Swirling a glass of wine before drinking it: We all do it, even though many of us aren’t sure why. Well, according to Scott Harper, swirling introduces oxygen to the wine, causing a chemical reaction that releases its scent into the air. Since our sense of smell controls about 80 percent of what we taste, swirling wine allows us to fully enjoy its depth of flavor.
This is just one of the insights that Harper, a master sommelier and certified wine educator, shares in his continuing education courses at Bellarmine, which are some of the most popular classes in the enrichment category. The story of wine is a rich one that draws from several fields of study. Harper dives deep into the history and culture of wine while integrating practical wine knowledge for his students to utilize in everyday conversation.
“Scott has taught a wine course at Bellarmine every fall and spring since 2008,” said Linda Bailey, director of Continuing Education. “Almost every course fills up, and some semesters we need to add a second session … He has gained a following, and many of them register for whatever he is offering.”
Harper’s classes include advanced wine tasting and courses focusing on specific wine regions, including France, Italy, Chile, Napa Valley and South Africa. He also teaches an occasional Kentucky bourbon primer class.In addition to being a master sommelier, Harper is an executive bourbon steward, corporate wine and beverage director for the Bristol Bar and Grille and majority partner in Cuvée Wine Table. He is also an official administrator for the sommelier exam.
“That’s where I caught the wine, food, restaurant bug,” Harper said. “There were two wines that we carried at the restaurant—Bardolino and Valpolicella—that were the same producer, same general area, the label looked very similar and they were the same price. I wondered, if all of these seem that similar, then what could be different about them? My brother was 21 and I was 18, so I gave him the money to go buy the wines so I could taste them. You could argue I did my first comparative tasting when I was 18.”
After 8 ½ years at Angelo’s, Harper joined the Bristol Bar and Grille team as a manager. Twenty-seven years later, he is now a partner and the corporate wine and beverage director.
“I wrote an article about what my favorite wine is, and I basically said my favorite is the one I have next,” Harper said. “Not meaning literally what I have in my glass next, but meaning I’m always enthusiastic to try a wine that I haven’t had before. That isn’t always as easy as it sounds, because I try so many.”
Harper’s love of wine and budding restaurant career led him to pursue certification as a master sommelier. The four-level process consists of courses, exams and practicals used to assess an individual’s knowledge of all aspects of wine and wine culture and typically takes a decade to complete.
“Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing a brain chip, or have additional ones, to go through that,” he said. “I’m not an emotional guy. I didn’t cry when I passed. But when I talked to my wife my voice started trembling, because she also sacrificed a lot of time during the process. We would open six bottles of wine and have spit buckets everywhere because you can’t drink that much wine in one sitting. She helped me study, doing flashcards for a couple of hours per day. She just really supported me through the whole thing.”
As a master sommelier, Harper speaks of wine in terms of texture and personality, characteristics most people would never consider. If diners describe the characteristics of wines they would typically drink, he can serve them selections they will love.
“I have a couple of epiphany wines that helped me become more interested in wine,” Harper said. For instance, “the first time I had a Chambolle-Musigny I was wowed by it. When I tried it, it was like a light went off. It was a really good producer and year, and I hadn’t had a lot of French wines because I was working at an Italian restaurant. I think it was, in part, a textural thing. It was as supple, velvety, ethereal and elegant as they come.”
Harper teaches classes all over the country and travels the world learning about various wine cultures. Photos from his travels line the walls of his restaurant, Cuvée Wine Table, which opened in 2017.
Cuvée offers 57 different wines by the glass, complemented by small-plate offerings such as polenta fries, crab bruschetta and hanger steak. Harper said he took great care to create a menu of dishes that will pair well with a number of the wines. The restaurant also offers wine by the bottle, craft beer and cocktails. Every day features a “diminishing happy hour” in which all wines opened the night before are half-price, as to keep the selections fresh. Cuvée regularly schedules wine classes and tastings, as well as pairing dinners.
“Wine has always interested me because the more I learned about it the more I realized it involves history, geography, typography, science, viticulture, mythology, culture, language and the list just goes on. It’s very multidimensional,” Harper said. “Plus, you get to drink!”
Steps to Becoming a Master Sommelier
Introductory Sommelier Course:
Covers the entire world of spirits, including wine, liquor, beer—even sake. Students taste 22 different wines over two days, followed by an exam. Pass rate: 90 percent.
Certified Sommelier Exam:
Students first complete a grid describing four different wines in terms of flavor profile, sight, smell and more and write a theory paper. They then complete a dinner service while a Master Sommelier quizzes them. Pass rate: 60 percent.
Advanced Sommelier Course:
After completing a class focusing on all aspects of the world of wine, students may take the Advanced Exam, which consists of a practical, in which they mix cocktails, decant wine bottles, make complementary wine suggestions and more; a more detailed theory paper; and an oral tasting exam. Pass rate: 30 percent.
Master Sommelier Diploma Exam:
Oral theory exam, practical wine service exam and advanced tasting exam. Pass rate: 5 percent.
Story and Photos by Emily Gahafer ’17