By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Dec 18, 2008 at 2:39 PM

Every day, it seems that Brew City folks pop more and more corks. And Milwaukee's growing passion for wine owes a lot to some passionate folks who work hard to share their knowledge and enthusiasm for the grape and its bounty.

Two of those people are Toni Johnson, a former sommelier at Lake Park Bistro, and Nate Norfolk, who cut his teeth in the business working in retail at Downer Wine and Spirits.

They now work as salespeople for Purple Feet Wines in the Milwaukee area and together they are launching Professional Wine Consultants.

"This summer a few people had started to ask me to do classes for them at the same time Nate and I had started to talk about putting together a business model for teaching, seminars, corporate events and whatever else," says Johnson.

"We finalized the name of the company, Professional Wine Consultants, and hired a web designer at the beginning of September and we were off to the races.

"This city has a reputation nationally of being a beer and brat town and who in larger cities would think that there was a thriving group of wine professionals here?"

Norfolk says the new company allows the pair to get out in public a little more that they do in their positions at Purple Feet.

"Professional Wine Consultants gives us a platform that is more visible to the general public than our wholesale jobs," says Norfolk. "We work with caterers and restaurateurs to set up private wine-themed events."

Johnson and Norfolk -- both "official" sommeliers -- met for the first time in their previous jobs, Johnson recalls.

Johnson had recently passed her first test with the Court of Master Sommeliers and was beginning to prepare to take the advanced test.

"I contacted every one I knew of in town to form a tasting group because I knew that the blind tasting was part of the exam," she remembers.

"Initially I contacted (former Downer Wine owner) Tom Vaughn and he -- in a round about way -- that he wasn't interested but his employee, Nate Norfolk, might be. So I went into the shop and introduced myself and asked him if he would be interested in forming a tasting group and he said yes. So for about six months we got together with an assorted group and then it just fell apart."

The two stayed in touch and Norfolk, too, decided to start climbing the Court of Master Sommeliers' ladder of certification exams.

"I would go into Downer periodically and say hi. At that time my Purple Feet rep was a guy named Kent and in April 2007, he told me he was leaving and that Nate Norfolk was taking his place. So Nate became my rep for Purple Feet at Lake Park and we started up where we left off and formed more of a friendship than a buyer / rep relationship, although I did buy stuff from him."

In the meantime, Norfolk had taken and passed the test to earn the distinction of "Certified Sommelier" and Johnson aced the next level and is a "Certified Advanced Sommelier," the only one in the state.

Then Johnson was also hired by Purple Feet.

"Nate and I just continued to hit it off being the weird geeky people we are," Johnson quips.

But the remark is accurate. Sit and talk wine with the Norfolk and Johnson and you'll see that they speak the same language. Not only can they reel off all sorts of information that seems exceedingly esoteric to a general and casual wine lover, they clearly have a lot of common ground and inside jokes, too. And they especially love to talk about the people and the personalities that make wine.

So, it makes sense that the two would take the next step and start a company like Professional Wine Consultants. Their love of wine expresses itself perfectly, with a killer blend of wit and knowledge. Being great conversationalists and sociable people, they pair well with groups and individuals hoping to dig deeper into terroir, appellations, tasting skills, food pairing skills and more.

"We came to the conclusion (that) if we had our own business we could better promote ourselves and services, while still maintaining our day jobs and our sanity," says Norfolk. "We both really love all the nerdy aspects of wine. Some people are into endless facts about sports and music, we are into acquiring as much information as possible about wine.

"(It's) definitely not for the snob appeal. Call us cork dorks, wine nerds, whatever. I think I can speak for both of us when I say that the vastness of wine as a subject of study maybe it's greatest appeal. We are both somewhat extroverted, so we are shunned by the more traditional introverted shoe-gazing nerds. We were forced to form an alliance."

While they admit there are some others in town offering wine classes and seminars and tastings, Johnson and Norfolk know their certifications with the Court of Master Sommeliers means they have unique credentials ... for now.

"One of the things Nate and I want to do is help people pass the certified as a pay it forward kind of thing. Possibly, in our little town, a study group can be formed and more people here will want to take that advanced and pass it."

Johnson notes that about a dozen Milwaukeeans have passed the certified level.

"(They) will be eligible to apply for the advanced as soon as they have waited a year. I think that is so cool," she says.

Johnson is currently studying for the test to become a Master Sommelier. The requirements for identifying wines -- grape, region, producer, vintage, etc. -- is astonishing. Norfolk is prepping for the advanced exam.

"I will contact the court in 2009 to start sitting the exam in 2010," she says. "There is no way I will be ready in 2009 since the test happens in March. What you have to know to pass the advanced is exponentially more complex than the certification, and what you have to know to become a Master Sommelier is exponentially more complex than that."

In the meantime, Johnson and Norfolk maintain a blog at www.wineproevents.com and host monthly tastings. The two also offer a host of services from staff training and appraisals to cellar management, mentoring, wine list development, classes and seminars.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.