My journey into the world of wine can be traced back to two women – Jill Davis and Melissa McAvoy.

I met Jill in 2014. She’d just moved to Orlando for a job with an Argentinian importer, and we started chatting when she was pouring for a tasting at The Wine Barn. She was studying for her Certified Sommelier exam at the time, and she asked if I’d like to join her blind tasting group … even though I wasn’t studying for anything and was barely more than a novice.

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Jill Davis (left) at my first-ever blind tasting, Orlando 2014.

That’s Jill. Always welcoming people into the wine community.

At that tasting at OLV wine bar (now sadly defunct), I met Melissa. She was the ringleader of the little group. She was working as a server at Citricos at Disney’s Grand Floridian, and she too was studying for her Certified. She was very forgiving about the fact that I’d brought a tempranillo (not testable on the Certified exam at the time) and about my general cluelessness. She made me feel welcome enough to keep coming back to the group, where I continued to practice my blind tasting skills. (I now rate myself a couple of notches above clueless.)

That’s Melissa. Always welcoming people into the wine community.

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Melissa McAvoy leading our blind tasting group at Orlando’s Citrus Club, 2015

Jill and Melissa both passed the Certified – to nobody’s surprise – and they’ve gone on to do great things in the wine world, in Orlando and beyond.

Jill became a sommelier at Capa at the Four Seasons and then beverage director at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House. In 2015, she was on Wine Enthusiast’s “Top 40 Under 40” list, and she was Orlando Weekly’s Best New Somm. She left O-Town for Napa in 2016, working first as a harvest intern at Failla Winery, then as Assistant GM and Beverage Director for Redd Wood in Yountville, and now as Hospitality Manager at Larkmead Vineyards.

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With Jill Davis (right) at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House, Orlando 2016

Melissa finally realized a long-held dream in 2015 when she opened Swirlery Wine Bar in SoDo with her partner in business and life, Damian Roman. This hidden gem has become a hub of the Orlando wine community. That small blind tasting group from 2014 – now much larger – has found a permanent home there. And Melissa has become a mentor to many budding wine professionals, often hosting study groups even as she serves her regular customers.

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Melissa McAvoy talks with Master Somm John Blazon at Swirlery Wine Bar, Orlando 2015

I’d venture to guess there are quite a few people besides me in the Orlando area who can also trace their wine journeys back to one or both of these amazing women.

So it’s fitting that they’ll be back together next week in Portland, Oregon to take the Advanced Somm exam.

This is no small feat. The Advanced is the third of four exams given by the Court of Master Sommeliers, and it’s a big jump up from Level 2 (Certified). Only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of people who apply to take the test each year are accepted. It’s surprisingly hard to track down just how many Advanced Somms there are, but from the research I’ve done, I’d say it’s in the hundreds worldwide. This is a very elite group that Melissa and Jill are hoping to join. I can think of no better candidates.

All of us in the Orlando wine community wish them well!

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