Photos by Caitlin Abrams
Rikki Iglesais, wine extraordinaire
Every Sunday at 9 am, Rikki Iglesias, Nikki Erpelding, Lisa Lehar, and April Amys gather at St. Paul’s University Club to drink wine. Lots of wine. Four to seven bottles to be exact. Well, they don’t drink it so much as blind-taste it. And fairly masterfully at that—discerning among other things what grape it is, the vintage, and what country (and precise region within said country) the grapes are from. It’s not a parlour trick, points out ringleader Iglesias, certified sommelier and district manager at Southern Wine & Spirits. It’s just a byproduct of a lot of studying, which is what this group is doing, and has been for years now. Before and after the tasting, they work on wine theory and history, posing questions and studying flashcards, Iglesias says, “until our brains are dead.” The goal? Total wine enlightenment, and the varying certifications that come with it. We talked with Iglesias just before she flew out for a three-day course which will net her admission to the first of two exams that, should she pass both, will earn her the title advanced sommelier, a rank so rarefied that there aren’t any in Minnesota yet. We asked her what this obsessive side of the wine world is all about, why her ultimate goal—becoming a master sommelier—is so difficult to attain that fewer than 250 people on the entire planet have done it, and if, while she’s off on her heady quest, it’s cool that the rest of us just keep drinking boxed wine and not understanding the difference between cava and champagne.
When did you and wine become more than just friends?
It’s basically been my career the entire time I’ve had a career. In 1994, I was working as a server at Pronto Ristorante. We had a sales rep, Chris Griese, come in and do a presentation, and it blew my mind. I left that day, got a book about wine, and geeked out from then on.
You’re currently attempting to become an advanced sommelier, which is one step below a master sommelier. What will it take to get there?
Master sommelier is the title of the diploma you earn through the Court of Sommelier, and it takes years and years and years to achieve. I’ve been studying since 2011—that’s when I started seriously on this journey—and it’s going to take me, I assume, several more years before I get even close. Most of the people I know fail [the advanced sommelier exam] the first time, and they’ll make it either the second or third. I have a friend that’s going for his third attempt. If he makes it, he’ll be the first [advanced sommelier] in Minnesota.
Do you need to get these certifications to be a sommelier?
Most of the big names in town have never taken an advanced exam and don’t have to. But if they wanted to, I promise you, they would walk in and they would pass [the certified sommelier exam] with no problem. . . . Some of these guys get better training than any of us on a daily basis when they see 15 sales reps in a day and they’re actively selling these wines every night to consumers. They may not know what the must weight is in Brouilly but they are so dialed into what is happening in the world of wine.
I like boxed wine. You got a problem with that?
Hell no! [Bota Box] is the No.1 selling boxed wine, I think, in the U.S. You’d be shocked at the level of quality that goes into some of those boxes.
I ordered a bottle of wine and don’t like it. Is it cool to send it back?
Every single great restaurant and every single great somm, manager, or server should be happy to take that bottle back. If you’re going out to enjoy yourself, you should most definitely enjoy yourself. Do you do that? I can preach that all day, every day but given the fact that I’m in the wine industry and that I work with restaurants every single day, I don’t ever send wine back. Ever. I will suffer through that thing. I swear to god.