Only the strongest survive the long and grueling path to being certified as a master sommelier

You want a master sommelier in Columbus to help you pick a bottle of wine? Don't look for one at area restaurants. The city's only master sommelier is Matt Citriglia, director of education at Vintage Wine Distributor. He represents one of only two in all of Ohio and 129 in the country.

A handful of others have taken initial steps in the certification process from the Court of Master Sommeliers, the tasting agency that oversees the designations. But the majority of wine, beer and spirits programs in Central Ohio are manned by beverage directors, general managers and restaurant owners-those with a passion for that part of the industry.

"Having a dedicated sommelier on the floor? It's a huge expense," said Citriglia. "Those positions are limited to restaurants doing $1 million in wine [sales] a year. New York, Las Vegas, Miami-they can afford to have dedicated sommeliers."

Citriglia sits on the board of directors for the Court of Master Sommeliers, which offers a series of progressively more difficult exams.

Those sitting for each level of the exam-introduction, certified, advanced and master-must self-study. Each level guarantees a higher degree of expertise in taste, history and service of not just wine, but craft beers and spirits as well. There are no courses or practice exams. Students must taste, read and learn on their own.

What separates the good candidates from the best, Citriglia said, only partly in jest, is "the ability to drink a lot and remember most of it the next day."

While the main goal is certainly to set high standards and to educate, teaching the participants how to make money is key, too.

"You don't make any money just being a wine geek," Citriglia said. But trained wine professionals can use that knowledge to increase sales.

At Barcelona restaurant in German Village, general manager Tim Hawkins heads up the wine and spirits program. But he enlists a lot of help from distributors and his staff, too.

Hawkins, who has never officially sat for any of the tests with the Court, invites wine reps in twice a year to do blind tastings with the staff. He then culls together a list from the notes to get a balance of different varietals, wine regions and price points. When the wine list is created, he invites the reps back to train the staff.

"You only have so much space and so much money," Hawkins said. "You want to cater to the guest."

That, Citriglia says, is the goal of the Court as well.

"We're all about taking care of customers," he said. "That is our role."

Not everyone is thrilled with the sommelier testing process, however. Chris Dillman, wine buyer for the Market District in Upper Arlington, made it all the way through the advance level and tested for the master level twice (Citriglia, by comparison, had to take the test three times before passing).

"I realized the reward isn't worth the work," he said.

He didn't see a benefit in the designation when most, if not all, Columbus restaurants can't afford to hire a full-time sommelier.

"No one would consider hiring a chef who had never worked in a restaurant," he said, yet owners and managers with little to no formal training run most of the bar programs in Central Ohio.

And the wine scene in Columbus, he says, doesn't make the effort more appealing.

"Even 10 years ago, the selection of wines you could get was better," said Dillman, who worked in restaurants such as Sage and the Refectory for years. "Wines left Ohio and never came back. We're about six to eight years behind other major markets."

While Citriglia admires Dillman's efforts, he doesn't agree about the wine scene in Columbus.

"It's much better than it was five or 10 years ago," he said, noting customers can now find prosecco, gruner veltliner and other wines that were virtually unheard of in this market. When he evaluates a restaurant's wine program, he looks for not just an interesting list. He'll consider the variety of value in the list and wines that fit the restaurant.

"If it's a steakhouse," Citriglia said, "they'll have a lot of cabs, of course, but do they have all Napa cabs or do they have a variety of styles?"

And finally, he wants to know if the restaurant cultivates the wine staff to be knowledgeable about the list. A few of the Columbus restaurants he thinks meet most of his criteria include Alana's, Barcelona, Lindey's, Refectory, Till and Z Cucina.

"The wine scene has developed very well, but the cocktail scene has developed even more," he added, giving a nod to mixologists like Cris Dehlavi at M.

Citriglia also points to a growing excitement about wine, beer and spirits in the younger generation, which he believes will drive the sommelier scene in Columbus.

"They're very adventurous people, willing to try new things," he said. "Strange sounding words don't scare them away."

Lexi Dooley is one of those adventurous young people. Dooley, a 23-year-old working in the pub at the Whole Foods in Upper Arlington, says she caught the "wine bug" almost by accident.

"My parents always drank cabernet and merlot," she said. "I thought, there has to be more out there. I started reading, delving into the history of wine."

She passed the introductory level with the Court of Master Sommeliers last year and plans to sit for the certified level in June.

She describes Columbus as an "up-and-coming city" when it comes to wine.

"I think the wine scene is following beer," she said. "It's more comfortable, less stuck up."

The part of her job she enjoys the most, she says, is staff training, but she can't say how much further she'll go in her own training or what's next for her. "I'm just riding the wave."

HOLDING COURT

Earning the title of master sommelier requires successfully completing four levels in the Court of Master Sommeliers' educational program.

Level I: Introductory Sommelier

During a two-day program, students get a fast-paced, intensive review of wine-producing regions, elements of wine service and tasting exercises, then must pass a multiple-choice exam.

Level II: Certified Sommelier

During this one-day exam, students participate in a blind tasting of two wines, are evaluated on how they serve a certain variety of wine, and complete a written exam covering wine theory and fundamentals.

Level III: Advanced Sommelier

After three days of intensive lectures and tastings, this two-day exam evaluates students based on restaurant wine service skills, a written exam covering advanced wine theory and a blind tasting of six wines.

Level IV: Master Sommelier

Students who pass the advanced course can take the Master Sommelier exam, a four-day affair including an oral exam covering advanced wine theory, a practical wine service exam and a blind tasting of six wines.

WINE RECS

We asked Barcelona general manager Tim Hawkins to recommend a few of his favorite dinner-friendly wines from the current list

Something White

Marques de Gelida Xarel-lo (Penedes, Spain; $6.50 glass,

$26 bottle)

This medium-bodied wine with a touch of French oak has fresh fruit flavors up front.

Something Sparkling

Segura Viudas Brut Reserva (Spain NV; $6.50 glass, $22 bottle)

It's a crisp and dry cava with tropical and citrus fruits, plus notes of lime and pineapple.

A Rose

Muga Rose (Rioja, Spain; $5 glass $20 bottle)

Made from garnacha, viura and tempranillo, this tangy wine has spicy orange, strawberry and floral notes.

Something Red

Bodegas Borsao Berola (Campo de Borja, Spain; $7.50 glass, $30 bottle)

A medium-bodied wine with lots of dark red fruits and notes of dark cherry, pomegranate and vanilla.

Robin Davis is the Columbus Dispatch's food editor. To subscribe to her weekly newsletter, visit dispatch.com/food