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The somm: now more than ever, or endangered species?


Eric Asimov’s retelling of the sommelier-customer experience in a restaurant (the somm “stands between us and humiliation” and inspires “doubt and dread…to make cowards of us all”) was written with the tongue-in-cheek style he’s known for. In lesser hands this language would be hyperbolic bloviation, a bad writer’s attempt at columnistic color. In Eric’s keen control, it exists on some meta level of shared irony.

On to what I take to be his main points: “Sommeliers can be your best friends” and “No guests want to appear cheap…”. I think of a sommelier (or wine director, or whoever is the most knowledgeable wine person on the floor) as someone of potential use in an expensive restaurant. In the affordable ethnic restaurants I eat at a lot–Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Indian, Mexican, soul food–you don’t need anyone to help you, nor would you get much help if you asked, nor is the “wine list” (such as it is) worth considering. Beer, from the country whose cuisine the restaurant prepares, is the ticket.

But at what I call the white tablecloth dining experience (although white tablecloths seem to have gone out of style in all but the snootiest French places, replaced by zinc, steel, natural stone, wood or even marble) it’s a different story. You generally want a nice wine. But, as we all know, the wine list can be daunting. Eric is entirely correct when he tells people to be upfront with the somm and tell him what kind of wine you like and how much you’re prepared to pay. That leads to Eric’s second main point: No one wants to appear cheap.

Isn’t it a funny aspect of human personality that this is so? It has to do with our peculiar attitudes toward money. We like money, but we’re secretive about how much we actually have, even, sometimes, with our friends and relatives. Does anyone know how much you actually make a year? Maybe your accountant and your spouse. Part of human nature is to want to be seen as happy to spend money, even if we’re not. It’s not that people don’t want to appear to be cheap, it’s more that they want to appear to be nonchalant about spending. It somehow seems big-natured. It’s churlish to be seen as overly concerned about spending; it makes the person seem materialistic and shallow–or so the argument goes. So even someone who’s pressed for money may find himself shelling out more than he’s comfortable with on a bottle of wine, especially if he thinks he has to impress the people he’s with.

Should a good sommelier–which is to say, not just one in charge of her list, but one who’s also sensitive to human needs and emotions–be able to pick up on such psychological nuances? I’d argue yes, but I’ve never been a somm, and anyway, the pressure to upsell the customer has always to be there. My favorite type of upscale restaurant is one with a small wine list, not the gargantuan Manhattan telephone book doorstoppers that win wine list awards. I enjoy browsing through those monsters, because I like seeing the names and regions and prices. But, far from those lists being helpful to me, they’re actually a turnoff–and they make me feel that even the best sommelier can’t be aware of every bottle and how it goes with every item on the menu. I actually breathe a sigh of relief when I go to a restaurant that has 20 or 30 good wines on the list: a bubbly, a rosé or two, a few lighter-boded reds, full-bodied reds, crisp, dry whites, light, floral, off-dry whites, and something white and oaky. Makes me think more highly of the proprietor–that he gave careful thought to choosing a handful of perfect wines for his food, instead of throwing everything on there including the kitchen sink.

I’ve always thought that we make too much of the wine-and-food pairing thing anyway. Too fussy, precious and pretentious. I remember an event, years ago, at Fetzer, when the Fetzer family still owned it. They had (and maybe still have) a fabulous organic garden outside of Hopland, up in Mendocino County, and their farmer was growing a bunch of different basils. We had a tasting: the object was to determine which of a range of Zinfandels went best with each kind of basil. It was fun, but I thought that if a home cook had to go through this whole megillah every time she entertained, she’d go nuts.

If you want to make a tomato sauce with basil and drink Zinfandel with it, does it really matter if the basil is purple or green, licoricey or sweet, lemony or cinnamonny? I’m a pretty zealous home cook and, like most of you, I enjoy putting together fairly complex dishes and then pairing them with wines I think will go with them. But at some point, this whole thing hits the tipping point, because after the first sip, hopefully you and your guests will forget about the dilettante aspects of pairing and get down to the serious business of enjoying the food, wine and conversation.

Anyhow, how hard can it be to come up with a satisfying food and wine pairing? Marilyn came to dinner yesterday and for an appetizer had I planned a mozzarella, tomato and basil salad, to take advantage of the last of the season’s Heirlooms. Then I realized I didn’t know what to drink with it, so I asked my Facebook friends. I got scores of suggestions: Champagne, Sardinian Vermentino, Chianti Classico, Barbera d’Asti, Gavi di Gavi, a Czech or German Pilsner, Chardonnay both oaked and unoaked, Bandol rosé, Gruner Veltliner, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, vodka. I bet any of those would be a pretty good pairing with that salad. After all, my Facebook friends, like my blog readers, are some of the most food savvy people in the world. They may not have “M.S.” after their names, but they know what tastes good with what.

So what did I have with the salad? Nothing! Before Marilyn came, I suddenly became ravenous for–you guessed it–mozzarella, raided the fridge and ate the entire container. So potstickers had to substitute for the salad, and with them we enjoyed Deschutes Inversion IPA which was really good.

The future of the sommelier, in my opinion, is to evolve into more of an all-service floor guide for the wine, beer, spirits and food, rather than a wine-oriented specialist. Sort of a maitre d’. Someone who can converse about everything concerning the dining experience: the restaurant’s architecture and interior design, history, philosophy, and the cultural matrix in which the Chef’s cuisine exists. It would be much more comfortable to interact with that person than with someone who made you uncomfortable.

  1. “The future of the sommelier, in my opinion, is to evolve into more of an all-service floor guide for the wine, beer, spirits and food, rather than a wine-oriented specialist.”

    Granted, there are plenty of restaurants who employ wine-oriented specialists, but a true somm fits your description, Steve. Somms have to be versed in beer, spirits, food, cigars and wine—and many of the exams place plenty of emphasis on all of these.

  2. Just Carlos Today says:

    Steve, about your concluding paragraph, i regret to inform the future is really easy to see now and you are right about it. Know where i have seen everything you talk about?

    In Europe, buddy. Viva Europa. They are way ahead of us, south and north americanos, when it comes to the subjects you mention. They are at least 3 or 4,000 years ahead of us.

    I honestly think you nailed it precisely in your forecast. Congrats.

  3. Bill Geofferys says:

    Sadly, for the most part (clearly exceptions exist) the modern somm has become a creature more interested in politicizing wine than promoting its enjoyment. The current iteration seems interested in “oeno-cronyism and the reduction of wine to a very narrow set of stylistic parameters. They are more focused on numbers on a bottle, than the juice with in. Mr Asimov, largely fits this profile as well

    One only need to look to the bloviating Rajat Parr for a prime example. Derision is the mark of the modern somm; not the promotion of great wine

  4. Bill Haydon says:

    Interesting column, Steve. While I’m generally sympatico with the direction that the younger somms are taking things regarding the actual wine, I do have some strong reservations about the profession itself.

    In particular, too many of the younger generation have a boundless sense of self-importance that borders on self-parody. You’re managing a wine list, not working on string theory at Fermilab or treating pediatric cancer patients at Sloan-Kettering. In the words of Sgt. Hulka, “lighten up Francis.” The current generation could certainly use a little perspective about where they stand in the larger scheme of things and possibly some basic courses in professional etiquette.

    If this overarching sense of self-importance is conveyed to a “friendly” purveyor, I can only imagine how it must come across to a guest in the dining room.

  5. Ethymology of Sommelier: from Middle French soumelier official charged with transportation of supplies (Officer of the Somme), from Old French, pack animal driver, probably alteration of *sommerier, from somier pack animal,… beast of burden.
    The English definition is much more simplistic: waiter in charge of wine service!

    A true Sommelier is so much more than just about wine service… Unfortunately, the title has been usurpated by too many waiters wanna be wine savants. As Pamela justly points out a true Somm. is knowledgeable about all that is Food & Beverage.
    In this land of instant gratification, everyone wants the title and recognition without the burden of the learning process.
    Eric (Asimov) must have been writing about wine waiters in general and not about qualified, experienced (true) Sommeliers.

  6. I did the Sommelier thing for a bit and have designed several wine programs. As such I recently judged a Sommelier Competition at the StarChefs Somm Slam, while doing so I went to a couple of wine seminars and found that I was far more interested in those that were moderated by the likes of Daniel Johnnes and other big picture wine people rather than Sommeliers. To me it seems that Sommeliers are viewing wine in a pretty narrow band and really should be required to work in different parts of the industry before working as a Sommelier.

    While a Chef and restaurant owner I had a dream of having all employees work next to me in the kitchen and next to my wife in the front of the house so there was more compassion and understanding in the workplace. If Sommeliers also had experience as cooks, wine retail, wine sales (wholesale), host, dishwasher and busser/wait-persons. I think they would be better at their jobs.

  7. @vinnie: “Pack animal driver”!!! Hahaha!

  8. While a somm is surely an easy target, we can all agree that we appreciate a well-curated and well-priced wine list. anyone who can put one of those together is cool by my standards.

    when it comes to wine-award winning restaurants with phone-book sized wine lists, that’s when things get dicey. most of the time, the somm fits into the self-aggrandizing stereotype that we expect.

    in the end, sommeliers are like cops, politicians, and biodynamic winemakers. there are good ones and bad ones, and you can’t lump them all into one negative stereotype. (and in defense of rajat parr – i met him once, while working at some schmancy SF restaurant where he was eating, and when he learned i was a wine geek, he poured me a taste of a 1976 krug. to this day, that was the best champagne i’ve ever tasted)

  9. The very last heirloom tomatoes in our house are picked green. Then deep fried with a flour/cornmeal, buttermilk/egg dipping routine with a few secrets from a Kentucky grandma (sweat them before with salt,pepper and sugar). If you live in a red state the pairing choice is sweet iced tea. For me the choice is the Barbera D’Asti or a tangy Zin.

    Did you have something to say about sommeliers?

  10. Morton you ARE the sommelier at Chez Leslie.

  11. Good Politicians? Only if they’re sharing Krug Clos Mesnil!


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