There are currently only 129 certified Master Sommeliers in the United States. If John Wabeck has his way, he'll be joining their ranks this year.
And luckily for local wine enthusiasts, he'll be preparing for the rigorous final exam in Pittsburgh. Wabeck is the new wine director at Spoon, the East Liberty restaurant where he'll refine the wine list and provide guests on-the-floor knowledge about pairing wines with their meals.
Wabeck comes to Pittsburgh via Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia, where he worked first as a chef and, more recently, as wine director of several restaurants. He says that it was a stint working in Napa Valley — the epicenter of United States wine culture — that propelled him to focus his career on wines. "Going to staff tastings at the [legendary Napa restaurant] French Laundry was eye-opening," he says.
Look for his culinary background to come in handy at Spoon; he says that many of the new wine selections for the restaurant will be focused on complimenting executive chef Brian Pekarcik's cuisine. "It's going to be a cook's mentality regarding what goes with what," he says.
That shouldn't be too tough a challenge for Wabeck, who was awarded a 2009 Food and Wine Magazine "Sommelier of the Year" award. The magazine lauded him for having "compiled an incredibly thoughtful, food-friendly list" at Virginia's now-closed Inox restaurant.
Although Wabeck hasn't unpacked his moving boxes, he already recognizes that Pittsburgh's cutting-edge bartenders are "a tight-knit community." He hopes to see the same thing happen with servers at restaurants featuring wine-focused bar programs.
Becoming a Master Sommelier isn't easy: Only 10 percent of those who take the final exam pass. But by promoting the Court of Master Sommeliers in Pittsburgh, Wabeck says he hopes to encourage a "sharing of ideas. Everyone gets better. Everyone is on the same team, even though they work for different restaurants."
First, though, "I have to pass."