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The somm’s evolving role in today’s modern restaurant

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I experienced an interesting approach to wine-and-food pairing the other day at Hakkasan San Francisco, which opened recently in the Financial District.

The somm staff invited me to participate in their weekly tasting. This is where they take 5 or 6 wines they’re considering for placement on the wine list. Then, the kitchen prepares a dozen small plates of menu items. The team tries each of the foods with each of the wines; everybody gets a chance to voice an opinion, and, eventually, a decision is made as to whether or not the wine in question is versatile enough to go with the food.

Indulging in this kind of exercise seems like a lot of fun, and it is: Hakkasan’s Asian-inspired food is fantastic. But it also underscored the complexities of coming up with perfect pairings. For one thing, not everyone agrees about everything. What works for me might not work for you. Also, the kind of food they serve at Hakkasan is very complex. Each diner doesn’t just have one plate of food, like a steak or broiled salmon. Instead, there’s lots of little things, and I assume parties share their plates with each other. So everybody’s eating and drinking all kinds of stuff, which kind of makes the concept of “the perfect pairing” obsolete.

We were asked to rate each wine and food pairing on a scale of 1-5, where 1 is “undrinkable” and 5 is “thrilling.” I had only one five: a sake made from red rice with braised pork belly. (The other somms seemed surprised I had only a single five.) I had no “undrinkables,” but  I did have a bunch of 2s (acceptable). These were mostly for a Kabinett Riesling from the Nahe. I found it too sweet for most of the plates, which again surprised the somms: they loved it. To me, sugar in a wine should never dominate the food, but with this Riesling, it did. For example, the jasmine tea chicken had an earthy, flowery bitterness that the wine’s sugar clashed with. In theory you might think that a slightly sweet Riesling, with its natural high acidity and low alcohol, would go well with Chinese food, but for me, it didn’t.

The most surprising wine was a Wynns 2011 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, from Coonawarra (13.5% alcohol). Cabernet with Chinese food? Absolutely! I wouldn’t have known that before the tasting. It went well with almost everything, from the har gau (shrimp dumplings) and puffed daikon to the vegetarian chicken, tofu aubergine clay pot and Champagne cod.

Another wine that was tremendously versatile was a Chardonnay-Roussanne, made privately for Hakkasan by Qupe from Bien Nacido fruit. It was so balanced that it seemed to find its sweet spot beside almost everything. Another red wine, a Chateau Unang Grenache-Carignane from the Côtes du Ventoux, was fine with some things (scallop shumai, crispy duck salad) but disturbing with others (the har gau brought out its tannins, while its fruit overwhelmed the daikon puff).

The more I hang out with sommeliers the more interesting I find their job. I asked them what their biggest problems or hassles were; I thought they’d say impolite, pushy customers but, no, it was merely the organizational and logistical difficulties of being on the floor during dinner and having so many things happening at the same time. Lots of juggling. You have to multi-task to be a somm (or server, for that matter).

Thinking about perfect pairings, there are really very few of them, especially with Asian fare, which can be mild, savory, sweet, spicy and fatty, all at the same time—plus packed with umami. It’s not like 100 years ago, when you drank Yquem with the foie gras or red Bordeaux with the beef—simple pairings that made sense because they didn’t have this fantastic array of international ingredients available. Nowadays, a wine has to do double- or triple-duty, pairing well with a myriad of things, and if there are 4 or 6 people in the party, it has to be as nimble on its feet as a Cirque du Soleil acrobat. The somm’s job is to find those wines and then help the customers understand them. (Of course, they also have to work within a financial framework so that the wines they buy make business sense.) I find myself continuing to be fascinated by the evolving role of the sommelier in today’s modern American restaurant scene.

  1. What you’ve described as the somm’s role is what it should be. Unfortunately, what the experience often turns out to be, is a person with an interest in only: Burgundy, German rielsing, and whatever recently re-discovered region in favor by the oeno-police. This coupled with a subtle (or not so subtle) derision of any wine orders that they feel are too “obvious”.
    Sure there are exceptions, but so many somms are insufferable

  2. Matt Meyer says:

    The red queen effect strikes again. One of my first wine loves was cab Shiraz blends in the Coonawara. Wish that blend was more accepted in the US.

  3. The Farmhouse Inn restaurant organized a “battle somm” (my name, not theirs) last winter that really brought home to me the particular skills of the best somms. The concept was each night (there were three dinners) three somms were invited to pair wines with a four course meal prepared by the Farmhouse kitchen. Every diner ate the same four courses and drank the same wine pairings. The somms presented their pairings and explained the thought process behind them, and each diner was free to rate the somms for the quality of their pairing, the quality of their presentation/explanation, etc. The winner of each evening met in a final. What really engaged me about the experience was that I had an opportunity to see how each of three somms approached the same wine pairing challenge. They came at it from very different angles, and were for the most part adept at explaining what they did and why. I found it very educational and wish there were more events like it.

  4. An American fusion-tapas tasting! Sounds like great fun! Let me know if you can’t make it and ever need a stand-in!

    For a routine food and wine pairing, without having to raid the piggy bank for the perfect match, I’ve always found a dry Rose’ or inexpensive Cava or sparkling wine to always deliver a satisfying food/wine experience. They always seem to navigate the thread of simple wine/complex food and complex wine/simple food axiom.

  5. I agree that sommeliers have a very difficult job. Wine is generally the most expensive component of a bill at a restaurant. There are not a lot of $75, $150 or $300 entrees. I think sommeliers could make their lives a lot easier if they did the following:

    1) Reduce the size of their wine lists. The day of the large wine list is over. Wine lists should be more focused with fewer selections. In my humble opinion, the perfect size is between 75 and 150 bottles.
    2) I can’t believe we have been walking into restaurants and we are handed a wine list without a tasting note for each wine on the list. Now I know some places provide a short description, and a small number of restaurants have the list on an iPad, but the majority don’t.
    3) Also, when you are handed the food menu, why don’t they point out a few wines on the list that would go well with certain dishes.

    All I do is review restaurant wine lists in the San Francisco Bay Area, and point out the best values, and if the consumer had a little more transparency, I know they would make quicker decisions when it comes to choosing what bottle to purchase, and they would end up spending more money. Time is money for the consumer and the restaurant. The faster that bottle gets on the table the better for both parties.

  6. Vincent Kwong says:

    I once worked in a Chinese Restaurant in Asia as a Somm, and it is a overall different environment.

    some of my humble opinions: the difficult part of working in such places is the problem come from internal resource at times. It might be the boss who is not very much into wine business, or some of the colleagues are not used to sell beverages (okay we drink tea!).

    Some guests might just want a bottle of wine for its prestigious value-added effect — they might not be thinking about the actual pairing. It would be a different issue if they do want pairing; we do not serve by courses and there are always a few dishes on the table, mixing vegetables and meat.

    Furthermore, there are actually “sub-cuisine”; the dishes from North China and South China emphasize on various ingredients.

    The list would go on and on….

    by the way, how about a bottle of Grüner Veltliner with Chinese Steam Fish?

  7. Sounds like you had fun! Thank you for sharing how challenging the somms job really is. There is nothing better than being at the hands of a very talented one who is intimate with their menu and wines as you describe in this article. Some of the most interesting wines I may have never tried come up this way…trusting their talent.

  8. “I asked them what their biggest problems or hassles were; I thought they’d say impolite, pushy customers but, no, it was merely the organizational and logistical difficulties of being on the floor during dinner and having so many things happening at the same time. Lots of juggling. You have to multi-task to be a somm (or server, for that matter).”

    that is the truth! as a floor somm in chicago, my focus is not wine. it is our guests, my service team, my bartenders, my hosts, and everything in between. my wine knowledge helps me navigate our 400+ bottle list with guests, but if someone needs a fork or to be taken to table 34 or the bar is out of vermouth and i’m free, guess what i’m doing? lol. i love it though.

    and to dr and those who think somms are stuck on burgundy, riesling, etc. – you’re right. and honestly, it’s no fun. everything has its place and what i love about being a young somm is challenging some of those conventions. =) (though the only thing i can’t get behind are most australian shiraz and fino sherry. if i want to eat burnt raspberry candlewax with bitter chocolate or cheese, feet, and brine i’ll save my money and do just that.)

    respectfully,
    diana “silenusandme” hawkins

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