Yono’s Dominick Purnomo is already an accomplished sommelier at age 22
By DOUG BLACKBURN, Staff writer
First published: Wednesday, May 14, 2003
Dominick Purnomo, one of the youngest sommeliers in the United States, is a big believer in tradition.
He insists on sampling a freshly opened bottle before a customer tastes the wine. Purnomo performs this ritual dozens of times on a busy evening at Yono’s, his family’s restaurant. He always uses a tastevin, the dimpled silver cup attached to a chain that he wears around his neck, to test the wine.
If Purnomo approves of the wine — and more than nine times out of 10 he does — he will pour a taste for the person ordering the wine.
“I don’t want people to spend their hard-earned money on wine they’re not going to enjoy, especially if the wine is my recommendation,” Purnomo explains. “I don’t want them having to decide if a bottle is corked or off in some other way.”
Purnomo is also the maitre d’ at Yono’s. A commanding presence at 6-foot-2, the handsome, dark-haired young man regularly dresses in a black tuxedo.
Purnomo is certainly the country’s most accomplished 22-year-old sommelier. He is the youngest to have passed the first level of the master sommelier testing series. This Saturday, he will be one of nine regional winners in Miami vying for the national title in a young sommeliers competition hosted by La Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs, a food and wine society.
The age cutoff is 32 and to be eligible participants must be 23 during the year of the competition. Purnomo, whose birthday is June 13, was disappointed he couldn’t take part last year, when he reached the legal drinking age.
Undergoing the tests
The Northeast regional was held in Boston in February. Purnomo was one of only two taking part in the daylong examination that featured a written test on spirits and wine followed by two blind tastings of six glasses of wines. They were also given three menus and told to pair wines to them, explaining their reasoning.
“Am I nervous taking part in a national competition? Sure, I’m a little anxious,” says Purnomo, who could easily pass for 30. “But for me, the camaraderie is a big part of it, getting together with other people in the industry and comparing what we do.
“I love wine. I really, really do. I don’t just love to drink wine, I love to read about wine and talk about it. You can never know it all with wine. Sometimes it seems like the more you learn the more there is to know. It’s a never-ending journey.”
Purnomo began this journey at an earlier age than most people. His parents, Donna and Yono Purnomo, are one of the most prominent restaurant families in the region. Before moving in 1999 to the Armory Center where they run Yono’s and Bumpers Cafe as well as two banquet rooms, they owned the intimate Indonesian/continental restaurant Yono’s on Hamilton Street in downtown Albany for almost 15 years.
A 1998 graduate of Shaker High, Dominick Purnomo began working in the family restaurant when he was in elementary school. When he was 9 years old he would don a tuxedo and cummerbund and join his mother at the front of the house, handing out menus and escorting customers to their table.
When the family gathered for dinner on Sundays, wine was always part of the event. Purnomo and his younger sister, Alexandra (now a student at the University at Albany), were encouraged to taste the wine. Allowing children to sample wine at the dinner table may not be common in this country, but it is in much of the world.
By the time he was in high school, Purnomo was convinced that there was one way his parents’ restaurant could be improved: a better, more expansive wine list. He shared this observation with his father, who encouraged him to make suggestions.
“The kid took the challenge and decided he loved, loved it, loved it,” Donna Purnomo says. “The wine list he put together was more than just impressive. It earned a Wine Spectator award of excellence its very first year.
“Nick has an amazing palate. He seems to remember every wine he’s ever tasted. Yono and I now defer to him with all the wines, and we’ll seek him out for his opinion. When it comes to wines and Nick, I call him Rain Man.”
Yono Purnomo believes his son has his palate. Yono is a native of Indonesia, a Muslim country where alcohol is forbidden. He didn’t taste wine until he was 23, but he remembers he was a quick study with what is fondly called the nectar of the gods.
“When I was young, I had a great palate too,” he says. “You can only taste so much, though, and then it’s gone. I have nothing to do with choosing the wine anymore. I give Nick 130 percent carte blanche to do what he wants to do. I’m really proud of him.”
Into the business
Dominick Purnomo was in many ways a normal teenager. He was on the high school football team. He played the saxophone, fiddled some with the guitar.
When he went to the State University College at Morrisville in the fall of 1998, his parents thought it might be the beginning of a career in law. They thought they had successfully convinced their oldest child not to follow in their footsteps.
They were initially dismayed when he gravitated toward that school’s hospitality and culinary arts program.
“I tried to talk him out of this business,” Yono says. “I screamed and yelled. I said, ‘Don’t you see your father and mother work like a dog every day and have no life?’ I think he loves this business from the front of the house, where it looks glamorous even if it’s not.”
Purnomo says he always knew he would be in the restaurant and hospitality business. It’s a perfect fit for him. He enjoys people, good food and wine.
His ambition is to be a certified master sommelier, a daunting goal to be sure, because there are only 107 in the world. It’s a three-part process that is incrementally tougher at each level.
Purnomo has successfully completed the first stage, but doesn’t expect to attempt the five-day second step until sometime next year. There is a 3.3 percent pass rate for that step. The third and final stage is by invitation only.
“I’m pretty confident that one day I’ll be a master sommelier, I just don’t know when. I don’t know if it’ll be by my 30th birthday or my 50th birthday.
“Everybody wants to excel in their career. It’s like going for a doctorate in whatever your field is. It’s the highest education level you can attain. That’s what being a master sommelier is like.”
Age no issue
Thomas Burke, the 35-year-old sommelier at Friends Lake Inn in Chestertown, is taking the second part of the sommelier certification this summer. He and Purnomo belong to the guild of master sommeliers and see each other regularly at seminars and tastings.
Burke believes Purnomo’s age is a nonissue. “Nick has a sincere passion for food and wine,” he says. “You see it when you talk to him. It’s not just 9-to-5 for him, it’s what he does. I think Nick has a real sincere interest in knowing as much as possible.”
Purnomo is beginning to plan a working vacation to California’s wine country. He wants to go to Napa or Sonoma for a couple of weeks when the grapes are being picked and crushed, and to return the following year for bottling.
“I want to take everything in, to be hands on, to trim the vines, to be part of making the wine in every facet,” he says. “I get excited just thinking about it.
“Wine is my passion. It’s that simple. I’m not an accountant who loves wine at night. I love wine 24 hours a day, and I’m fortunate enough to have wine be my career.”
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