Published February 01. 2014 4:00AM Updated February 02. 2014 11:07AM
A computer engineer isn't normally who I'd ask for wine suggestions, but if it's Tony Ambrosini of Niantic, I'll pay attention.
Ambrosini could be a real wine snob if he wanted to be. He returned last week from a whirlwind trip to London where the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) presented him its wine diploma and recognized his high scores on the final exam.
A WSET Diploma is a big deal in the world of wines. It is an intensive study of the foundations of wine production, the global business and of wines, including sparkling and fortified, and spirits. The top rung of a series of certifications, it is designed to prepare people to go forth in the wines and spirits business.
Ambrosini didn't start studying wines with that in mind. After getting degrees in electrical and computer engineering, he worked in electronic componentry sales and product support for sales teams and business clients. When his wife, Jo, a chemical engineer with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, had their first son six years ago, he became the stay-at-home parent.
Jo noticed Tony had a pretty good knack for pairing food and wine. She suggested he look into wine schools for intellectual stimulation that fit his new schedule.
"Give it a try, the worst thing that could happen would be you'd know what to bring home for dinner," she told him. Before long, he was pouring high-end northern Italian wines at large-scale trade tastings in New Jersey and deep into researching the wines.
WSET, headquartered in London, England, approves which schools around the world can offer its courses. Ambrosini registered at the International Wine Center in New York. He could study online and submit his research papers electronically, but had to take his exams at the center.
The family's second son arrived almost three years ago as Ambrosini was advancing through wine certifications, and Jo was on the track to be named senior resident inspector at Millstone in Waterford. Once the family got settled here in 2012, Ambrosini plowed into his last course, the seven-month-long Wines of the World unit. It involves tasting a lot of wines to develop one's palate.
"I noticed this guy coming into the shop, with a small child, asking for very interesting wines that are not the norm," says Ken Turcotte, the owner of Divine Wine Emporium and Learning Center, up the road from Rocky Neck State Park. Turcotte has put on more than 250 wine seminars over the past 11 years in the dedicated wine education room next to the store, helping customers discover and appreciate wines from around the world. He proudly displays his WSET level 3 certificate, which is one step below the revered diploma, in the store.
"Many people in the wine industry have high regard for the WSET program; it is very intense. I respect Tony's knowledge; it's more in-depth than mine," says Turcotte, who is a Certified Specialist of Wine through the American Society of Wine Educators.
Turcotte is tickled to have a wine expert, one who's equally comfortable with technology and the Internet, literally around the corner. He's created a position for Ambrosini that includes social media as well as wine advice.
Some days Ambrosini will be resident wine expert in the store, but a good amount of the time he'll work from home, researching and writing about wines and keeping up the store's social media presence.
Ambrosini looks forward to ramping up Divine Wine's electronic content with more updates and graphics, more frequent emails and Facebook postings. There will be more wines of the week tastings and discussions in the store and online. He and Turcotte tweeted the details of their first Port tasting last Tuesday evening.
"People want to know what kind of food goes with wines; what kind of occasion to serve something," Ambrosini says. "Nothing over the top, or all poetic-sounding. We want to use words that make sense."
Another project the two are planning is to turn Turcotte's six-hour Wine 101 course into a book that other wine shops and connoisseurs can use to teach their own clientele about wine.
"Tony is that set of educated eyes who can oversee the course, expand it and help me put it into book format," says Turcotte, who also likes to entertain clients with his collection of cork screws and sometimes plays his guitar in the shop. In warmer weather, the shop has featured performing artists on the deck.
Turcotte says there are online wine-tasting courses out there, but nothing beats tasting a wine while learning about its history and how it is produced and being able to ask questions about it.