He was working at Frankie, Johnnie & Luigi Too, a Mountain View pizzeria, where he often enjoyed a glass of cheap California chardonnay at the end of a long day.
Today, the Santa Clara native is a master sommelier, a title he shares with 195 wine experts in the world. At 28, Micu is the youngest of them, having completed in short order the four rigorous levels of course work that culminated in a final examination with a mere 10 percent pass rate.
Master sommeliers are expected to know everything about wine, from its history to how and where it is made. They must also be experts on the rituals of service. Micu is all of that, but his story is also a testament to the power of mentorship -- and of finding your own path.
Micu did not grow up around wine. A child of Eastern European immigrants, he was a high school dropout who, at 17,
"I was looking for a career path in fine dining and this school came up," says Micu, who is seated in a private dining room at the International Culinary Center in Campbell, where he is now the assistant director of wine education. Cooking wasn't for him, so he decided to pursue wine.
He signed up and sailed through the school's introductory sommelier and Level II Certified Sommelier courses and exam, passing both in 2007. Most people stop there. After all, certified sommeliers are in demand -- most high end restaurants employ one -- and make decent wages. But Micu realized he had a unique talent and decided to continue on to the Advanced Level III examination, which has a 20-25 percent pass rate.
Where his classmates struggled, Micu excelled. He had a knack for sensory evaluation. Deductive reasoning -- the way blind tasters collect evidence about a wine and ultimately determine what is in their glass -- came naturally to him.
"You have to stop thinking and allow your body to interpret the wine," says Micu, who is tall, lanky and gestures like a conductor when he talks about his favorite subject.
Micu's interpretations often involve shapes. For instance, after sipping gruner veltliner (a crisp Austrian white wine), he draws what looks like a starfish on a cocktail napkin.
"This is what I see when I taste this wine," he says. "This is its texture."
A fruitier, full-bodied red blend from Sonoma County inspires what looks like a Rorschach blot. While it is not unheard of to see imagery when tasting, it is rare. Moreover, Micu sees shapes no matter what he's sipping.
"I have done some blind water tastings and found the textures to be the most drastic difference when deducing them," he says.
Micu's palate and his rapid path to wine are both remarkable, says Scott Carney, director of wine education for the International Culinary Center. "Some people are just gifted," says Carney, who in 1991 became the 17th American to earn the title of master sommelier. "Our students have much to learn from him."
Shayn Bjornholm, a master sommelier and examination director with the Court of Master Sommeliers, who evaluated Micu in Aspen, Colo., in May, calls him "the whole package."
"Roland is very gifted at taking tests and he's got a God-given skill for recalling and communicating what he tastes," Bjornholm says. And, despite his youth, he's passed the test on another tenet of master sommeliers, which is to carry themselves in a way that is masterly, using knowledge to "lift up those they serve," Bjornholm says. "Roland has that."
In 2010, Micu passed the Level Three Advanced Sommelier Exam while working as a sommelier at Alexander's Steakhouse in Cupertino. When it came time to prepare for the level four examination, he hunkered down. He studied 10 hours a day while working as the wine director at the Michelin-starred La Toque in Napa. Those were long days.
"I took a break to shower, go to the bathroom, or eat," he recalls. "But otherwise I was studying."
Micu credits his mentor, master sommelier Reggie Narito of Southern Wine & Spirits, with much of his success. He reached out to Narito while studying for the advanced exam back in 2008. Narito agreed to work with him, as he has for dozens of master hopefuls. From the start, Narito knew Micu had a special palate.
"He has done some of the most incredible single blind tastings I've ever seen," says Narito, a 28-year veteran of the beverage industry. Once, to test Micu, he set out three wooded whites -- California chardonnay, white Bordeaux and white Hermitage -- and asked Micu to identify them.
"When you've got a fast car sometimes you want to see how fast it'll go," Narito says, chuckling. "Roland's ability to knife through those wines like a surgeon was simply incredible."
But for Micu, it was a passing comment that Narito made one night at Frankie's shortly after they'd met that cemented his confidence. Pointing to Micu, Narito told a customer, "See that guy behind the bar? He's going to be a master sommelier some day."
"That alone was the biggest motivator," Micu says. "Having someone like Reggie Narito say that about me."