Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sommeliers ~ The New Wine Snobs?

Note: I had an email from a wine director/sommelier friend who reminded me that it's not all about "strolling the dining room." And he's right. This is a business and has to be successful , just like any part of the wine biz. So, I am hopeful that people will read the whole post and see it for what it is: Not a blanket accusation against all sommeliers, but a question that asks, "where do you stand in all of this?" -AC

I’m in an Asian restaurant. On one side a party is drinking Gavi on another side Chilean Chardonnay. Across from me the couple is having a Chardonnay from California’s Central Coast. I’m trying a Sauvignon Blanc from Chile. There are no sommeliers to work the floor, but we all make it through the night, our palates intact.

Now it wasn’t a night that I’ll remember forever, but it was one in a string of nights, dining out, where it was just fine.

So what do we need a sommelier for?

With the market shrinking for wine stewards, economic slowdown, hours being cut, positions being eliminated, I have to imagine that there are not just a few sommeliers asking that question too. What am I doing? How do I support my family? Where is this leading? What have I gotten myself into?

Sure there are the Michael Jordans out there, somms who have carved out a niche for themselves. Larry O’Brien, Laura dePasquale, Greg Harrington, Doug Frost. And yes all of these fine folks have risen to the rank of the Master Sommelier, they’ve passed through hell and beyond. But for all those young lads and lassies who are crawling their way up the mountain, what are some of the biggest obstacles in their path?

I’d say that many of the ones I have been encountering lately suffer from the misperception that the world can’t live without them. Listen, the world will use every one of us in whatever way the fates decide. But to the young grasshoppers out there who really care to read to the end of this post, number 1 thing to note: The world doesn’t “need” you.

Sound cruel? Get over it.

One of the cool things about the wine biz is how everyone talks to one another. Winemakers, reps, distribs, brokers, retailers, restaurateurs, export managers; it’s one extended cocktail party. Kind of like Twitter. It’s ongoing and there is no end to the conversation. And while there will be an occasional dominant thread, there will be no single person or wine who will or can dominate the room. It’s a party, remember?

The next big thing? Gruner, been there done that. Greek wine from Paros? Oh please. Biodynamic wine from Georgia? Yeah, tell that to the young couple who just came in for some spring rolls and a sashimi platter. Get real. Stop trying to discover wine and bleeding all over your customers with your new found close-out that you just “discovered”. And please, stop thinking this is just about you, don’t pout, there are many out there who are thinking this way. Which makes it comical, because here we have these guys and gals going out and thinking they have just found the next “it” wine and there about 20 of them who have just done the same exact thing.

Ok, you say I’m being hard on you? Wake up. Somms have so much more support to learn their trade these days. There are groups, there is the Court of Master Sommeliers, the Society of Wine Educators, the Institute of Master of Wine, various wholesalers and importers have their very own educational programs. Thirty years ago? Good luck getting a wine rep to bring you something from the Loire, or an Italian wine that wasn’t Bolla Soave or Fontana Candida Frascati.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t be interested in new and esoteric wines that are flooding the markets. But let’s put it in perspective. These are not bread-and-butter wines. They cannot sustain a restaurant or a sommelier, indefinitely. And unless you are a place like Catalan Food & Wine in Houston and have the intellectual curiosity of an Antonio Gianola and the traffic in the dining room to support an exemplary program like he has put together, than you need to learn to walk. First.

And one of the main messages that young sommeliers never seem to get, is that they walk tall because of the shoulders they stand upon. And they stand high because the shoulders are those of giants. A friend and a colleague, someone who has carved out their very own niche in this business as a broker (not an easy place, always between a rock and a hard spot) said it best, and I quote: “I'm reminding buyers every single day that they better support the generations of winemakers who created a product for them to even have a 'career' these days.”

To even have a career these days, listen to those words, folks. We don’t need any more wine snobs; fortunately, that generation is dying off. And we don’t need any dilettantes. The god of Wine is clear about this; we are all soldiers, we are all one infinitesimal piece of a multi-millennial movement of the grape and humankind, working our way through earth, life and evolution to finer expressions of humanity and vinosity. There is no room for pomposity.

Remember, Columbus didn’t discover America. It was never missing.

So the next time you think you are the first one to have this idea, feeling or inspiration, by all means, be excited. But don’t go putting your byline below it. Or you will have legions of centurions to contend with. Open the bottle, enjoy it, share it, but don’t go thinking you are the god of Wine. Scores of Ancients, from the Greeks to the Romans will attest that is a road which goes deeper than the seven layers of Hell our dear friend Dante wrote about.




13 comments:

tom hyland said...

Alfonso:

This was something that needed to be said and you said it brilliantly! I've met so many people who are studying to become sommeliers and it's clear from their outlook that they think 1) it's cool and 2) they're going to be in the pink, once they pass the exams.

Well, as you said, it ain't easy out there and today, as expensive wines don't have the same reach as before, we may not need so many sommeliers, as you reason.

Bottom line is that they should use their education as part of a big picture- telling customers about too many technical details can ruin a dining experience. Do your work and make sure you enjoy it and make sure others enjoy it!

Luca Risso said...

Nice pic of Fausto de Andreis.
When and where did you do it?
Luk

Alfonso Cevola said...

Tom-
I had an email from a wine director/sommelier friend who reminded me that it's not all about "strolling the dining room." And he's right. This is a business and has to be successful , just like any part of the wine biz. So, I am hopeful that people read the whole post and see it for what it is: Not a blanket accusation against all sommeliers, but a question that asks, "where do you stand in all of this?"

Luca- I visited Fausto a few years ago. We were in his sister's wonderful restaurant, the "Sport Bar".

Jeff Siegel said...

Alfonso, if you keep writing hard-hitting, incisive, and curmudgeonly pieces like this, what am I going to have to write about?

Peter said...

As an Aussie Sommelier, all I can say is we dont take ourselves or the wine gig 'that' seriously! We are lucky. The US grabbed the whole smelly thing and thought'wow we have a chance to be all European about this' we can be all self important and self absorbed and join the long line of wine bores that Europe has sporned. We are lucky that there arent that many of us down here, we dont take ourselves or 'it' too seriously. Most of us have to also be a Restaurant Manager as well as a Sommelier and so we havent walked into a corner over this'trend'. We also generally try to talk a language thats engaging and not aloof- probably because of our intense hatred of the British snobbery that we try to be as far apart from as we can. At the end of the day as you said your smelly mate said its a business, we are there to make money in an industry where things are tough at the best of times if only the press-who help cause some of this 'rock star' generational thinking and the young up and commings could remember this!

Amy Atwood said...

Amen. Amen.
There is ample middle ground between completely giving over your list to the KJs of the world and on the other hand, filling it with overly acidic, low alcohol 'finds'.
But yes, My number one pet peeve has always been buyers (retail or restaurants) that only buy what they personally like...it shows a lack of professionalism.

John M. Kelly said...

"I'm reminding buyers every single day that they better support the generations of winemakers who created a product for them to even have a 'career' these days."

Thank you, Alfonso. I would wish that this sentiment could be shared by writers and distributors as well.

Jeff Siegel said...

Hallelujah, John Kelly! Yes, wine writers are a large, huge part of the problem. Which I know because I am one, and the lack of perspective by so many wine writers drives me absolutely crazy (shameless plug -- http://tinyurl.com/cjsr29).

Greg Randle said...

Brilliant post, Alfonso. You are one of the souls reminding us why we do this in the first place and furthermore keeping us grounded. Cheers to that and Cheers to you...

De Vino said...

The problem is that there are too many last minute Sommelier around with little or no experience. The Sommelier's job,I think is divided into two main parts:
select and propose. Select the wine for the restaurant or shop and suggest a wine fom the selection based on the customer needs (pricing, color food etc etc etc). Considering that I do think is important for a restaurant to have an expert in the house if anything to compile the lists.

beth - the wine school said...

Excellent post and insight, Alfonso.

Weston said...

Interesting take on that, and yes too many people in every profession get snotty when they think they are better.

A sommelier should direct me to a wine that is good, as he should have tasted everything, it would be nice if the server could but is the restaurant going to let every server try every wine? maybe just by the glass wines.

And anyways Wine is a luxury, you don't need it to survive. Its a cash crop its made to make money. Its not food.

Really Goode Girl said...

My first visit to your blog has turned out to be quiet the fortuitous run in. Fantastic anti-snob blog from a man (I see by reading through your history) who could also fall into the category. Stay strong and independent I try and tell myself. Bravo!

Even the real gods of wine would clink their heavenly glasses in agreement.

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