- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 11, 2003

Eight bottles of wine sit on a table in front of Keith Goldston. They belong to wine seller Mark Congdon, who sits at the end of the table on Mr. Goldston’s left.

Mr. Goldston is shopping, and he has placed several empty glasses in front of the bottles.

Pour. Sniff. Swirl. Sip.

But don’t swallow. It’s only 2 p.m., there are seven bottles left, and three other wine sellers are lined up behind Mr. Congdon waiting to see the man with the discriminating palate who keeps spitting into a crystal wine glass.

“The key, when you’re tasting a bunch of wine like we’re doing today, is to spit,” says Mr. Goldston.

Mr. Goldston will sip and spit for two hours. He is the wine director for Charlie Palmer Steak, a restaurant that opened in May in the shadow of the Capitol, and he has a wine stock of 10,000 bottles to maintain.

Mr. Goldston knows how fortunate he is to have this job — “the fact that I get paid to drink wine and talk about it.”

He didn’t stumble into the job. Mr. Goldston, 32, has been working toward this since he was 16, even though he didn’t know it at the time. That is when the Napa Valley, Calif., native remembers drinking wine for the first time.

“I was probably drinking when I shouldn’t have been. I just kind of got the bug. I got it in my head that wine was more than just grapes,” he says.

There were part-time jobs as waiters. Then full-time jobs. He abandoned his pursuit of a degree at San Francisco City College.

He was in pursuit of something else.

Mr. Goldston didn’t wrap up his formal education about wine until 2001 when he was 29 and he passed the Court of Master Sommeliers examination to become a master sommelier, or master wine director. Just 56 persons in the United States have passed the exam and are recognized as master sommeliers. It can take eight years to earn the designation.

A pin in the lapel of his blue suit provides evidence of his achievement.

He came here in April after working at Aureole, a Las Vegas restaurant also owned by chef Charlie Palmer. Mr. Goldston wanted to be involved in the genesis of the D.C. steakhouse, and he has built the wine list from scratch. The 10,000 bottles he has purchased are worth nearly $300,000. They range in price from $20 to $3,000 a bottle.

“People say, ‘You take care of wine?’ I say yes, but it’s $300,000 worth of wine,” Mr. Goldston says.

The wine list is a big puzzle. Mr. Goldston is searching for whites and reds in a range of prices. He also is trying to get wine from each state. He has wine from just seven states now.

“I’ve got them all on order. They’re just trickling in,” he says.

No foreign wines here, not with senators and congressmen coming through the doors.

Tasting wine and building Charlie Palmer Steak’s wine list is the less visible part of the job.

His public role requires him to walk around the restaurant during lunch and dinner to help patrons who are trying to pick the right wine for their dinner. The left-hander tries to be available to present, open and test each bottle of wine served.

“There are still bad bottles out there,” he says.

A sommelier is a restaurant’s translator of wine, helping diners understand the selections on the wine list and defining each bottle. Mr. Goldston recommends wine to diners in search of the right vintage for their meal and tries to demystify the complicated world of wine.

“If people have the wine list open, I’ll go to the table and see if they have questions,” he says.

Others ask for him.

“You have to be a good listener. It’s almost like fishing at that point,” he says.

Being a master sommelier is useful only if he can share what he knows, he says.

He also wants to build his customers’ trust, so he makes sure not to sell an expensive bottle of wine when a less expensive one will do.

Sometimes he doesn’t have to worry about cost. One table of foreign dignitaries this summer spent $17,000 on wine during dinner.

Mr. Goldston is sensitive to the reputation of sommeliers as pompous wine snobs.

“I would rather let the wine be the star, not me,” he says.

But he has his moments. Polite and humble as he is, the youthful-looking Mr. Goldston can be direct, especially on the days when he meets with wine sellers trying to get their vintages on his wine list.

When he tries a chardonnay that Mr. Congdon has poured, he offers a bad assessment. The next chardonnay, bottled by the same winery but with grapes from a different vineyard, earns a favorable review.

“That’s a nice finish,” he says.

He gives a red wine a seemingly mixed review.

“It’s like tar and coffee grounds,” he says. But he likes it. “It could fit into my list. The flavor profile is outside the norm, but in some ways I applaud that.”

He says later he tries to be respectful while speaking his mind.

“It probably comes with a little experience and confidence. I’ve been more guarded in the past. The more I’m buying, the more comfortable I’m getting,” he says.

Mr. Congdon, who sells wine for National Distributing Co. Inc., says restaurants in the District are better off with Mr. Goldston here because people watch what he serves and he has improved wine lists across town.

“He has elevated the scene,” Mr. Congdon says.

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