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The changing role of the somm

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Predictions of the demise of almost anything are usually exaggerated, as Mark Twain had occasion to note. He was very much alive when it was reported that he had died. Along the same lines, neither are sommeliers about to go the way of the dodo bird, as suggested in this piece, called “Are sommeliers becoming obsolete?”, that appeared in the Chicago edition of Crain’s Business. (You may not be able to read the entire piece if you’re not a subscriber or a particularly adroit Googler.)

The author, Maggie Hennessy, suggests that today’s somms are becoming obsolete due to the phenomenon of “sommelier 2.0”– somms moving more and more into the business, management and financial sides of their restaurants. This not only takes them steadily away from wine, it forces them to concentrate on beer and spirits—beverages they may have only a passing knowledge of and interest in, but that are increasingly important to a restaurant’s bottom line.

I know a sommelier or two—or fifty—and I’ve seen definite changes in how they do their jobs. It used to be that the sommelier was driven more by the discovery of interesting wines and the personal passion she held for them. Of course, he or she had to contribute to the restaurant’s profits, but in the larger scheme of things, the somm was seen as adding a certain esthetic to the operation. It fell to the kitchen to be the profit center; one had the feeling that restaurant ownership felt the sommelier brought added value, in the form of a clear commitment on management’s part to a fine-wine program, which was something diners seemed to appreciate and expect.

Esthetics, unfortunately, don’t pay rent or employee salaries and benefits. The squeeze has been building on fine-dining establishments for years, and was vastly accentuated by the Great Recession, which forced many of them out of business, and compelled others to take a more draconian approach to the bottom line. This is when somms really began feeling the heat: Management said, in effect, “Show us how your monetary results in a return on the investment we’ve made in you, or else we’ll show you the door.”

This is understandable, but it also created a crisis for sommeliers, who suddenly found themselves in an existential dilemma. Were they first and foremost wine lovers whose primary task was to discover gems the public might not know about? Were they simply curators of bloated wine lists stuffed with First Growths and cult Cabs they, themselves, neither could afford nor particularly liked? Or were they mere tools of the CFO, part of a sales staff whose sole responsibility was making money by pretending to be independent arbiters?

Obviously, all somms participate to some extent in all three of these areas. It’s a matter of emphasis. But the point of the Chicago Crain’s article, with which I agree, seems to be that the emphasis has been shifting over the last seven or eight years. We see this, not only anecdotally, but in terms of the sheer numbers of sommelier accreditation programs out there, which is greatly increasing the applicant pool. There are more somms available for employment than there are jobs, frankly, and so management is able to select—not simply the most educated somm, but the one who is thought best able to make money. That requires sound business and management skills, not simply an extraordinary knowledge of wine.

So where does the somm go from here? Is he an endangered species—“becoming obsolete,” as suggested by in the Chicago-Crain’s headline? No. The fact that we’re talking about “sommeliers,” and in fact that so many people are talking about somms, means that we—in the industry, and those advanced consumers—have some weird kind of fascination with the cult of the somm. The sommelier has seized hold of the American wine-drinking imagination in a way few would have thought possible.

But the sommelier’s role is changing, radically, and we do need to recognize it. Less driven by passion than profits, today’s somm needs to be understood by diners in a different way: Not so much a pure messenger of extraordinary wines, or an objective educator, but a representative of the restaurant’s management. That, I should think, would shift our perception of the sommelier in dramatic and significant ways.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    A distinction needs to be made between a “wine” sommelier and a Master Sommelier.

    The former (invoked in Steve’s piece above) is expected to be well-informed on wine.

    The latter is expected to be an expert on ALL beverages: wine, beer, spirits (and cocktails), bottled water, coffee, tea, and soda pop.

  2. Somms… I find mostly they have knowledge of wine but they are lacking the ability to sell a bottle of wine and from talking with wine consumers for 30 years they tend to agree. OK they share that info with me rather me asking if it is true.

    Gaining knowledge of something such as wine is a great thing. But at the end of the day they are not coming out with enough to truly be effective…

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Worth reading, over at W. Blake Gray’s wine blog:

    “New York Restaurant Wine Market, Explained”

    [Based on a conversation with Levi Dalton, Manhattan sommelier, Eater NY editor and host of the “I’ll Drink to That” podcast]

    Link: http://blog.wblakegray.com/2015/07/new-york-restaurant-wine-market.html#more

    Excerpts:

    “New York restaurant owners demand 3 times retail markup on bottles; otherwise sommeliers who act as wine buyers will lose their jobs. So finding a ‘bargain’ on a New York wine list essentially only happens when a restaurant wants to clear out back stock, perhaps because of a chef change, or when the bargain itself (here are a few) is a way of establishing the restaurant’s hipness, which is an important currency in New York. Otherwise, you’re going to pay $75 for a $25 wine.

    “Restaurants can’t get away with this in California because people know what wines cost, and corkage is allowed, so if they try to sell $25 wines for $75, people will instead pay a $25 corkage fee to bring their own.

    “Most New York restaurants don’t allow corkage, but they still don’t want diners knowing how much they’re screwing them. So they can’t stock well-known wines. Instead, they have to find obscure bottles: the harder to find in retail stores, the better.

    “This is one reason natural wines are growing so fast in popularity in New York. There are others, of course: New Yorkers share with West Coasters an interest in how their food was farmed. Sommeliers always want wines on the fringe for a variety of reasons. But a huge point is that natural wines can be sold for a larger markup than most wines. They’re often cheaper to produce than wines from the same regions, as they don’t spend much time in expensive new oak, and are offered for sale earlier, reducing inventory cost. Moreover, most diners don’t know what they cost and even if they did, they’re willing to pay to feel virtuous.”

  4. Bob Henry says:

    From the Los Angeles Times “Saturday” Section
    (July 18, 2015, Page F4):

    “Uncorked and Well Curated;
    In growing numbers, sommeliers are improving the wine experience for diners in Los Angeles”

    Link: http://www.latimes.com/food/drinks/la-fo-0718-sommeliers-20150718-story.html

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