Remember the Pepsi Challenge? Two cans of cola, side by side, and a blindfolded taster using his or her refined palate to deduce which one had the better flavor?
One of Alison Christ’s favorite pastimes puts that simplistic challenge to shame. "What I like to do sometimes is go to a restaurant that has 100 wines on their list, and ask the server to bring me three wines. I try to figure out which ones they are on the list," she said.
"I’m pretty good at that. You can tell a red burgundy versus an Australian pinot noir."
While both an intoxicating hobby and a neat party trick, the fact of the matter is that these taste tests are very much a part of Christ’s career. After 15 years of restaurant experience, she was recently promoted to wine director at Willow Restaurant, 4301 N. Fairfax Drive in Arlington. Along with helping to manage the eatery, which specializes in modern takes on French and Northern Italian cooking, Christ also administers its wine collection and edits its eclectic daily wine list.
She’s been working with chef Tracy O’Grady for three months, matching wine with Willow’s cuisine. "I like to take the flavors you get out of wine. I’ll taste it and come up with two or three characteristics, and decided how they would pair with the food," said Christ.
Sometimes that means using flavors that augment ingredients already in the dish; other times, wine can add a new flavor to an entrée, like using a vintage with notes of clove paired with a lamb recipe that lacks the spice. In Christ’s view, taste and functionality trump prestige and price tag.
"She’s extremely open-minded. She has a very well-defined palate," said Brian Wolken, co-owner of Willow. "What happens in the wine world is that people get prejudiced about certain things. There’s a lot of ego, and an intellectual side to it. What she brings is open-mindedness. She lets her palate make the decision, instead of what ‘Wine Spectator’ says."
CHRIST HOPES that palate is sophisticated enough to lead her through the arduous process she’s beginning this fall: the transition from wine director to a designated sommelier.
"There’s no law saying that you have to be certified, but you want to be working your way towards certification, which I am," she said.
What is the difference between the two titles? Christ said that a wine director learns from work experience, while becoming a sommelier involves a multi-part progression administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers
In November, she’ll take an introductory course in Charlottesville. After completion, Christ will move on to the certification phase: a one-day exam that includes a blind tasting, a written exam, and a service exam. The third level of education, the advanced course, requires an application process with the Court; completion of the final step, the Master Sommelier Examination, brings a "Master Sommelier" designation.
"The first part is more knowledge-drive. The second part is about the palate. Parts three and four are all blind tastings," said Christ.
Wolken said having Christ as a certified sommelier will help her career and the prestige of Willow, but in the end it’s her talent and expertise as a wine aficionado that matters.
"People don’t really understand the difference between a wine director and a sommelier," he said.
WHILE HER education will intensify this fall, Christ has been learning about wine for over 15 years.
Having received a bachelor’s in hotel/restaurant management from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Christ traveled alone to Europe for six months, learning more about international wine and acquiring a passion for mosaic art — which became a self-taught pastime for her.
"I also think of wine as art," she said. "The whole presentation involved. I know my boss would say otherwise, because once you consume art it isn’t art anymore, but I think [winemaking] involves a certain amount of artistic creativity."
Originally from Long Island, the shock of 9/11 sent her relocating down to Wilmington, NC, where she learned more about wine at a pair of restaurants. Christ had a few friends in the D.C. area, and was considering a move north when an ad in the Washington City Paper caught her eye: George Mason University was establishing an Arts Management graduate study.
Christ moved up I-95, began earning her master’s at Mason, and landed a job with a Northern Virginia wine distributor. "On Fridays, we’d have meetings and we’d taste 30 wines. That was a really good education for me."
Her education continued when she came on part time at Willow. "I had a lot of American and Italian wine experience; but then I started working here, and Charlie Dunn — the old sommelier — was really knowledgeable about France."
Today, she’s using all of that experience to craft a wine list that spans from Rhone to Sonoma; not only for O’Grady’s cuisine, but also with a large array of dessert wines to match the pastry innovations of award-winning chef Kate Jansen.
"I don’t really know if there’s pressure, because there’s so much good wine. The people that I buy wine from bring wine to me that they know isn’t going to be found at the grocery stores; and a lot of the times, I’ll be the only person pouring that wine [in town]," Christ said. "I think that the list should be straightforward, so it’s not intimidating, and then I see how it goes. I really have my wait-staff involved in tasting the wines, because they’re the ones selling it."
She’s also learned how not to approach a wine list.
"Sometimes people have wine lists based on price, and that just isn’t true," she said, adding that a limited wine list can also be a hindrance. "I worked for a person who only liked one kind of wine. She didn’t want to put anything on the list that didn’t fit her palate. Well, you know what? You’re not drinking the wine — the customers are."
CHRIST ISN’T JUST dedicated to the customers — she’s loyal to the community, especially when it comes to promoting art.
She just finished helping to create a 12 foot by 4 foot mural with fifth graders from McKinley Elementary School and works with Art Enables, a D.C. organization that does work with developmentally disabled adults. Christ is also hosting the third annual Metamorphosis Art Show at Willow on Sept. 16, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The show will provide exposure for local artists while raising funds for Art Enables.
Christ also plans on bringing her own art to Willow, decorating a revamped wine cellar in the restaurant.
O’Grady feels Christ’s passion for art and her general curiosity about life make her a successful wine director.
"Not all wines go with the style of food that we do," she said. "A very good friend of mine said there’s only one rule: The wine had to make the food taste better, and the food needs to make the wine taste better."