I’ve dived in way more than I expected,” Howe said.
For him, studying wine has become the “equivalent of double major.”
Having worked at 99 Bottles for just over a year, Howe’s become a resource for customers and colleagues.
“It’s great having Anthony working at 99,” said Robert Biglow, a coworker of Howe’s who graduated from MSUM in May with a degree in psychology. “He takes a lot of weight off my shoulders, since I don’t know nearly as much about wine as he does … If a customer stumps me with a question, or any one of our staff members with a wine question, we know Anthony is able to answer it.”
Howe said he enjoys the challenge.
“I love letting someone know about a new wine, or helping them pick something out based on what they enjoy,” Howe said. “I love having a customer come back after buying a new bottle I suggested and they love it and want something else new.”
The job’s a perfect fit for the soon-to-be-certified sommelier, requiring Howe to meet with wine representatives, taste hundreds of wines and ultimately decide what’s sold at the store.
It’s not too bad for his roommate and coworker, Cameron Seibold, either.
“He’s always bringing home wine and educating me on it,” Seibold said. “He’s super passionate about good wine, and he’s good at explaining it.”
Seibold, an MSUM photography senior, and Howe have lived together in south Moorhead since 2015.
Though Howe expects his next exam will leave him certified, he doesn’t plan to stop there. Sommeliers can reach up to a fourth level of expertise, and he plans to do just that.
“It opens up more opportunity of where I can work and travel,” Howe said. “I would love to work as someone who travels to France, Italy or anywhere to try wine and bring it back for a distributor … I would love to just have someone else’s budget and buy wine for them.”
In the meantime, Howe’s content right where he is.
“He does it because he’s passionate about it,” Seibold said. “He could work at a restaurant and make tips, but doesn’t because working at 99 gives him more opportunities to learn and grow.”
A homebrewed interest
For Brisch, an appreciation for beer was intrinsic.
Though she was born in the United States, her father was from Germany, and her childhood was spent “off and on” in the country. Brisch spent the ages of 6, 7, 11, 14 and 16 in Germany and was in the States the rest of the time.
“When you’re 6 in Germany in the 1960s and you go to Oktoberfest, Dad gets a big beer, Mom gets a mom-sized beer, and the kids get a little bit,” Brisch said. “When I was 6, my goal in life was to grow up and be one of those St. Pauli Girls, because in real life, they’re beautiful, totally strong, confident, muscly, and nobody messes with them.”
In Brisch’s teenage years, when her family was back in the Midwest, the ‘70s keg scene was in full swing.
“But my dad would say, ‘Don’t waste your time, stay home, I’ll get a six pack of good beer and share,’” Brisch said. “So I’d stay home and play cards with my family, and we’d all share a really nice six pack. I just got shifted early on into quality, not quantity, and with family and celebration.”
The summer before Brisch went to college, she found an old how-to-brew book from England at a used book store, sparking a lifelong passion.
“I’ve always loved biology, and I’ve always loved making things,” Brisch said. “I was totally into ‘Zoom,’ making all that crazy stuff.”
But as Brisch grew to appreciate better beer in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, it was hard to get good beer in the area. The craft beer boom had yet to begin.
“The Buds and Coors and Millers dominated everything, and that was just piss for me,” Brish said. “Water was fine. I’d save my money and drink water.”
After Brisch’s college graduation, she read extensively about homebrewing. She lived in Massachusetts at the time, and there was a homebrew store a couple hours away she could get to.
“The gang I hung out with at the time kind of pooled our resources and started making brew together,” Brisch said. “It just took off from there.”
When she was in graduate school, she took biochemistry and learned more about the process. She appreciated having access to a lab where she could culture yeast for her homebrewing projects.
Brisch spent her postdoc as a fellow at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
“This was Utah before the Olympics, so alcohol was really restricted, expensive,” Brisch said. “You had to go to a state liquor store to get everything, and they sold the beer by the bottle, warm, and a lot of times it had been sitting in a warehouse or sunlight, skunked, so I started brewing like crazy.”
When Brisch took a job at MSUM and moved to Moorhead in 1999, she found the Prairie Homebrew Companion, the local beer club. In Spring 2000, the club sponsored a study session for the American Homebrew Association’s Beer Judge Certification Program exam, so she studied with the group and passed.
“You have to write about the history of certain styles and how you would make certain styles — the water chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology — and you do a tasting to identify certain styles,” she said.
A certified beer judge, Brisch loves talking about the science of brewing. She tries to incorporate the subject of brewing into her classes, where she says students have responded.
Though there are many homebrew competitions, Brisch’s local club hosts a competition every October called Hoppy Halloween, and people from anywhere can submit their beer for judging and receive feedback from the group.
Brisch said judging beer is a lot more writing than it is drinking.
“When you judge beer, you’re having maybe an ounce, just to taste and identify characteristics,” Brisch said.
Being a certified beer judge demands knowledge of beer regions, styles and science.
“I bought a textbook called ‘The Biochemistry of Malting and Brewing,’ and I read that cover to cover to cover to cover before I took my test,” Brisch said. “It’s rigorous, but really exciting … There’s so much to learn.”
A complementary pairing
After graduating college, Bender moved to Philadelphia from Harrisonburg, Virginia, and remained in Pennsylvania for more than 20 years.
But it was around 16 years ago that Bender took a trip to Moorhead and a friend introduced her to Brisch.
They hit it off and “did long distance” for a year and a half, but eventually, Bender was ready to leave her job in Philadelphia, and Brisch had a good job here, so “it made sense” for Bender to move to Moorhead in January 2002. Since, the pair’s appreciation for fine beverages has only grown.
“It was really my meeting her that began my tasting and thinking about beer in a different way,” Bender said. “Part of that is because she comes from a family that has always loved good beer and good wine, and … tasted it and drank it in a very refined sort of way, and my family didn’t even drink it. The only way I knew was buying cheap beer in college.”
To some degree, their relationship has become an exchange of expertise.
“She grew up with (beer), so we would talk about it, and then we would start talking about wine together, too,” Bender said. “She’s very good at wine as well, but she’s been more interested in studying beer, and so wine has been what I’ve been more interested in studying.”
Bender’s study in pursuit of sommelier certification has been a learning experience for Brisch, too.
“As part of her studying, there’s tasting involved, and I love to taste and learn and try and I’ve definitely learned a lot more about wine,” Brisch said. “I’m particularly interested in food-wine pairing … because I love to cook, and I’ve done a lot of cooking in my past life, before my academic track.”
Knowledge on tap
Brisch, Bender and Howe have collectively contributed to the popularity of Bridgeview and 99 Bottles.
Howe said he enjoys teaching customers there’s more to wine than taste.
“When you learn who made the wine; where the grapes were grown; how they were picked, pressed, fermented; what kind of barrel it was stored in; what technique the winemaker used — there is so much you can learn about a single glass of wine,” Howe said. “When you finally take that first sniff, and the first sip, you are immediately connected to the person or people who put so much effort into making that.”
There’s value in putting thought into wine selection, Howe said.
“You can buy a $15 bottle of something made in the south of France by a retired couple, who does everything by hand and employs people who otherwise may not have had an opportunity to make an income,” Howe said. “Or you could spend $15 on mass-produced, mindless, boring wine that may taste fine, but given the options, why would anyone even consider getting the latter? Being deliberate with your decisions has huge ethical, philosophical and practical consequences.”
He said he enjoys helping customers navigate those choices.
“If someone comes in who was going to buy a wine without any consideration, maybe I can sway them to try something new and educate them a little bit about something that I’m so passionate about,” Howe said. “It’s my little way of saving the world, glass by glass.”
Bender and Brisch’s means of “saving the world” is teaching once-a-month classes on beer and wine at Bridgeview.
For the trio, alcohol is art.
“I just like to try anything someone has put passion and effort into making,” Howe said. “I want to recognize the talent and dedication the people making (fine beverages) have.”
Though Bender and Brisch prefer detailed physical notes to apps, you can see what Howe’s drinking at any given time on Twitter (@anthony_howe) or Instagram (@atownparty). Bridgeview’s classes are listed on the store’s Facebook events page.