Thursday, February 05, 2009

One Sommelier's Quest for Fire

Sometimes on the wine trail we veer into restaurants. Actually, often. I feel like the old Wells Fargo delivery man, with my pack of information going from outpost to outpost. On the rare occasion there is a kindred soul at the inn.

Last night I ran into one. I had forgotten he had landed at the newly refurbished hotel in downtown Dallas. My first meeting with him was in a large retail chain. You know the kind where they furnish the employees with some kind of apron with a kitschy logo of the owner or the store, which usually has some goofy name? I remember we were in the pinot grigio section and he wanted to show me what he had in Italian wines. The young man kept telling me he wanted to be on the floor of a restaurant as a sommelier, you could really tell it was his dream. Eventually he made his way into the cellar of a renowned hotel, an entry level cellar rat kind of job. But he had ditched the apron.

I kept in touch with him via email over the next few years. Through time he made his way up the ladder out of the cellar to another new and bright hotel as an assistant to the head sommelier. He was moving on up. When a nearby hotel went looking for a sommelier for their renovated restaurant he applied and got the position as their sommelier. In less than a few years he went from dusting bottles in a chain store to acquiring great wines for an elegant room with a young chef and a new direction.

When I saw him last night, in his brown pinstripe suit and his certified sommelier pin on the lapel it really did my heart good. He is following his dream and getting to his promised land. And that’s not an easy thing in today’s world. Looking around the room at 9:00 PM, there were few guests dining on this night, I could see his disappointment that he couldn’t offer his services to the people in the seats because the seats were empty. And who knows when they will fill up again? On this night I was with a group of writers and p.r. folks. It was the normal activity that hotels and p.r. moguls do to get the word out.

One combination our sommelier put together with the chef was unusual and inventive. It was a salmon carpaccio with mascarpone and thinly sliced (shaved?) fennel. Our somm paired this dish with a young Vernaccia di San Gimignano. The pairing of the three elements with the wine was perfect, not that I was looking for that. I’m over perfect matches; life just isn’t that way most of the time. But once in a while, the lightning strikes and it‘s magic. When the young somm asked me what I thought of the pairings I mentioned the Vernaccia. I didn’t remember it at the time but rolling around in my head was a paraphrase of what Michelangelo once remarked about the wine, that “it kisses and caresses you, it bites and throws you!”

I could see from the inner glow that the young somm was pleased that someone had noticed that he tried very hard to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. I was looking at his brown suit and flashed back to a day thirty years ago when I donned a brown suit and went to work as a sommelier in the same city. It was one of those restaurants which rotate high above the city. I digress for a moment, excuse me. I remember going into the wine room to get the umpteenth bottle of white zinfandel (it was a destination restaurant for tourists) and upon coming out of the room I lost my table. Of course they were just twenty or so feet from where they were when I went in to get the wine. But it so disoriented me (and I have a little fear of heights anyway) that after a few weeks of that I took off my brown suit and went on to my next job. Now that restaurant has also been renovated and there is another young somm up there, which is another story. All this to say, we have come a long way, but the situation still requires diligence and devotion. We still have to get them in the seats and make them feel good.

Maybe it was the glow from the wines, or the homemade limoncello or the Madeira, but when I left that dining room I really wished that these young people, chefs, servers, sommelier, will be able to get everything they want from their livelihood in that dining room. If you are in the wine business you know what I am talking about. We need the business to once again flourish and thrive. OK, I've gotten schmaltzy, I’ll stop now.

Go find a sommelier and help them keep their fires burning.


Anonymous said...

Schmaltz is not a bad thing

Marco Portopalo said...

It's a rare noble feeling that you describe so well here. The term "job satisfaction" always sounded a little hollow to me.
..." but when I left that dining room I really wished that these young people, chefs, servers, sommelier, will be able to get everything they want from their livelihood in that dining room."

Tony McClung said...

I remember being a young sommelier and meeting you for the first time, AC. Your knowledge, passion and fire were also an inspiration.

JT said...

HH deserves his success, after working for one of the best somms in the city at two excellent restaurants. Thanks, AC, for recognizing his passion, hard work, and dedication.

nancy said...

Lovely sentiment (sediment?) we need more stories like this is the biz

BK said...

You really should take inspiration from those Carnivale photos and join me for a "drink" at Mardi Gras in two weeks. I'll be the only sober one -- easy to spot!

...BK Portobello

SB said...

I know the feeling too well. Thanks for recognizing what makes it worthwhile.

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