Michael Roberts pours wine as guests wear blindfolds at Buzzed by Zea.

Michael Roberts, a sommelier and chocolatier, pours wine for guests during a wine-tasting class where tasters put on blindfolds at the Salon & Bar Buzzed by ZEA in Lake View.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

For Lake View sommelier and chocolatier, 'every story has a taste'

After losing his left foot in a train accident at age 10, Michael Roberts moved to Chicago and found his niche in wine and chocolate. Now, he encourages others to experience their memories in a new way through unique tasting events.

Michael Roberts can tell the story of his life through wine and chocolate. He invites everyone else to do the same.

The certified sommelier hosts monthly wine tastings where he invites participants to learn about wine in a relaxed atmosphere. In a field that can be perceived as being snobby, he swaps the “pinkies up” attitude for a different approach to educating participants on the finer points of wine — such as tasting with their eyes closed.

“Lights out,” he said during a recent wine tasting at Buzzed by Zea in Lake View.

A group of a couple dozen people, seasoned wine enthusiasts and amateurs alike, obliged, silently pulling the blindfolds over their eyes and sinking into total darkness.

Inspired by his own life experience, Roberts, 55, told a story that flowed from “chaos” through “confusion” and finally “cohesion.” As he described what the tasters should picture, he was brought back to different moments in his life — a life-altering train accident at age 10, moving from the South to Chicago in his early 20s and embarking on a risky career in wine and chocolate.

Roberts identified a theme for each part of the story, calling on participants to apply a pivotal moment in their own lives to the general story arc: a tumultuous relationship, a defining career move, a transition to a new city.

Roberts narrated selectively, pulling tasters along through the story they’ve created: “It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

He added: “To me, every story has a taste.”

Michael Roberts speaks to the participants at a wine tasting with a flower wall behind him.

Michael Roberts, a sommelier and chocolatier, leads a wine-tasting class at the Salon & Bar Buzzed by ZEA in Lake View.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

‘I’m not a quitter’

Long before experimenting with wines and making decadent truffles, Roberts was an active kid, growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, “always jumping and running around.” He danced, played football and acted and sang in theater productions.

When he was 10, he was walking from his house to a nearby convenience store when a train interrupted his route.

Instead of waiting it out, Roberts jumped on the train. He made it on the train but panicked when the speed was faster than he imagined. While trying to jump off, his left leg was caught between the tracks and a wheel, and he was dragged for about 20 feet.

The train barreled forward, and his foot was torn off with it.

“I looked down and all I saw was blood everywhere and a white bone sticking out of my jeans,” he said.

He was rushed to a hospital to undergo emergency surgery. That was the beginning of a long recovery. Roberts spent a year in the hospital and underwent 72 operations. Today, he wears a prosthetic foot on his left leg.

“I had to work twice as hard as anyone else to achieve what I wanted to achieve,” he said, adding the same mindset has stuck around to this day.

“A lot of people are guaranteed to fail; it’s up to you to determine how much you want to do so that you don’t fail,” he said about the process to become a certified sommelier. “By me going through the accident, I was like, ‘I’m not a quitter.’”

‘I tasted wine and my life changed’

Michael Roberts smells a glass of white wine.

At his monthly wine tastings, Michael Roberts incorporates personal storytelling with wine.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The thought of becoming a sommelier hadn’t crossed Roberts’ mind by the time he moved to Chicago in his early adulthood. He wasn’t a big drinker, but working in restaurants, he often found himself around wine.

While working at a now-closed Ravenswood restaurant called Cornelia’s in the 1990s, his manager asked him to sit in on a meeting with a wine representative.

“I tasted wine, and my life changed, literally changed,” he said.

He devoured the wine magazines delivered to the restaurant and mulled over the decision to go for his sommelier certification.

Getting certified is no easy task, with an exam split into serving, tasting and theory sections. Roberts passed the exam in 2012, adding his name to a small, elite list of sommeliers. According to some metrics, there are less than 300 master sommeliers worldwide.

“Dedication is most of it, you study every day, hundreds of note cards,” he said. “It’s the most brutal exam other than the prostate exam.”

Becoming ‘Truffles’ and ‘Uncle Mike’

Wine had stolen Roberts’ heart, but after falling into another unexpected job, he found a new love.

He was offered the job of a chocolate buyer by pure happenstance for an upscale hotel restaurant where he was working when “the only chocolate I knew was a Snickers bar.”

Roberts latched onto the simple pleasures of both wine and chocolate, pairing them together and even creating his own types of chocolate. He’s known for his truffles, crafting them around themes like St. Patrick’s Day or forming the chocolate into experimental shapes like a high-heeled Christian Louboutin shoe — complete with the red bottoms.

In his Lake View neighborhood, he began carrying truffles around and offering them to people he met in bars and restaurants, earning the nicknames “Truffles” and “Uncle Mike.”

Michael Roberts a local sommelier and chocolatier hosts a wine tasting event at Buzzed by Zea, Wednesday, April 24, 2024.

Michael Roberts a local sommelier and chocolatier hosts a wine tasting event at Buzzed by Zea, Wednesday, April 24, 2024.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

In recent months, Roberts has ramped up his business, Divine Wine and Chocolates. He sells chocolates, largely through word of mouth, and offers wine tastings both at Buzzed by Zea and privately at customers’ homes.

Roberts recently partnered with Jerry Zea, owner of Buzzed by Zea, and the pair have ambitious plans for the future of their business, including themed wine tastings and a pop-up storefront beginning this summer.

“Michael believes in reinvention, and we believe that in the corporate world, the service industry, we need a minute to ourselves,” Zea said at a recent tasting. “We have a new day. We’re excited.”

Jacqui Jumpp, a model who attended the sensory deprivation tasting, said the course of the story and the combination of wines and music evoked a visceral reaction. It was an almost “sensual” experience, she said. As she sipped, sniffed and swirled the wine, different memories flashed in her mind.

“When you put that blindfold on, it heightens every other sense,” Jumpp said. “It took me to so many places in my life.”

Information on Roberts’ monthly wine tastings, private tastings and chocolate sales can be found on his website. Fill out the contact form for more details.

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