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Omaha Magazine

Through the Grapevine

Apr 26, 2023 03:00PM ● By Julius Fredrick
sara wiebold

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Today, the word ‘symposium’ calls to mind conference rooms, poster boards, and the presentation of research—typically by sober academics, if not, by those who can hold their liquor quietly. But to the greatest minds of ancient Athens, a symposium was an epicurean affair, the ingredients of a dialectic worth its thesis requiring: music, dance, discourse, and most importantly, wine, as made famous by Plato’s tipsy treatise on love, Symposium. In fact, the word symposium translates to “to drink together” from Attic Greek. 

While fashion trends, art styles, dogma, and forms of government change with the centuries, Western civilization moves by a steady pulse; an aorta flowing red with wine. Whether over stems of crystal, goblets of brass, or the ceramic kylix of antiquity, wine spills into nearly every era and epoch. Dionysus, the Olympian demigod of wine and festivity, cuts a striking profile—a crown of laurels and grapes adorn him, sparkling from the lapel of certified sommelier Sara Wiebold.

“To me, a sommelier is essentially a wine steward, someone that helps teach people around them about the wide world of wine—about quality levels and tradition,” Wiebold said. “It’s so steeped in history and geography, and that’s how we taste. People call it a ‘parlor trick’ to smell a wine and go ‘oh, this is pinot noir and it’s from here.’ It’s knowing climate, terroir, winemaking style…there’s a lot of tradition.”

In truth, what appears to the uninitiated as magic is the result of a monastic reverence for viniculture—the minute intricacies of cultivating grapes and making wine—and the focused, yet multifaceted, expertise of its disciples. For sommeliers of Wiebold’s constitution, the science of wine is equal to custom—not only for her continuing education, but her vision of a Nebraska AVA (American Viticultural Area) designation.  

“I’m in the Nebraska Winery and Grape Growers Association, the NWGGA […] I’m part of their wine quality advancement and sweetness scale committee, and we’re trying to build consumer trust by coming up with a statewide sweetness scale for a couple different grapes,” Wiebold explained. “Here in Nebraska, we do a lot of fruit wines, and non-vinifera, or hybrid French grapes. On a chemistry/molecular level, a lot of the tannin acid structure that makes wine age-able and keeps wine alive in the bottle falls below optimal levels, so they’re not a complex as some of your traditional vinifera [grapes]—but they get better every year.”

Wiebold is counted among Nebraska’s viniculture vanguard, laying the foundation for the state’s burgeoning terroir (the unique natural environment wherein a particular wine is produced) through grape vetting, vineyard stewardship, and tireless enthusiasm for the region’s uncorked potential. More than zeal alone, her optimism is tempered by years of experience.

“It was the same in Missouri when I was there,” Wiebold said, reflecting on her time managing 801 Fish in St. Louis, a fine dining cousin of Omaha’s 801 Chophouse focused on seafood and a 2017 Wine Spectator ‘Best of Award of Excellence’ wine list she curated. “I had Missouri grapes on my wine list, and each year I would have more guests asking for them—which was shocking at the time—but it’s part of the reason I know Nebraska wines can continue getting better in quality.

“We’re still on the first generation of winemakers in Nebraska, and in the next five to 10 years we’ll see a jump in quality as a new generation joins in.”

Wiebold was born and raised in Omaha, and it was at the local 801 Chophouse that she initially developed a taste for hospitality in 2015. Encouraged by early success and co workers, Weibold took the introductory sommelier course and exam proctored by the North American branch of The Court of Master Sommeliers, mostly out of curiosity and for the challenge—to her initial surprise, she passed. A new passion was born, and Wiebold sat for and passed the Court’s certified sommelier examination in 2017, a much greater commitment and feat that substantially bolstered her influence over 801 Fish’s wine list. Today, she’s the beverage manager and onsite sommelier at the Arbor Day Foundation’s Lied Lodge and adjoining Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City. Still, Weibold’s return to Omaha was paved with uncertainty, especially since she was packing for two. 

“I was pregnant, and it was COVID, and all hospitality was very bleak…” she reflected. “Yeah, you’re super pregnant, you’re sober, and you’re like ‘wow, I don’t even know if I’m going to have a job anymore.’”

Thankfully, Wiebold, with fiancé Brandon Ginsburg, stuck the landing. Their two daughters, Scarlett, 4, and Marlowe, 2, are sources of inspiration—albeit, demanding ones at times—for Wiebold, 33, as she eyes the green pin of an advanced, or level III, sommelier. Acheiving this level opens the door to the penultimate stage: Master Sommelier, numbering 168 individuals in the Americas and just 25 women among their ranks.

“I got accepted into the advanced course in 2019, was one of only 160 that got accepted that year across the country,” she said. “You have to take that course before you can apply to take the theory exam […] They don’t want you to fail, but it has a notoriously low pass rate.”

Of the Advanced Sommelier Diploma Examination’s three sections—theory, tasting, and practical service—theory is considered the most difficult. The exam is connected to a rather dire statistic: a 25% average pass rate. At time of writing, Wiebold is preparing to take the exam’s theory portion on April 17, 2023.

“Always stay humble,” Wiebold urged, toward finding success in one’s career. “Always be hungry to learn. Don’t put someone down because they don’t know something you know. Seek things out for yourself.

“It seems hard to get into, but really, you just start taking those first steps—and [then] it’s easy to get addicted to it all.” 

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This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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