When sommeliers go wild
“There is a group of wine directors out there that feel that their mission is to educate the consumer. I think this is a dangerous philosophy. If people want to ask questions, fine; but if you’re going to stand there and proselytize, well, check please.”
I didn’t say it: The immortal Fred Dame, M.S. did, in the August issue of The Tasting Panel magazine. (Sorry, I could not find a link.) So if you’re a somm with hurt feelings, don’t blame me, play the Dame game! But seriously, this is an important topic Fred alludes to, because it addresses some of the most controversial questions in today’s restaurants: How to best serve the customer who, after all, is the basis of the entire industry? And what exactly is the proper role of the sommelier?
The somm arguably is the most informed person about wine in the restaurant on any given night, especially when it comes to her own wine list. She knows more than 99.9% of the customers do. The risk is that there can be a tendency on the part of very knowledgeable people to showcase their knowledge to others, especially when they’re getting paid to do it. This can be tendentious, even tiresome, if done with a heavy hand. Or it can be interesting and educational. The somm has to walk a delicate line, trying to find that balance. I take Fred Dame at his word when he talks about “a group of wine directors out there” who cross over the line. He knows a lot more about the world of the sommelier than I ever will, so when Fred says something is happening—and that it’s “dangerous”—we should heed his words.
This relates directly to the area of the overly-precious wine list. I think I’ve mentioned before on this blog about the phenomenon, which seems to be on the rise, of the wine director whose wine list is so arcane, so dominated by obscure countries and varieties, that average customers, frustrated at not being able to find things they understand and like, ask if they can just have a nice Chardonnay! It’s perfectly understandable for a somm, who’s worked long and hard to get where she is, to have developed a personal preference for obscure wines. It’s also understandable that the somm would then want—passionately—to share those wines with her clients, the diners. There’s joy in pedagogy—but not in pedantry.
I “get it” when somms get bored and tired of the same old popular wines and varieties. I used to get tired of having to write the same “what wine to drink at Thanksgiving” article every year! It’s a form of burnout common among sommeliers, wine writers and many other people who perform repetitive functions.
But it seems to me the sommelier has to put her own feelings aside, in favor of those of the customers. I myself have generally good experiences with sommeliers, but etched into my memory are some awful ones. The bad ones all have this in common: The somm pushed his or her own agenda onto me, with disastrous results (from my point of view). Being a rather gentle and non-confrontational soul, I almost always refrain from negative feedback to a somm or a server, even when I’m unhappy with the way things turned out. This may avoid an unpleasant scene, but it doesn’t do a thing toward making my restaurant experience more pleasant.
I’m willing to let a somm advise me about certain wines with which I may be unfamiliar. This is especially true if (a) the somm can bring me a little tasting sample of the wine he wants me to try, and (b) I have a guarantee that, if the suggested wine fails to meet my expectations, I can substitute something else for it, and not get charged for the first glass. (I would never gamble on a full bottle of a wine I knew nothing about, based merely on the somm’s advice. Way too risky.)
But I don’t want a somm, or anyone else in the restaurant, second guessing my preference, or making me feel like an idiot, just because I want a rich, barrel-fermented Chardonnay with my scallops. I don’t know if that is specifically what Fred Dame had in mind by his “dangerous” remark, but since we’re all in the business of trying to get people to like wine, it’s not a good idea to alienate them with pontification, pandering or pretension.