Since 2010, Master Sommelier Elizabeth Schweitzer has gone to Mackinac Island each spring to oversee the wine cellar and service at the Grand Hotel. From May 1 through October, Schweitzer, who was only the eighth woman in the world to attain the prestigious rank of Master Sommelier, assures that dinner guests of the Grand have a flawless wine experience. Read on to hear what it is like to be Master Sommelier at the famed Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.
How did you decide to make wine a career?
It was not a conscious decision—it kind of evolved into it. I was studying music and then I was singing for my supper to supplement my income. I was bartending and cocktail waitressing to support myself and it interested me. I found a book on the history of wine at the Boston Library—it covered the history of wine thousands and thousands of years ago. That struck a chord with me. It was next to the cookbooks, and I have always loved to cook so that fascinated me. I thought, this is so great! I have a bit of an artistic nature and I tend to follow my heart. And some people said, you know you can study that. And I was like, what?! So I went on that little path and it led to The Court of Master Sommeliers in London.
[Around this time] I was working at the Biltmore in Los Angeles and the Ritz Carlton in Pasadena, The Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. A lot of really beautiful places and so I had a lot of exposure to fine dining and really good service. Being a master sommelier is not just about wine. It’s also about spirits and cocktails, beer and service, service, service, proper service. I found it involved everything I loved, good food and flowers and music and wine and guest service—everything that just kind of fell into that place in that regard.
What does becoming a Master Sommelier entail?
It’s a five-year course, all self-study, through the Court of Master Sommeliers. A very tough course of study. You do a lot of tasting by yourself. But then it’s important to get someone to blind test you. My whole kitchen floor was filled with bottles. You need to taste every wine region in the world and memorize them. They hold the exams all over the world. I took my first one in Kansas but after that, I took them in London. It was a great excuse to go to London!
How did the Grand Hotel gig come about?
In 2003 my brother, who lives in Traverse City, sent me an ad from the local paper about the Grand Hotel looking for a sommelier. I couldn’t stay the whole season because I was the Wine Studies adjunct at the College of the Canyons [in Santa Clarita, California] then, but I went up and checked it out. Then in 2010, their sommelier was retiring so I got a call from the beverage department and was ready to take the job.
(An oldie but goodie … behind-the-scenes video at the Grand Hotel)
So now you spend half the year in Los Angeles and half on Mackinac Island?
Yes, but during my time off I travel as much as I can to different wine regions in the world.
The Grand’s wine cellar is stocked with over 400 different wines—sounds like a candy shop for grown ups! Where do they all come from?
From every wine region in the world. Greece, Lebanon, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, France, California …
And … cough, cough …
Northern Michigan, of course! In 2010 we started offering Michigan wines by the glass and it was very popular. Now we have a full-blown Michigan page that offers about two-dozen wines. Guests love them.
You also do the wine list for two other Grand Hotel restaurants?
Yes, for the Jockey Club and The Woods. The Jockey Club is more of a bistro and The Woods has an Austrian theme. Those are smaller, much more condensed wine lists more geared to their cuisines.
What kinds of wines do Grand guests tend to like?
A lot of our guests are from Michigan and they tend to enjoy fruitier wines. Nothing too dry or tannic—Michigan and German Rieslings, softer reds like pinot noir and merlot. But it all depends on what month it is and where the guests are from. Our wine list is very well-rounded, we have wines for a budget and wines for special occasions. If someone orders a $1,000 bottle of wine, we have that.
Okay, I am envisioning a very glamorous job—sashaying around the Grand in your black and white tuxedo. Reality?
[Laughs]. It’s busy—10 to 12 hour days, six days a week all season. The hotel’s season is from May 1 through November 1, so I arrive in mid-April. It’s busy right away. During the winter when the hotel is closed the cellar stays temperature controlled, so they move in a lot of equipment that needs to be stored at a controlled temperature. So I need to re-establish everything. I need to get the right wines in the right bins, get the new wines put away. The cellar work is a big part of the job of being a sommelier. It is very physical. I move boxes, put wine away. Once I wore a pedometer to see how many steps I took a day. It was something like 21,000. But I love the cellar—my office is in there. Some people think it is too cold—the temperature is between 60 and 62 degrees. I think it is perfect.
Wow! That is the equivalent of walking more than 10 miles a day. So that includes your evening work in the dining room?
After I am finished in the cellar I’ll go back to my apartment for a break and to change into my tuxedo (a black coat with a white shirt—I would love for someone to make a jacket with tails!) before I go to the dining room.
So, in the dining room, you are part wine salesperson, part hostess, part server—it all seems like it’s a delicate balance of duties.
Yes, if someone asks for the sommelier, I’ll go to their table and find out what kind of food they’ve ordered, if they are on a budget, make some suggestions. I am a stickler for proper service. The guest is always the parameter for proper service. But the basics are things like standing straight, don’t touch the table, make sure the glassware is clean, fill the glass to the appropriate level and pour the wine correctly.
The Grand’s dining room is enormous—you must have help?
Yes! We do between 750 and 1,000 dinners a night, so there is no way I can get to every table. I have 20 wine stewards and each has a small section of the room. Anytime someone asks for me they let me know. They all call me Madame. [Laughs].
Okay, so you work very hard six days a week in a world-class hotel on one of the planet’s most beautiful islands. What do you do on your day off?
I’ll rest and read, maybe go out for supper and have a glass of Champagne.