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Thomas Belelieu's Master Stroke

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Thomas Belelieu's Master Stroke

After four years overseeing the wine program at Walt Disney World, Thomas Belelieu was ready for a change. He'd accomplished a lot, instituting a wine-training program for the park's restaurant managers, bringing in more than a dozen instructors from the distinguished Britain-based Court of Master Sommeliers to teach it, and certifying more than 100 sommeliers during his tenure. The theme park's reputation for good restaurants had grown, and by January 1998 Disney World was selling half a million bottles of wine a year.

But despite all this, Belelieu wanted out. "I'm not a very good corporate type," he says. "I was losing sight of my guests and wanted to get back to what I love most: serving clients in a small European-style hotel."

About the same time, the Whitehall Hotel was looking for a general manager to open its new high-end restaurant, Molive. Alcohol was already integral to the legacy of the Whitehall Club, the private dining room that preceded the hotel and once drew celebrities and wealthy Chicagoans--it was one of the first places in town to serve wine and spirits after prohibition. Belelieu took the job, determined to make the Whitehall a wine destination once again.

Belelieu, whose mother was Hungarian and father French, was exposed to wine at the age of eight. He spent his childhood summers south of Budapest working in his grandfather's vineyard, which had been in his family for centuries. "We didn't have a lot of money at the time, and when I went to visit I was put to work in the fields cutting vines," says Belelieu. "It never seemed like work to me. I loved it." He went on to study food and beverage management and hotel management in Budapest, then moved to Basel, Switzerland, in 1971, where he became a certified sommelier through the French Sommelier Society, one of the strictest certifying organizations.

In 1972 Belelieu moved to Toronto, where he managed the Windsor Arms Hotel. He eventually founded the Sommelier Guild of Canada, while also teaching and writing about wine. To keep abreast of changes in the wine industry he frequently traveled to Paris, and in 1989 he became the food and beverage director for EuroDisney. Six and a half years later he was transferred to Orlando.

Now Belelieu has another feather in his cap: he successfully lobbied the Court of Master Sommeliers to hold its five-day-long training and examination session at the Whitehall, starting April 23. In previous years the group has held these sessions only in major wine cities like San Francisco and New York.

"They consider Chicago a wine wasteland--which it is not," Belelieu says. But "they trust in my capability. They've seen what I've done with my past training programs."

Of more than 100 applicants from all over the country, 28 were accepted to compete; 11 additional participants will audit the presentations but skip the exam. The master sommelier title buys its recipients jobs at the most prestigious restaurants. There are only 105 graduates worldwide, 47 in the U.S., and only one in Chicago: Joseph Spellman, the former Charlie Trotter's sommelier who's now master sommelier for Paterno Imports. Spellman is one of a dozen masters who'll lecture at and judge the upcoming training and exam.

While the Court of Master Sommeliers holds to rigorous theoretical standards, its emphasis is on the practical. The first three days of the master session are filled with detailed lectures about viticultural practices, vinification techniques for every major wine region in the world, tasting and recognizing typical characteristics and flaws in wine, proper wine service, and the art of pairing wine with food. During the final two days, the candidates take a written exam, a blind taste test, and an oral exam covering tabletop management, cellar management, and professional customer service. In addition they must pass the "compulsories," as Spellman calls them: uncorking and decanting wine, proper glass placement, and skillful pouring.

"Having a trained sommelier who knows about not only wine quality and food pairing but also has the social and management skills to serve customers is what sets one restaurant apart from another," Spellman says. "Having a qualified sommelier is also good for the economy of a restaurant, since its bottom line can be seriously impacted by wine sales."

Belelieu himself will not lead any of the lectures; he's not a master sommelier. Nor will he be in the student body of this event, due, he says, to the fact that he knows so many of the Court instructors personally. "It's not healthy to be examined by people who know you."

He hopes that hosting the Court of Masters exam will help draw attention to Chicago restaurants. "Chicago is a sophisticated food and wine city, and it deserves recognition."

--Laura Levy Shatkin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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