Monday, October 23, 2006

The Sommelier Experience

Ordering a bottle of wine in a restaurant can be an intimidating task. The food is ordered, and all eyes shift to you as you leaf from page to page in what you see as an unnecessarily long wine list, quietly hoping to come across a bottle that you recognize. Where’s that Brouilly or Yellow Label when you need it? As befuddlement becomes desperation, the sommelier arrives.

As a sommelier, my job is to demystify wine. In the few minutes that I spend at your table, I have to assess what style of wines you like, what you are willing to pay, and walk that fine line between what you want and what I feel you need. With a point of my finger and a nod, I can make you a hero with the right choice, or I can be your scapegoat if everyone hates it.

But who are these people, why should they be trusted?

The Dinner Table Maestros

I admit to having forgotten the year that my daughter was born, though I remember wines that I drank 10 years ago, with whom, at what temperature, and with what. I am the Rain Man of the food and beverage world. While the majority of sommeliers have arrived at their present occupations via some sort of wine schooling, I have never taken a course on wine. My education was in the kitchen, the tasting room and at the table. It is this equal reverence for both food and wine that separates the wine connoisseur from the best sommeliers. We don’t make either, but we have to understand both. In this sense we are like maestros, trying to create harmonies between what the chefs create and the wines we have at our disposal.

Spit or Swallow?

But we are first and foremost experts on wine. To that end, when I am not working the floor, placing orders, hucking cases, taking inventory and updating my wine list, I am tasting wines. This is the most romanticized aspect of the job, but as much as I try (often in vain) to get some sympathy, the reality is that it is still work. If I taste thousands of wines every year, there are only a few hundred that I actually order. The number of times I have had to smile with red tainted teeth, my mouth as dry as the Sahara, and find something nice to say about yet another wine that I know I will never order.

And to answer that most asked question, most of the wine I am served ends up in the spittoon, except for the really good ones where I sometimes go back for seconds.

The Language of Wine

While we sommeliers know a lot about wine, we do tend to speak our own particular dialect. The language of wine aims to find a way to compare one wine with another. It uses flavours, smells, textures and colors that we find in our glass to references found in our day to day lives. But these associations often don’t resonate with the majority of people who can’t find the ‘dark cherries, summer truffle nor the leather’ that we so cleverly found with a snort and quick swirl of our tasting glass.

Most people have a hard time communicating what they like in wines. The best way of letting me know is by remembering the names of some of your favorite bottles that you drink at home, but most people don’t and end up citing ‘Ch√Ęteau … something.’ That must be the best selling bottle worldwide.

In an effort to bridge the communication gap and reach out beyond these staid and conservative descriptions, I have been known to compare certain Californian wines, for example, with the stereotypical beach bimbo (or the male ‘mimbo’ version); easy to like, the first glass is great but lacks the depth to be interesting in the long run. It is remarkable how many clients know exactly what I am talking about.

The ABW and the Curse of the Blue Nun

So now that we know where each other is coming from, it’s time to make our choice. The first thing I must establish is if you are part of the ABW (Anything But White). As a devoted white wine drinker, I am constantly amazed by people’s reticence to quaff a bottle of white.

It’s not your fault. I blame it on Blue Nun and other cheap white wines. If cheap red can be a heady proposition, inexpensive white can be near fatal. We have all had misadventures resulting from drinking one glass too many of some dubious white. It can be a Sisyphean task to battle against such distasteful memories, especially when one considers that the majority of foods work better with white.

Aside from finding the perfect Australian red for your lobster, there is one other thing that I can’t do. I don’t set the policy on pricing and while I understand your frustration that the bottle you want is two and a half times the SAQ price, as much as I would like to, I am not here to negotiate.

Getting the Most out of Your Sommelier

Here’s a hint, when a sommelier says that you should drink what you like, what he or she is really saying is that the wine that you want doesn’t go at all with your choice of menu. I am always amazed how people will give ‘carte blanche’ to the chef to create their dishes as they see fit yet can be relatively narrow minded in their choice of wines. So if you are lucky enough to have a sommelier at your restaurant, come with a sense of discovery, get out of your comfort zone and try something new.

I fear no client more than the wine collector who loves to list every wine he has drunk or the entire contents of his cellar. Nobody likes a snob and we sommeliers are a difficult lot to impress. Wine and the way it works with food can be fascinating, but it must be put into context. I see wine as a spice, a luxurious accessory to complement our meal. But in the grand scheme of things, that we can spend a couple of hours worrying over such ephemeral pleasures should remind us about what is really important.

That we are indeed very fortunate people.


Edward said...

Nice piece and good advice.

The problem a sommelier faces is that he / she must be part mind reader. Is the customer confident and keen about selecting a wine (leave them alone with the list). Or do they want advice? If so how much do they want to pay? What style of wine do they like? etc etc.
The challenge must be to get this information quickly and discreetly without making both sides seem awkward.

Jameson said...

I used to work at a wine shop that printed on every receipt, "We taste the bad wines so you don't have to."

Every customer thought it was so funny. My response was always, "No, seriously. We taste the bad wines so you don't have to."

I probably taste 100 wines a week. Some random, some when a winery rep comes by, or some with a theme. Tasting 10 extracted reds with tannin, high booze factor, and no acidity from Paso Robles kills me for the day.

Unless, someone happens to come by right after and says, "Hi I have a bottle of crisp, refreshing Cava. And that's the only bottle I brought."

That person gets a 10 case order!

But it's still a hell of a job! I learn from tasting bad wines, too. It's like if you had a job just to taste cheeseburgers. You'd have some bad ones in there, but you wouldn't trade the opportunity for anything!

caveman said...

I think jameson and I would agree Edward that gaining a person's confidence quickly is the ultimate challenge, and then be able to take them out of their comfort zone ..cuz those are the bottles that they remember most... the ones they thought they didn't want.

Anonymous said...

solid advise from solid knowledge!

farley said...

I do think it's better to have people list wines they've enjoyed rather than what they like in wine... often they aren't sure what that is or how to convey it. And then on the other hand, as you mentioned, there's that guy who knows everything and wants you to know he does. Not an enviable task to deal with either.