When Michele Konopi was a little girl, she wanted to be an artist. However, she just wasn't artistically inclined.
Luckily, though, she fell in love with food while working at a bakery and studying genetic engineering at Rutgers University.
"Food is living art that you can eat," Konopi said. "I could do that. Plus, there's some science. It's food chemistry."
So, she went to the premier Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York to be a chef. Instead, she found she had a knack for one of the school's toughest required classes on wine.
And, ever since, Konopi has been turning that talent for studying wine into an art.
A Level 2 Certified Sommelier and Certified Specialist of Wine at Savona Restaurant in Gulph Mills for the last three years, the 26-year-old was recently the youngest of 12 attendees at the SommFoundation's Somm Camp in Napa Valley, California, she's working on her Wine and Spirit Education Trust certification, and has been selected to compete in the 17th Annual Chaîne des Rôteisseurs’ Best Young Sommeliers competition in 2018 for sommeliers under 31.
The oldest such national competition in America under the world's largest wine and food society, the contest is led by a panel of Master Sommelier and Masters of Wine judges and includes an initial qualifying test online, and in-person regional tests in nine Chaîne regions across the nation between January and April, all culminating in a national final in Paso Robles, California in May 2018.
The winner will be invited to the international finals in Mexico City in September.
"It's incredibly humbling," said Konopi. "There's definitely benefits with experience, and I don't feel weird or awkward asking my peers for advice. I get to see the challenges other sommeliers deal with, and I look up to them. There are a lot of talented sommeliers in the Philly area, and it's an unbelievable community. I'm borrowing the lessons they've learned. They inspire me."
And, they motivate her.
That's part of the reason why she plans on taking the Court of Master Sommeliers Advanced Level Exam if she's eligible in 2019. After that, she's going after the Master Level.
Established in 1977, the Court of Master Sommeliers is known throughout the hospitality business worldwide for educating the most qualified in the industry.
Since the organization's inception, 149 professionals have earned the title Master Sommelier in America - that's 125 men, and 24 women - and 236 worldwide. The exams test a sommelier's tasting skills, wine, spirits and beer knowledge, and service.
After all, there's an artful technique to picking out the perfect vintage to match a meal. Just like a painting, your favorite drink is your flavor profile, or Konopi's color palette. Her paintbrush strokes mix and match that with your food.
"Wine should always be the whipped cream on a sundae, and enhance the meal, never overwhelm it," she said. "It's supposed to make your experience elevated, not intimidating. It should be fun. It's artfully made grape juice. Wine and food should make each other better, like people."
Besides being responsible for Savona's wine list, Konopi also concocts the restaurant's cocktails, and hosts tasting every Friday night. Her only ground rule is to have an open mind as you learn the entertaining chemistry behind the best way to taste and smell vino.
"It's not about what I want, it's what they want, what makes them happy, and their experience better," she said.
Besides what wine Konopi craves can depend. A self-described "cork dork," her Yorkipoo’s name is Riesling. But, she loves dissecting a good red, too.
"What ends up in the bottle is somebody's dream," she said. "It's the equivalent to chiseling a marble block. There's a vision, getting to that end, of how the wine tastes. That's remarkable and always fascinates me. Art is alive and transcends time. Nobody wants to eat a 20-year-old egg, but a wine 20 years in the making is still breathing."