Bacchus's Buddy

John Unger's the guy with the snobby French title, but none of the French pretentiousness.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown

Funny, for a master sommelier, John Unger doesn't seem all that intimidating. In fact, he exhibits not a whiff of snobbery aimed at bullying us into a wine we hate, at a price we can't afford. As he glides across the floor at Lockkeepers (8001 Rockside Road, Valley View), assisting guests with selections from the restaurant's world-class wine list, he looks downright angelic -- an amiable presence whose only concern is diners' complete satisfaction. Sure, if pressed, Unger will admit that most people probably can't even pronounce sommelier, let alone explain what one does. But that anonymity doesn't deter him from his appointed duties: demystifying that bad ol' wine list and making vino a hassle-free part of the dining experience.

To earn the title of master sommelier, Unger completed four years of study, three levels of examinations, and a three-day test that included a blind tasting in front of the almost mythical-sounding Court of Master Sommeliers. That makes him one of only 52 master sommeliers in the nation and the only one to head up a wine program at an Ohio restaurant. As Lockkeepers' director of beverage operations, his mission is to spread the gospel of the grape, making sure every Cleveland wine drinker is as well informed as he or she wants to be.

To this end, Unger is launching the area's first serious wine school, with classes beginning this January. While both novices and the knowledgeable are welcome to participate in the seminars, tutored tastings, and even a certificate program, this is no Wine Drinking for Dummies. "These are real classroom programs," Unger explains, "with a coordinated curriculum, materials, customized texts, maps, and great wines for tasting."

Seminars include Wine Tasting 101, with an emphasis on swirling, sniffing, and sipping (January 6; $25); and Food & Wine Pairing (January 14; $100), filled with insider tips for making perfect matches. The more advanced Reserved Tutored Tastings take in-depth looks at Italy's Classic Reds (January 21; $125), Californian Cabernets (January 28; $150), and Sonoma County wines (February 25; $100). The certificate program is an eight-week series focusing on Californian, Italian, Australian, and Bordeaux bottlings ($300). For details, contact Marianne Frantz at 216-674-0964 or [email protected].

"Clevelanders have a tremendous cultural sophistication," Unger notes, "but when it comes to issues of food and wine, we are still behind the curve. Happily, that makes us eager and enthusiastic learners."

Hey, with a topic like this, we'll even volunteer for extra credit!

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