Jill Bruce was six when her father moved the family to the Rolling Acres neighborhood in Talbott, and, through the years, the ingredients of what makes Bruce who she is today were mixed together and she, like some of the wines she studies, is something more than just the sum of those influences.

After a career spanning decades in industrial electric sales, she now pursues her passion as a sommelier.

“Like so many other people in 2012, I got laid off after a thirty-something year career,” Bruce said. “So I decided I needed to pursue something I was passionate about. In 2013, I went and took my first (sommelier) class and passed it. In 2014, I went back and got my executive sommelier certification.”

A sommelier (pronounced “suh-muhl-yay”) is a trained wine expert when it comes to wine selection and pairings, as well as the service needed to properly serve the wine. They are often found in fine dining establishments co-ordinating with executive chefs on menu selections and pairings.

Bruce said it is never too late to pursue your passion, even if you’re retired.

She pursued her education, including in-person classes in Denver, through the International Wine Guild, whose programs have been recognized by the Wall Street Journal.

As the pandemic changed how many schools operated, more courses became available to Bruce to continue her sommelier education further. She said it would not be pragmatic to become a master sommelier due to required, prolonged travel to Europe and years of study needed for those pursuing the highest level designation in the profession. But the highest level coursework was now at her fingertips and she sensed the opportunity to further her goals to pursue her chosen craft with excellence.

“I’m taking the master (level) classes,” she said. “The exam is a three part test- and what gets everybody is the blind taste test. It trips people up”

Sprawled out over her kitchen are charts that describe in fine detail the characteristics of all sorts of wines, and more study aides centered around the dining table where she spends her time working through the material.

Bruce said that a properly trained individual can absolutely tell the differences in the characteristics and qualities of particular wines.

“You can tell,” she said, “There’s big differences between wines. It’s all a matter of training.”

She said it takes a lot of exposure to many different smells and tastes to learn to recognize and describe the qualities of wines and that there are over 10,000 chemical compounds that can be found in wine.

“You smell what you know, and that’s where people fall down... ...someone might not know the difference between all the types of cherries (and their flavors),” she said. “An expert wine evaluator is going to know the difference.”

While embracing all of the technical aspects of evaluating wines is clearly a point of professional pride, Bruce said the human element is what attracts her to wine in the first place.

“The thing about wine, when you are drinking wine, is you’re usually with friends,” she said. “You’re usually having fun and it’s usually a happy experience.”

Like a mother with many children, Bruce refuses to name favorites. She says wine and how much she enjoys it is based on pairing the drink with the right food, or, to put it another way, “food comes first.”

She digs into every dish she can to find out exactly what kind of spices are going to be present, and works with whomever she can to make sure that the experience of drinking wine elevates the overall culinary atmosphere at whatever meal she is consulting on.

All of the “deep dive” into the nuance of flavor is directed toward making sure the guest at the table has an unforgettable element, and Bruce said all of the technical training in the world is not going to help if the service in the curated experience is bad.

“The part of being a sommelier, that most people don’t know, is the service aspect,” she said. “When you’re a sommelier, you have to know the full service part. That’s why restaurants hire sommelier rather than just a master wine expert.”

Bruce said she is glad she has found her passion to pursue and would like the same for everyone, regardless of age or circumstance.

“When you are young, you are juggling marriage, kids, trying to build a career and sometimes you forget what truly makes you happy,” she said. “At the age of 54, I started my new journey, and yep- it takes time, but now, I am semi-retired, it is all worth it. Like Daddy said, ‘You are never too old to learn and continuing education is also a way to use the muscle we call a brain.’”