Sunday, February 18, 2018

Snapshot of a Twenty-Something – the Somm in the Sky

…my very own walk in the clouds

This week, many of the great palates (tongue and minds) of wine descended from their perches to land in Dallas, to judge at the Texsom International Wine Awards (TIWA). There are not enough reasons to make Dallas a destination, in the wine world, save for the commerce. But twice a year, master sommeliers and masters of wine, along with some of us mere mortals, convene together to plow through an amazing array of wines from around the world.

I’ve been judging at this event for more than 20 years, having first been invited by Rebecca Murphy, when she ran it as the Dallas Morning News Wine Competition. As the world of wine has expanded, so has TIWA evolved into a larger, more international event. And with the plethora of talent that has been attracted to Texas, twice a year, because of events like Texsom, it feels like myriads of Muhammads come to the mountain (or mound) of Dallas.

Actually, to Grapevine, Texas. Yes, Grapevine.

The men and women who are motivated highly enough to pursue advanced certification are varied in their levels of intellectual inquisitiveness. And that makes for an interesting bunch. Throw in a handful of souls with (non-certified) skills, and it is an intensely concentrated time to sharpen one’s dexterity in tasting and thinking about wine.

What it did, though, was to draw to mind one of my early experiences as a sommelier, back when the crust of the earth was cooling. 1979, to be exact.

I was new to Dallas, and the place abounded with energy and potential. And isn’t that just the place you want to be when you are under 30? A yoga teacher, back then, told me that Dallas was a chakra for the earth, insofar as there is energy emanating from this place. I felt it then, and I feel it now, even with so many cranes and concrete. Dallas is a place that gets rapped for being commercial and glitzy, so to perceive it in another vein, was, and is, for me, a helpful remainder that what we think and perceive isn’t always what it “is.”

In 1979, it was a harbor for opportunity. The country had just emerged from a bloody and pointless war in Southeast Asia. Scandals in Washington D.C. laid bare the lapses of good judgment by human beings in power. And the economy was in the tank. College graduates were waiting tables. Vets, laden with PTSD, were living on the streets, and nobody seemed to care.

But Dallas seemed to cast a light on the future and on the possibility, that a young American could see his or her way through the fog and the darkness. And wine, for this young American, looked like a way out of that fog.

Standing at 560 feet in the air, the Hyatt Reunion Tower houses a full geodesic dome, and looked like a dandelion from a distance. I saw that as a sign, for my brief encounter with Bucky Fuller (who was the mind behind the design of the dome) along with a subsequent study of him (assigned by my architect teacher in university), led me to think this was a visionary design from someone who I would later consider to be the Leonardo da Vinci of the 20th century. And at the top, inside the dome, they had a restaurant. And they needed a sommelier.

So, I applied for the job and got it. I was issued a brown suit, and told to report to work on the following afternoon.

I’d been around sommeliers, and you can read about that in my archives. There were few young somms around then to talk to, let alone study with. The older men were the staid and stuffy, nose in the air, “the only good wine is a French wine” type. And the two female somms that I knew were busy with their families and work and proving to patriarchalis mundi that they were as good, or better (at reduced wages) than the good ‘ol boys. Inotherwords, I was pretty much on my own.

I was busy too. A single dad, a twenty-something and in need of making the rent. And there was no internet. I knew nothing about the various wine educational groups. The Court of Master Sommeliers was in its infancy and The Institute of Masters of Wine was far, far away, in England. But there were books, and libraries in which to check them out.

What I really needed to learn, when I first started, was where the table went, the table who just ordered the bottle of wine from me. You see, I worked in a rotating restaurant. So, by the time I found the bottle of wine, the restaurant had turned (it still does, to this day). I eventually acclimated to the perpetual motion, but on a busy Friday or Saturday night, it initially would befuddle me.

The restaurant wasn’t a “fine dining” spot, as I would eventually move on to. It was a restaurant in the air, like I said, that rotated and had a view of Dallas and on a clear night, all the way to Ft. Worth. Inotherwords, it was a tourist attraction. Why the hotel decided they needed a sommelier, in 1979, is still something I wonder about. Beer was a big thing in Texas (it still is) and whisky and vodka had their grip on diners too. Dallas was a bit macho it its tastes and wine wasn’t cool with the gun-toting crowd that jammed the few steakhouses in the city at the time. And there were the tourists, the looky-loos. Prom night was a bust as well.

I had to struggle with how I was going to sell wine to this crowd. And if I did get a live one, how could I sell them something other than White Zinfandel, Liebfraumilch or Lancers?

In today’s world, we grapple over Col Fondo Prosecco being better wine (as long as it is organic) than the (commercial) garden variety. We wax lugubriously over our choice of Chinon and our preference for Pinot from the Sonoma Coast over Carneros. We encourage young sommeliers to seek out negramoll from Tenerife or listán negro from Lanzarote, as casually as if they were choosing a new pair of yoga pants or running shoes. This is where we have arrived, only 40 years hence.

I, for one, am relieved. And pleased that we have so many more choices today. It means the sommeliers in the past generation, and the wine drinking public, have raised the bar. Forty years ago, we had limited choices in wine, and we had to work with a wary and reluctant public, led kicking and screaming from their Coors and their Dewar’s into the world of wine. Now, I can go into my (suburban) neighborhood grill and get Stolpman Syrah on tap. On tap! And if I want to, I can drink Vietti Nebbiolo with my pastured beef burger. In Dallas, in the burbs! Yes, you can bet on it - progress has been made in the past 40 years – and we’re not done, not even close to done.

The universe I inhabit has risen well beyond those 560 feet, to a world of choice and diversity and just plain fun. And, just quite possibly, you might even be able to thank a sommelier, or the army of sommeliers, male, female, many of them (still) twenty-somethings, for this bright new world of wine.

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Marco Col Fondo said...

Enlightening post. Dizziness would have got to me in that rotating restaurant, let alone finding a table again. This must be not only encouraging for you but comforting as well. All the work that you have done in the last 50 somm years has yielded a harvest beyond anything you could have imagined back in 1979. Thank you.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks, Marco, but in reality it was the greater community that moved people to wine. Glad to be part of a great group of people, young and old, and who are continuing to make it past base camp to the summit....

Marco Ciró said...

You are too modest, but I understand what you mean. I just enjoy seeing it through your lens. Pun intended.

Francly Speaking said...

Great musing on throwback Thursday - In 1978, I started my 'full' time wine career as the 'Wine Steward' [obviously Dallas was more high-falutin with titles] at Plaza III on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City - All the Alumni read, just yesterday, that after 54 years they were closing their doors.... luckily, I still wield a pretty precise corkscrew when called upon! Glad to be in the same era as you [Petrus for under $30.00] , dear Alfonzo!

Alfonso Cevola said...

Tracy/John, thanks for stopping bu - I have no doubt you still wield a corkscrew in a lethal yet life-affirming manner. thanks!

Moxy Castro-League said...

Appreciate this remincence

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