People You Should Know: Hanging Out With Petra Polakovicova
If you’ve seen the movie Somm, you know that the sommelier profession isn’t what it used to be.
Not too long ago sommeliers could be found only in the fanciest of restaurants, usually those of the French persuasion. Not anymore. In the last few years America’s love affair with wine has generated renewed interest in the profession, and today sommeliers can be found at restaurants all over the U.S. Many of these sommeliers got their training through professional schools and certificate courses, and more than a few have attempted the excruciatingly hard Master Sommelier Diploma Exam depicted in Somm. Our own Desi Echavarrie is one of the very few sommeliers who have passed this legendary exam. Today, more and more young people are becoming sommeliers. Which brings our story to Petra Polakovicova, a friend of Realm’s who is the Wine Director at Epic Roasthouse in San Francisco.
Juan met Petra at Epic about six years ago. She was the assistant sommelier and we were having a Release Party there. A native of the Slovak Republic, Petra grew up in a close-knit family that “valued meal times, proper dining etiquette and gracious hospitality.” Petra’s grandmother was a hotel cook, known all over town for her roast duck, and Petra spent many happy childhood hours as sous chef for her mother, herself a passionate hostess and cook. “We were always entertaining people in my house,” says Petra. “It was one of the ways my mom taught me to respect different cultures.”
Petra’s family also traveled extensively and Petra loved nothing better than to eat good food and explore the beautiful hotels where the family stayed. “My father always wanted me to try something new, caviar, sweetbreads. It was a great education.” She also gained an appreciation for locally-sourced, seasonal foods. “Everything my mother prepared was from scratch; we never had fast food. We even brought our own recycled bags to the market; I can’t believe that’s a “new” thing over here.”
When she was 18 Petra came to the U.S. and though she initially intended to become a translator (she studied four languages in high school), she fell into (and hard for) the California restaurant industry. “Hospitality was just in my blood,” she says. She spent several years at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, where she held every job from runner to server to bartender to hostess to assistant manager. Then it was on to positions at the W San Francisco and The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco. Along the way, however, she developed a fascination with wine – “another way of exploring cultures” – and enrolled in the Professional Culinary Institute in Campbell, California.
In 2007, after earning her Sommelier Certification, Petra landed her first full-time sommelier job at Epic Roasthouse, where she was named assistant sommelier. Within a year and a half she was promoted to wine director and overseeing Epic’s 450-bottle wine list – a list that won the restaurant a Best of Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator. It was a job she loved, in part because it put her directly in contact with people working in the wine industry. “I love every stage of the process, from the people who take care of the vines, to the winemaker in the cellar to the folks who shepherd the wine to restaurants and hotels,” says Petra. “I try to get that across to my customers, that a great bottle of wine is a result of many people’s hard work, of incredible teamwork.”
It was during her time at Epic that Petra started working toward the Court of Master Sommelier’s (CMS) Advanced Sommelier Certification, the third level of CMS’ Master Sommelier certification program. She had easily passed the first and second level exams, but the Advanced Sommelier exam was exponentially more difficult. In September 2014, having moved to The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay to take a position as Lead Sommelier, Petra passed the exam, becoming one of only 325 Advanced Sommeliers in the U.S.
“(It)… was one of the most difficult things I have ever done,” said Petra, who moved back to Epic in March of 2015 to take the job as the Wine Director “When the Master Sommelier called me in and told me that I had passed, I was so excited. It was such an incredible feeling; it was like a dream. It took a few days for it to really sink in. I guess I am proof that if you really want something, you can achieve it with a lot of hard work and dedication.”