Q&A with Tristan Walczewski

The level 3 sommelier talks about his certification, training for level 4, and — of course — Michigan wine
Level 3 sommelier Tristan Walczewski. Photo by Stephen Smith

As one of only a handful of level 3 sommeliers in Michigan, Tristan Walczewski has devoted a big portion of his life to the food and beverage industry. From his role as a server in college to his recent promotion to chief operating officer of Essence Restaurant Group, Walczewski has been immersed in the Michigan hospitality business.

We caught up with Walczewski to discuss his career progression, training for his next sommelier certification, and his preferences for Michigan-made wines.

Q: What is your career background like? What prompted your interest in hospitality?
A: I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 15 and throughout my entire time in college. When I graduated with a business degree, I was a little unsure of what I wanted to do careerwise. An opportunity popped up with Essence Restaurant Group to oversee their wine program. I had gotten really interested in wine and the hospitality business in general, and being accepted for that position prompted me to really dive headfirst into turning the program into something unique.

I took the position six or seven years ago, and the Grand Rapids wine market was a lot different than it is today. It’s become a lot more robust and progressive. A big goal when I started at Essence Restaurant Group was to foster an encouraging environment.

My role has changed a lot in recent years. I went from working as the general manager at Bistro Bella Vita to the beverage director for the last three years, where I oversaw the three Essence Restaurant Group restaurants’ beverage programs. In the past few months, I transitioned to chief operating officer for the group, so I’m still running around on the restaurant floors during the week, but I’m also moving toward more executive work.

Q: How did your career path lead you to your training and work as a sommelier?
A: It was around that same time I started with Essence Restaurant Group that I got involved with the Court of Master Sommeliers. I took my introductory exam in 2016, and I quickly followed that up with my certified sommelier exam, where I received a Best in Class certificate for the highest score. The next progression was the advanced course. There’s an application exam, which I took and passed in 2019 in Dallas, Texas. Unfortunately, my level 3 exam was delayed a little due to COVID restrictions.

Eventually, I ended up being able to take the exam in 2020 and passed. My goal is to be ready for the master sommelier exam in May, which is the next big step.

Q: Can you give a breakdown of what being a level 3 sommelier entails? What comes next for your upcoming certification?
A: The Court of Master Sommeliers are sort of the de facto governing body for wine certification as it relates to restaurants and hospitality. It’s geared toward being in a restaurant setting, and there is an emphasis on service, including the service practical component.

The exam has three parts. The first is a written theory component, which is the knowledge and history side of things. The second component is the tasting exam, where you are in a blind setting and given three red wines and three white wines, and you need to be able to conclude the grape varietal; region, country, and origin; and vintage. The third portion is the service practical. You’re in a mock restaurant setting, and you use knowledge from the other two portions to showcase how well versed you can be tableside. It’s a stressful environment to test if you can be hospitable and utilize the knowledge you’ve developed.

I’m preparing right now to achieve my fourth certification, which is the master sommelier certification. The exam and program are intensive. The first portion of the exam, which I’m getting ready to take in May, is a verbal theory test, so you sit down with one to three master sommeliers, who will ask you all kinds of questions about the world of wine.

Q: How has your opinion of Michigan-made wines formed and changed during your work as a sommelier?
A: Someone asked me a similar question about five to six years ago, and at the time, there were maybe two or three wineries that I had a lot of excitement about. There used to be a caveat where people would say, “Yeah, this wine is good — for Michigan.” In recent years that has been alleviated, and now it’s an exciting thing. A lot of progressive winemakers have jumped into the Michigan wine world and are creating some interesting wines.

I’m a big fan of Mari Vineyards, Verterra Winery, and BOS Wine. In the Southwest, there is James Lester from Wyncroft. I have a ton of respect for James; he’s helped me a lot personally, as well as Essence Restaurant Group, and he’s been someone who has championed Michigan wines for around 40 years. Every time I go and see him for a tasting, I am amazed by what he’s creating.

The push toward inclusivity is huge for the Michigan wine industry. A younger influx of winemakers is a great way to get people excited about wine.

Q: In addition to your pursuit of your next certification, do you and Essence Restaurant Group have any big plans for the coming year?
A: We’ve got some exciting plans for Grove and moving it into its next iteration. We closed for two years because of COVID, and during that time we did a massive revamp to the concept as well as a big renovation. 2023 is going to be the year of Grove! I travel a lot and eat at a lot of restaurants around the country, and Grove is truly a unique dining experience. What the culinary team and beverage team have done is so exciting. We do a lot of events, and we’re planning some interesting, intimately styled tastings. I’m excited to see who we can bring in moving into 2023.

For Essence as a whole, our sister restaurant The Green Well is undergoing a major renovation and remodel after 15 years in business, so that will be awesome to see just across the street from Grove. Bistro also just celebrated 25 years in Grand Rapids, and I could not be more pleased with the direction it continues to head in.

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