Sunday, November 07, 2021

A Cautionary Tale - The Insolent Sommelier Pt. I

This is a tale about a most miserable wine steward

When Primo Sguattera first saw his son, Segundo, in the hospital, he couldn’t recognize any similarity between him and the newborn. He was so small, and remained that way into adulthood. Primo thought Segundo might not be his son, more likely the pairing between his wife and the weather-beaten scarecrow out in the corn fields outside of Tijuana where they lived.  But his wife swore she’d had no other man, even if Primo was less than the most desirable choice for a husband and a father. Fate had it that way.

Segundo’s mother, Maria Teresa, was a mother and a martyr. She had been named by her grandmother, who had the ability to sense the future. So, she prepared Maria Teresa for her future, giving her a name that would explain, in two words, her life to herself. That made for little happiness, if indeed at least there was some clarity to it all.

Eventually the family emigrated up into Texas and raised the son in a dual culture. Segundo always seemed to have a shadow hanging over him, even with his diminutive stature. At adult age, he barely grew to 5 feet (4’ 11’, in his bare feet). But on work applications, he always put 5’4”. Just as he also claimed to have graduated from high school. But Segundo was dyslexic, and he lost many days out of school, as his mother shielded him from the bullies and the lessons. At 14 he went to work full time in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant, eventually working his way up to busboy. Mother spoiled him, and Primo tried to make a man out of him, but as he put it, “I didn’t have enough to work with.”

The thing about Segundo was, that he was born a pessimist. And this was affirmed daily by Primo, who never really learned to love anyone, let alone a son with learning disabilities and a small stature. Primo was 5’11”, but he always told everyone he was 6’2”.

Secundo was an average busboy. Not too fast, but strong enough to make up for it. And stubborn enough to think he would go places, if he just stuck to it. But he had that cloud of doom pursuing him. He exuded anger. And moroseness. He wasn’t a pleasant person to be around.

But if we only spent time in the wine trade with people we liked, our days would be short and our sales would be slim. I learned from serving in restaurants to suck it up. The customer is always right. Aren’t they?

I caught up with him after he left the Italian restaurant as a bus boy. He was working his way up the ranks, as a food runner at a tony French restaurant, Le Chant du Coq. The chef was a temperamental sort. Brilliant with food, but a disaster with human relations. Always angry. One of his favorite sayings was, “People, what do they know?” When it came to his purveyors, his favorite quip about them was “F*ck ‘em and forget ‘em! They don’t pay my bills.” Well, it seems neither did he, as he recorded bankruptcy a number of times. He reveled in his dearth of conscience.

From his lead, the insolence spread across his staff. Segundo fell under his spell, which only furthered his contumely attitude. It was as if he were being set up to reflect all that his father had envisaged for his unwanted spawn.

Then Segundo got his big break. As a server at an up-and-coming, hip Italian spot. At first, he was just a waiter, but he took an interest in wine. I admit we tried to bring him along, but he would have nothing to do with me.  “I want to learn Italian wine my way,” he telegraphed. So, he was left to his devices. It was a recipe for disaster. Segundo was vying to be “the” Italian wine sommelier in this big little town. A title, which, quite frankly, no one else vied for.  

And the sommelier community was there, waiting, to snap him up and swallow him whole, taking his money for a pin. And God knows what else.

In town one day, I took a world-savvy supplier there for lunch. His takeaway? “El Segundo has the quintessential flyover palate profile. He likes them big and buttery, fruity, chewy and tannic, and alcoholic and expensive. He’s a waiter first and foremost, always looking to build the check and get a bigger tip.” That was after a $400 lunch that provided no further inroad into his realm.

What to do? The customer is always right. The customer is king. We’re in a service industry. How do we crack the code of this quirky little buyer? How do we bring light and happiness to this wretched soul? Indeed, how does one do that? 

…to be continued





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