10 Questions: James Tidwell Of Four Seasons

He was the 100th American wine professional to earn the title of Master Sommelier, but that's not the only thing Tidwell can be proud of.

After graduating from LSU with a degree in international trade and finance, this son of a small town preacher set off for culinary school at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. He and Barbara Werley of Pappas Bros. are, in fact, the only CIA grads to earn Master Sommelier designation. Tidwell also founded the Texas Sommelier Conference with Werley's colleague, Drew Hendricks.

Before joining Cafe on the Green at the Four Seasons, Tidwell worked at restaurants in New Jersey and California--all pretty good for a guy who started out on a bottle of white zin...

1. So are you glad the Byron Nelson is over with?
For me personally, it's really interesting. A lot of people think they can't get in when they actually can. We have a good time. It's tiring, so in one respect I'm glad, but we have a great time.

2. What's the most difficult dish you've paired wine to?
At my previous job we did a five-course tasting menu every night. One night the chef did sweetbreads with artichokes, asparagus and capers. That was probably the most difficult. If you can figure that one out, you deserve master sommelier. I chose a Provencal white.

3. So what would you pick for asparagus?
I find that richer wines, but not oaked wines--white--work well. Pinot Gris, Gerwurztraminer, some of the Italian wihtes, even Santorini--though you have to be careful with it. You want depth and richness, but not the clashing flavor.

4. How difficult is it to become a wine expert?
It depends on how you define 'expert.' For the title of sommelier, there's no regulation on the term. You could put it on your business card. And I don't expect my guests to know everything about wine, either. When a surgeon starts to discuss brain surgery, I know some of the words, but not everything. That's why wine certification has become so important in our industry. How do you prove you know what you know? Certification. But that takes reading, tasting and a lot of study. It's very much like any other industry.

5. What percentage of wine can you really sample?
We have a unique opportunity, being in this industry. Buyers and distributors allow us to try different wines. We are in a great position. Wine touches so many areas of the world and you meet so many people who want to share.

6. Boone's Farm--ever tried that?
I tried Boone's Farm years ago. I've never tried Mad Dog. But I grew up in a non-drinking family. I didn't start until college, and that was white Zinfandel. I think white zin is a great wine...although taken out of context that could make me look bad. But think of how many people started drinking wine because of white zin. Everybody has to start somewhere.

7. What does your family think of your profession?
They are fine with it. I'm the son of a preacher. What did it for him was when he was sitting in the airport and opened D magazine. They had a story about me and Drew. Then he was fine with it. But until three years ago they were introducing me as a chef.

8. Didn't you try the 'water into wine' angle?
No, no, no. I've used it occasionally, but it wasn't really necessary.

9. Is LSU more than just a party school?
I did my share of that. But the business degree has been extremely helpful to me throughout my career. I did learn something, apparently, because I can read a financial statement. I recommend people get business and culinary experience is they're going into wine.

10. Can you cheat on the master sommelier exam?
No, not that I know of. I've never figured it out. If I knew how, I might have tried. That test is as objective as any test I've ever had. I don't know how you could cheat on it. You might get lucky guessing in some cases, but I don't think you can get lucky that often, either. You have to know what you're doing. I took the exam four times.

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