"I don't really drink white wine. It's kind of sour," he recalls saying. Then he took a sip. "Oh my God, that's incredible."
The revelation soon became an obsession. The film school grad found himself consumed with not just grapes and growers, but also the styles and historical movements of viticulture and vinification. His wife, whose approach to wine he describes as more "hedonistic," was floored. "She was like, 'Look at the way you're organizing these things. You need to take a class.'"
For a subsequent birthday, Burkey received a series of entry-level professional courses with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), a London-based organization that offers coursework internationally. Roughly a decade later, the director and co-founder of the Wine Institute of New Orleans (W.I.N.O.) is on the verge of completing his Diploma in Wine and Spirits, the WSET's preeminent degree.
"The course is made to be done long distance," says Burkey, sitting on a barstool inside his Warehouse District shop, where he currently administers WSET classes. "I've got a number of my (advanced) students who have enrolled in Diploma. I'll end up tutoring them."
W.I.N.O.'s students range from beverage sales reps and service industry workers to oenophiles seeking more knowledge about their hobby. The classes start with recreational topics, tackled weekly; move on to the eight-week Intermediate course, held three times yearly; and top out at advanced certification, a 16-week process offered annually. (A diploma necessitates an authorized school such as the International Wine Center in Manhattan, where Burkey studied under Mary Ewing-Mulligan, North America's first female Master of Wine. Conferred by the U.K.'s Institute of Masters of Wine, the MW qualification is an even rarer accomplishment, with only 275 worldwide.)
"Intermediate is a great course," Burkey says. "It doesn't get too detailed on any one area, but you learn about everything: viticulture, vinification, all the major grape varieties, sparkling wines, dessert wines, spirits, fortified wines. There's no gap."
The intermediate classes are dominated by women and waiters, he adds. "I did a number of them that were all girls with one guy. But even the people that were not in the wine business still were looking to use their knowledge in a business framework. They wanted to be able to go to a dinner, and if the wine list landed in their lap, they wanted to know what they were talking about and to order with some level of confidence."
Michelle Gueydan, sommelier for the Besh Restaurant Group, was in exactly that position years earlier. Working as an event planner in Washington, D.C., she constantly was in search of ways to impress potential real estate investors. "One such way was with fabulous wine and food pairings," Gueydan says. "I went to WSET thinking maybe I would work [toward] a writing and food profession."
She fell in love with the restaurant world instead, serving as assistant sommelier for chefs Jonathan Krinn (2941 Restaurant) and Patrick O'Connell (The Inn at Little Washington). The latter paid for Gueydan to pursue an introductory certificate from the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), the Harvard to WSET's Yale. Having gotten a taste of both wine programs, she points out some distinct differences.
"Service (is) No. 1," Gueydan says. "There's more of a focus on tasting components (at CMS), and how the food and drink come together as one. I found [WSET's advanced track] to be pretty technical. ... [It's recommended ] if you're interested in the farming or technical aspects, or even in-depth writing. Bryan, the courses he's teaching, they seem like they're more geared toward the tasting aspects."
Burkey says his goal with W.I.N.O. is to enhance people's enjoyment of wine. Bolstering the expertise of area restaurant workers is an added bonus. "There's room for improvement," he admits. "Service is fine, but the knowledge is not there. That's not true of New Orleans; that's just true. You still get it in New York."
He draws a direct line from knowledge to confidence to increased sales, a theory Gueydan puts into practice nightly at Restaurant August and La Provence. Even still, she says, for tableside service standards, nothing beats hands-on experience.
"I don't want to lower the importance of education," Gueydan says. "I was self-taught a lot over the years. But I do find — and Bryan probably finds as well, coming from New York — there haven't been as many educational opportunities offered in this area. It kind of scared me at first, moving back. I had so many opportunities in the D.C. area to sit in on educational series on Bordeaux, Burgundy or Italy, seven-week programs throughout the year. I'm happy Bryan's bringing that to us."