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The power of the (somm’s) suggestion

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Dinner last night at Ruth’s Chris, on Van Ness. It was a Treasury Wine Estates event. Treasury is a big company; here in California, they run Beringer, Chateau St. Jean, Etude, Stags’ Leap Winery and others. In other words, a pretty impressive portfolio.

The centerpiece of the menu was, as you might expect at a steakhouse, filet mignon, which they served with two Stags’ Leap Cabernets, 2008 and 2009, both very delicious, although the 2009 was considerably more forward than the rather acidic 2008. One of my dining companions was Jerry Comfort, Beringer’s longtime chef, who now does the wine education for Treasury. We talked a lot about how somms pair food with wine. On my right was the young, delightful PR manager for Stag’s Leap, Michelle Flores. She told me how challenging it is for her to pick a wine from the massive wine lists so many restaurants have these days, and asked me how I go about it. I told her, “For the most part, I put myself in the sommelier’s hands.” Somms know their wine list and menu far better than I do. I told Michelle that I’ll give the somm some dollar parameters for my wine, and then leave the specifics to him or her.

Then Michelle asked me if this approach has worked for me in the past. I shuffled through memories of dining experiences over the years and had to answer, in all honesty, no.

I’ve just had too many somm-inspired pairings that were bizarre. The most recent was at a restaurant down in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a very expensive, high-profile place. I had a little appetizer dish of a beautifully-grilled sea scallop that was all buttery and creamy and nut-sweet. With it, the somm suggested a nine-year old white Rioja.  The server brought it and the scallops. I smelled the wine; very oxidized, unfresh. I tried it with the scallops. Pretty bad. Now, I think you should never criticize someone without trying to see where they’re coming from, so I analyzed this strange pairing to determine what the somm had in mind. No luck. I just couldn’t figure it out. Had I chosen my own wine for that scallop, it would have been Chardonnay. I would have tried a rich, oaky one, and an unoaked one, then gone with the winner.

Later, the server (not the somm) came back and asked what I’d thought of the pairing. I told her, “Since you asked, I didn’t think much of it at all.” She asked me what I would have recommended, and I said, “I respect the somm’s decision to pair an oxidized wine with this dish, although it’s not clear to me what his reasoning was. But, instead of a wine that’s oxidized because it’s too old, how about one that’s oxidized by design, so that it’s fresh. Sherry.” She just happened to have a manzanilla on the list, so out came a glass of that and a second plate of the scallop.

I won’t say that was a perfect pairing, but it was far better than the tired old Rioja. And it made me think: I bet the somm was one of these ABC guys: anything but Chardonnay. You do see a lot of this holier-than-thou attitude among somms. It was like he avoided an obvious pairing, a classic one that would have worked perfectly, in favor of the obscure, the “interesting,” the “surprising,” the off-beat, the eccentric.

What is this need to be different with some somms?

I also thought about the subtle psychology between a somm and his customers on the dining room floor. I imagined a couple coming in to dine at the restaurant. They order that scallop dish. The somm recommends the white Rioja. They order it. They’re a little puzzled by the taste, and by the way the wine made the succulent scallop taste metallic. But, unlike me, they’re unsure of their palates. So when the somm returns, they ask him to explain the pairing, which he gladly does, in poetic detail. They take another little bite of the scallop, another tiny sip of the wine. Suddenly, it makes sense: they can taste what the somm described, and the synergies between the food and wine. They go away satisfied, and with a tale they can tell their friends about the strange white wine that went so well with the scallop they had at this restaurant in Carmel.

The power of suggestion.

  1. Not sure it’s any different than a consumer drinking a 98 point wine, because it’s a 98 point wine, and thinking it must be good because of the score it was given…pretty powerful suggestion as well no?

  2. Samantha – that is exactly what I was thinking.

  3. Marlene Rossman says:

    The tired, nine year old Rioja is the last thing I would have paired with the scallop. Some Spanish whites have a long tradition of being oxidized, even premoxed. Why didn’t you complain to the somm? Even more importantly, why didn’t the somm ask you if you liked the pairing?

  4. You could always do like I have done and live in a city with absolutely no somms at any restaurants. There are a couple decently curated wine lists around, but in 99.9% of circumstances, the server is your somm for the evening. In those cases, you don’t expect them to be a wine expert and would have much lower expectations for any pairing suggestions. . . .problem solved!

  5. Marlene, I don’t know why the somm never came back. As for complaining, it’s not my style, unless there’s been an egregious mistake — which this was not.

  6. Timothy O'Neal says:

    Well, oxidized sucks no matter what. Somms can really do some justice though. Recently I dined at Frasca’s Pizzeria and the Sommelier there rocked it like no other. He noted the pizzas we were having and I gave him free will to bring whatever he found exciting these days. He shows back up with a bottle from a producer called Moric – A blaufränkisch from Austria. I cringe on the inside- taste- And Holy Moly! Before we drank it, he swore it was comparable to Grand Cru Burgundy and he was right. Then again, the man was Master Sommelier Bobby Stucky.

    Like golfers, not all Sommeliers are created equal. There is a big push to encourage Somms to be more sensitive to the guest and their desires. In this case, it just sounds like the Somm mis-fired and your pairing was a dud. Hopefully, that Sommelier has different pairing arrows that are bulls eye winners. I, too, have misfired on occasion. And if the guest tells me, I have then learned something to take into consideration should they look for another recommendation. Kind of reminds me of the time I told a table they were drinking corked wine (I pulled a sniff when decanting) I of course, took them another ‘clean’ bottle. Then, one at the table indicates he prefers the corked bottle. Shocker! So, I bring him a filthy glass of Rhone and told him to focus on Old World wine. That man is now a regular at our restaurant.

    A fine blog post here (and glad to discover it from the blog roll at Sommelier Journal)

    Timothy O’Neal – Wine Director to Avenues Bisro

  7. Steve,
    If the pairing was such a mismatch, I’d have thought you’d have queried the Somm…not to complain…but to learn his line of reasoning for choosing that pairing. Maybe his palate might have picked up something in the match that made it sing. Oxidized wines, beyond Sherry, are not something necessarily to be scorned.
    Tom

  8. TomHill, the somm never came back! He seemed to have left the restaurant after greeting me.

  9. Timothy, thanks for your comment!

  10. Excellent post, I hope there will be more comments. I think that the Sommelier world has become so competitive that some are putting more focus on being unique rather than correct and have more of an interest in impressing the guest with off-the-beaten-path selections.

  11. The oxidized Rioja was an odd choice. Sounds like he was an ABC guy and was thinking something like Verdejo or Albarino(some mid-weight palate yet with acidity–as a rich style Chardonnay may have been too much–rich on rich), yet wanted to move slow moving inventory from the last Somm’s placement (which explains why he was too embarrassed to return for your opinion).
    There seems to be a mix between Somms that rock it, and Somms that have pressures from owners to move slower inventory or pour choices that are well past peak on the list.

  12. Steve – Great topic, and although most people will think that I am a sommelier basher, I actually believe they have an extremely tough job.

    What amazes me is that restaurants don’t provide a short description of the wines they are selling. Chances are the sommelier has tasted the wine, and if you knew the white Rioja was oxidized, you would have probably asked for another suggestion. I am not saying they have to put their wine lists on iPads, but they could easily provide a tasting note for a majority of the wines on their lists.

    In my opinion, the day of the large wine list is dead. Restaurants would sell more wine if their lists were smaller. I think that is the direction you will see more restaurants head. Sure, there will always be a few restaurants with wine lists that are 50, 75 or 100 pages long, but at the end of the day, a list that large is not necessary.

    I am not sure if you are aware, but I review restaurant wine lists in the SF Bay Area. I point out the best values on wine lists (across different price points), and provide the winemaker’s tasting notes or a review, along with prices at other restaurants, and where the wine can be purchased locally. The next time you are heading out, let me know, and I will send you several suggestions that meet your parameters. As I have stated on a previous post, it is all about finding the best values because the quality of wine that is being produced is off the map. All restaurants have good values and bad values on their wine lists.

    Wine lists are impossible to navigate, even for experts. A very famous wine critic went to Benu, and had the sommelier guide them to the 1999 Domaine Leroy Bourgogne. It cost $160 and it sold for $40 at multiple wine stores in the Bay Area. The wine critic said the wine was great, and that is a good thing, because paying 4x over retail is not.

  13. Sadly, these stories are all too commom!

    Take my new Napa Valley Neighbor, a young man freshly arrived from out-of-town, wide-eyed in wonder of wine country. And why not; we work hard to create an image of this place and our offerings–food and wine–as special. He was so excited to start dining out, expecting to taste amazing wines that were perhaps not available in Los Angeles. So, he heads out to top Napa Valley restaurants and tells several somms the same thing, “I’ve just moved here from LA, I’m a writer, and I’m exploring wines from mountain fruit, what do you recommend?” Here’s a guy with disposal income dropping $150-$200 at the bar, dining alone, seeking a regular spot… should be a sommelier dream. Two restaurants running, he was sold old/tired bottlings. I know because he asked if he could drop by for me to taste (the remainder of the bottle he took home) on both occasions. He doesn’t have huge confidence in his palate yet, but he knew something amiss… Of course, he didn’t complain –he also instinctively knows that around here one is expected to compliment the Emperor on his Clothes. I am embarrassed of how he’s being treated; yes, he’s young and naive, but instead of taking advantage, a somm could enlighten! Finally, he met a great one who enjoys teaching, even invited him to a staff training/tasting at his restaurant, and my neighbor took the guy to dinner at French Laundry!

  14. Emily: Lucky guy! French Laundry.

  15. Steve – I’ve actually run into similar situations many times. I don’t know much about wine but now know enough to trust my own instincts. I also know that if you came into my restaurant I would run into the kitchen and make sure personally that at that moment in time the wine and food paired fantastically so you would write an amazing review about my services. ;)
    Are you visiting the SYV for the Vintners Fest?

  16. Marisa, nope, I will not be in SYV.

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