When Cristie Norman registered to take the Court of Master Sommeliers Introductory Exam, it posed a peculiar problem for the educational body. Candidates must be 21 to register, but Norman was only 20 and wanted to take the test just a few days after her 21st birthday.
After some administrative wrangling, she was able to sit for the exam on her preferred date. She completed the paper in five minutes and passed.
It’s safe to say most 21-year-olds aren’t interested enough in wine to take this exam, never mind pass it — in fact, Norman’s situation may have been the Court’s first time dealing with such a predicament. Her trajectory as a sommelier has been similarly singular.
Norman, now 25, helps oversee a 20,000-bottle cellar at Spago, Wolfgang Puck’s flagship restaurant in Beverly Hills. She’s also a wine “influencer” with close to 30K Instagram followers, and she utilizes the platform to promote a proprietary line of wine-inspired apparel.
In 2019, Norman launched her latest oenological venture, an online wine course she describes as a “driver’s ed” for total beginners. Through the course, Norman hopes to empower consumers with knowledge that will help them enjoy wine more and arm them with a vocabulary that will improve communication with sommeliers so they always end up with the right bottle.
VinePair spoke with Norman about her favorite Los Angeles wine bar, Pinot Noir’s potential as a partner, and why there’s a bottle of gas station wine sitting in her refrigerator right now.
1. What’s the bottle that made you fall in love with wine?
[A] 2010 Paderewski Zinfandel by Saxum in Paso Robles. One of my favorite guests at the steakhouse I was working at brought it in for dinner and gave me a taste; it was the first wine that really made me see how beautiful and balanced great wine can be. I actually got a little glass of red wine tattooed on my right ring finger shortly after that experience and I say that it’s that Zinfandel in the glass.
2. FMK three varieties: Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay?
F: Chardonnay. There’s such a wide range of Chardonnay styles, but it’s just not my preferred varietal.
M: Pinot Noir. Pinot is so versatile for food [pairings] and is honestly my favorite varietal, hands down. I’m a little obsessed.
K: Cabernet. I don’t really like Cabernet Sauvignon to be honest. Of course, there are exceptions, but typically I prefer to drink lower alcohol, less palate-fatiguing varieties. [Cabernet Sauvignon] can have a lot of tannins, a lot of acid, and a lot of alcohol all at once.
3. You’re on death row. What’s your last-supper wine?
’61 Haut Brion — 1961 is a legendary Bordeaux vintage. When people [talked to me about] how amazing ’61 wines were, it made me roll my eyes… until I tried it myself. I worked a 1961 Bordeaux lunch and all of the first growths and a few second growths were insane. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. Haut Brion was my favorite, with Margaux [a] close second.
4. You can only drink one wine for the rest of your life. What is it?
Grenache. Any grenache will do. Strawberry bramble wine.
5. You can only drink at one bar for the rest of your life. What is it?
Bar Covell in Los Angeles. They have something like 80 wines by the glass, and there’s no menu. You have to describe what you feel like drinking and the somm figures it out. It’s the only wine bar where I don’t feel like I’m working.
6. What’s the best and worst wine on your rack (or in your fridge) right now?
Best wine is Torbreck Runrig Shiraz from Barossa that is really, really exceptional. Worst wine is the gas station wine I bought for a photo shoot. I never waste good wine for photos.
7. If you could no longer drink wine, what would be your beverage of choice?
I really love sour beer. Russian River Brewing makes a sour cherry beer that is really great and kicked off my obsession.