Attack Of The Sommeliers!
To Sideways, Mondovino, and Bottle Shock, you can now add Somm, a forthcoming documentary that follows several sommeliers as they attempt the notoriously difficult Master Sommelier exam. The trailer was just released, and while Somm has unmistakable echoes of reality TV, it looks like an engaging film and I’m eager to see it. I imagine it will further glamorize a profession that already enjoys significant star power on these shores. Indeed, sommeliers have truly become the rock stars of the American wine scene. There is a lot of talk these days about the future of wine journalism, but I wonder if those of us doing all the navel-gazing have overlooked one possibility: could the next set of big-time wine communicators come from the ranks of America’s sommeliers?
It’s a question prompted not only by Somm, but also by a recent thread on JancisRobinson.com, in which importer Bartholomew Broadbent made the following claim: “Today, sommeliers are becoming the most influential wine group in America—they are so organized that, I predict, within the next 7 years, they will trump all wine writers and bloggers, simply because they are so interconnected and have a direct influence on the consumer.” I’m not sure that sommeliers are all that organized, but there is no denying that they play a significant tastemaker function in the United States; just look at how fashionable grüner veltliner became for a time. Andrea Robinson made the jump from sommelier to wine communicator and is now among America’s foremost wine popularizers; there is no reason to think that other sommeliers can’t follow her lead.
A big push into the realm of wine content (print, digital, video, some blend thereof) would seem to be the next logical step in America’s sommelier revolution. As I wrote a few years ago in Slate, Americans have completely redefined professional wine service and have turned the role of sommelier into an exemplar of upward mobility. In addition to acquiring the kind of celebrity that normally attaches itself to chefs, sommeliers are moonlighting nowadays as winemakers and entrepreneurs, and a few are also nibbling at the edges of journalism. Rajat Parr, who oversees wine for Michael Mina’s restaurant empire, recently co-authored an excellent book with Jordan Mackay titled Secrets of the Sommeliers, which combines an inside look at the life of a sommelier (more glamorization!) with practical advice for consumers. And that last bit underscores a key point: besides having an encyclopedic knowledgeable of wine, the finest sommeliers are superb communicators, which suggests that they are more than capable of competing on the same turf that I do.
But pace Broadbent, it’s also possible that sommeliers may recede in importance in the years ahead. Steve Heimoff had an item yesterday riffing off an article in the San Francisco Chronicle looking at how tablet devices are replacing waiters in some restaurants. Heimoff suggested that if waiters can be supplanted by machines, so can sommeliers. I think that’s true; lots of people can navigate wine lists on their own and neither need nor want human guidance. The upscale bistros that are all the rage in Paris at the moment do without sommeliers; as Christian Constant, the godfather of the so-called bistronomie movement, put it to me, “People know wine as well as the sommelier.” That’s an exaggeration, but plenty of people know wine well enough that they can manage without the help of a sommelier. Doing without a sommelier is also a way for restaurants to keep costs down, and at a time when diners want good value in addition to good food, that’s no small consideration. We have an increasingly self-confident wine culture in the United States, and we also have a struggling economy, and it’s possible that these two things could lead restaurants here to cut back on dedicated wine service. If that happens, I suppose some sommeliers might dive into wine journalism out of necessity rather than choice. When they discover how lucrative it is, they’ll be kicking themselves for having waited so long!