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Here’s to our American somms!

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If you have 10 minutes, read this story on “The Rise of the American ‘Somm,’” by the engaing London writer, Francis Percival. In it, he tracks the evolution of “sommeliers”– a “previous generation of quiet professionals” who wore tastevins and tuxedos, and confined themselves almost exclusively to the wines of France–to today’s “somms”–with “tattoos on display,” dressed in “barely more than a t-shirt and jeans,” and possessed of a “relentlessly informal, swaggering” presence.

Obviously, Francis has mixed feelings about our beloved American somms! On the one hand, he recognizes that “the wines embraced by this new somm are diverse,” which surely is a good thing. But he seems a little put off by their new somm culture: it’s “fratty,” its language is “equal parts grifter slang and wine-service Urban Dictionary,” it’s addicted to “lots of photos on Instagram.” American somms have an annoying habit of “touching guests,” which is “unknown in most of Europe,” and “the public face of the American somm has become one of intense, but friendly competition with their bros.”

Good writing, and Francis concedes that, as an Englishman, his viewpoint may be biased. “It’s been staggering to me,” he writes, how “professional wine service has been refashioned into something close to the apotheosis of modern America,” which sounds like something between crowd surfing at a rock concert and smoking a blunt. So allow me, as an American (and a Californian at that, the apotheosis of casual, engaging America) to defend our tattooed somms.

I think we can all agree that it’s better for a wine service professional on the floor of a restaurant to be less stuffy than more stuffy, no? And today’s American somms certainly are. I also like it when a somm is younger rather than older. This may be a personal preference having little to do with the somm’s experience or knowledge–but I have a feeling that a younger somm is probably more in tune with today’s vast array of wine choices. Younger somms also are probably more likely to be studying for one of the gazillion levels of somm certification, which would increase their knowledge base.

I can remember those “quiet professionals” who used to populate the sommelier world. They were snobs. If it wasn’t French it didn’t exist. Well, maybe they would allow a Mosel or Chianti onto the list, but reluctantly. As for California, mais non! Do I have any New York friends who can tell me when California wines began appearing on the lists of chic Manhattan restaurants? I don’t know, but I bet it wasn’t until comparatively recently. So those “quiet professionals” of yesteryear certainly didn’t do their customers any good by expanding their palates. And they certainly didn’t help to expand the range of foods available in this country beyond French.

What a better country America is for having the most diverse food choices in the world. Here in Oakland, I feel infinitely lucky to have the cuisines of 100 nations at my disposal. If I was just starting out, I might choose to be a somm. What an exciting job, centered on wine, food, socializing and night life. Yes, there’s something “fratty” about somm “bros” and their culture, but what’s wrong with that? In the old days, one had the feeling those “quiet professionals” went home to quiet lives in quiet little apartments and quietly read books. Today’s American somm reeks with excitement and buzz (although perhaps not as much as mixologists). And it’s wonderful that women are now as welcome to the somm’s ranks as men, which never could have been the case even 20 years ago.

Today’s somm is a democrat with a small “d”. They’re not going to look down their noses at anyone. I certainly wouldn’t want my somm (or my server) to be in a tuxedo: I like the street aspect of t-shirts and jeans, which doesn’t seem shabby to me at all, but comfortable, easy to relate to and, yes, sexy.

These modern somms are open to any wine in the world. If I have any objection (and it’s a minor one), it’s that they can be a little too addicted to the obscure. But after all, that’s their passion; it’s what turns them on, and part of the reason for going to a cool little restaurant, with great food and a great somm, is to discover new foods and drinks.

So here’s to our American somms! Rock on, bros (and sisters!).

  1. Thank you for acknowledging my sisters in the industry, and of course, I also acknowledge the ‘sisters’! I also love the fact that the face of the Sommelier is changing. It tickles me to no end when I get that Homer Simpson “DOH” look of shock and disbelief when I approach the table as the Sommelier at current my restaurant and in previous places where I’ve worked! I also love it when I get the opposite reaction, one of pride and empowerment, like the guest is happy to see that my face also represents this industry! You can look at their faces for a silent, “YOU GO GURL!” Love it!

  2. “They’re not going to look down their noses at anyone.”

    Wha??!?!?! The snobbery has a different focus today, but to be sure it is embedded in the modern “somm” culture

  3. dr: I don’t agree. Eye of the beholder stuff.

  4. I believe that there was a transitional era in Somm-dom that did not include the traditional snobbery, tastevin & Tux… started in the late 70′s ran through the mid 90′s – perhaps could be called the age of enlightenment or excitement. Without title, the new Sommelier/Wine Steward studied the classics while soaking in the new world – rules of food affinities were being broken as fast as new cuisines were being invented. Wine by the glass was a way to expose the wine lovers, not drown nor confuse them. But the failure came to an end when that group created their own rules of what was good or bad and I am afraid each successive Somm era has done the same! I loved Percival’s piece, as typical of the way the Brits seem to the King’s clothes.

  5. I think a lot of the younger somms can be utterly insufferable, self-important and unprofessional, and that tends to be magnified the deeper into the MS certification process they are.

    One interesting irony that I’ve noticed in the business is that those somms who have graduated from good universities (say top 50 private/top 20 public) tend to avoid the MS program. Those with little or no college or a degree from somewhere like UNLV tend to gravitate towards and, as a means of over-compensation, have an almost ridiculously inflated view of their certification. You’d think they were in a Ph.D program at Cambridge from listening to them talk, rather than a program of study that boils down to little more than rote memorization.

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