Young sommelier blazes trails


George Walker enjoys working with young people to teach them about the many career paths in the culinary industry. Courtesy Culinary Institute of Michigan

There was something special about a Châteauneuf-du-Pape that made an 18-year-old George Walker fall in love with wine.

Now, the 22-year-old is a Level 1 sommelier with aspirations of representing African-Americans in the beverage industry.

Walker encountered the French wine while volunteering at an event at the Grand Rapids Public Museum as a student of the Culinary Institute of Michigan in Muskegon. He instantaneously fell in love with the idea of wine.

“I was in awe and wanted to know what the heck this wine was and what the name meant,” Walker said. “It piqued my interest, and I dove into it and found out what it was.”

He found the wine hailed from the Rhône wine region in the southeast of France, and that there are three types of grapes grown in the region.

From there, he moved on to other wines — despite being under the legal drinking age. He couldn’t get his hands on wines outside of classes or volunteering at wine events, but that didn’t stop him. He would go to restaurants and ask questions and talk about wines with servers, only to awkwardly decline a drink as he couldn’t provide a valid I.D.

His instructors at CIM soon recognized his passion and were able to help shape his education, Walker said, beginning with a class called History of Eating and Drinking.

The class helped Walker further hone in on the idea of wine, offering a closer look at history and geography, and it gave CIM staff a better idea of what Walker wanted to do with his life.

“George is far from an average individual. He has a great individual intelligence and curiosity that the school was able to foster and guide,” said Bruce Konowalow, CIM dean of culinary. “So, so many times education fails because it does not look at the individual and tailor the education. Instead, it forces them on an education.”

As Walker continued to explore wine and instructors began to introduce more beverages into his education, he began to realize the impact of various terrains and climates on grapes, and how they affected the final product.

“I’ve always been really big into history and geography and food and culture,” Walker said. “I was able to travel the world through each different grape I could taste.”

What brought him to CIM was food — a love he learned while attending a tech center high school near Chicago. He began working at restaurants and was working a grill line at age 16.

His love for wine took another leap at Grove in Grand Rapids, where former general manager Jill Norris recognized his passion and urged him to pursue the sommelier certification. Walker began studying with a small group to take the introductory test, which he passed last year.

As he progressed toward graduation, also last year — with an associates degree, he's still pursuing a bachelor's degree —  he further deviated from the culinary, first to food and beverage or hospitality management, and now to wine sales and possibly wine production. He is a sales representative for i-lixir Beverage, a Grand Haven-based wine wholesaler and importer.

As he embarks on a career where wine will further enlighten his mind and earn him money, Walker said he can be a role model for children of all backgrounds to believe they can do anything they want — but more importantly for African-American children to look at him and see culinary fields as a path toward success.

There aren’t many African-Americans in the beverage field, and while the Court of Master Sommeliers doesn’t track the numbers, there is certainly a lack of diversity in the beverage industry that is just recently beginning to change, said DLynn Proctor, a winemaking ambassador for Australian wine producer Penfolds who also is an advanced sommelier, an instructor at San Francisco Wine School and star of the documentaries “Somm” and “Somm: Into the Bottle.”

Proctor fell in love with wine in a similar fashion to Walker, as a server at a brewery taproom and finding out wine could be a way to travel the world and connect with customers in a special way.

Now, he said, the world is shrinking, with types of foods and beverages more accessible to people of all backgrounds thanks to various restaurants, TV shows and certifications.

“There just weren’t many families dining in fine-dining restaurants. Maybe they couldn’t afford it, maybe they weren’t hip to the cuisine or weren’t interested in the beverages,” he said. “Now there are individuals who bring light to the industry and make it a cool, fun, lucrative thing. There are more eyes opening up.”

Proctor was a beacon for Walker, and now Walker wants to become one for others. He hopes to continue to work in the community, often with youth, to help further his career and others’.

This year, the city of Muskegon and Muskegon Rotary Club honored Walker with a 2016 Outstanding Citizen Award.

Walker’s community work includes being a court-appointed special advocate, where he worked with abused and neglected children and helped launch Shepherd’s Table Soup Kitchen. He started a summer camp based on the history of food and regional cultures — a spin on the class at CIM that helped him find his path.

Walker comes from a tight-knit family, where he was empowered to believe he could do anything he wanted. He said he didn’t know there weren’t many African-Americans in the culinary fields, so seeing the opportunity to be a role model in the industry means a lot to him.

“African-Americans are getting more opportunities to go to college and take on passions that weren’t readily available to us years ago,” Walker said. “If people of my color can look at me and see me as a role model, (if) a little black child from Muskegon Heights or Grand Rapids can look at me and see an opportunity to do something they didn’t know was possible, that is something for which I am eternally grateful.”

To get children thinking about careers in the food and beverage industry, Walker knows they have to start young.

Konowalow said better food education at a young age would help children see more career opportunities but more importantly the importance of eating healthier and locally, helping cut down obesity and diabetes.

The stimulation of mind from food and beverage education being introduced at an earlier age is something Proctor thinks is important for the future.

“Exposing children to Thai, Vietnamese, French, Italian, German, Swedish cooking — it does not only expand the mind, but the exposure to the palate, geography, socioeconomic subjects,” Proctor said. “We in this country are the New World and very young when it comes to that lifestyle — a lifestyle Europeans have been living for so long — and what it offers to the mind and body.”

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