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Attack Of The Sommeliers!

2012 January 17
by Mike

To SidewaysMondovino, 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!

50 Responses leave one →
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  5. Stephanie permalink
    January 18, 2013

    I agree with Matt S. The number one reason guests ask for me, and continuously come back (outside of the great food, and service), is a hospitable interaction, and a personalized experience. Sommeliers work extremely hard, and strive for current, and continued excellence every day. We can program a tablet to filter through various varietals, taste profiles, vintage charts, and maybe even tours of the winery; but no electronic device will replace the elegance, grace, and cordial nature- a well trained sommelier will possess.

  6. Rob permalink
    January 24, 2012

    I’m in the MS program and the restaurant business, although below the level of the gentlemen in SOMM. I’ve hung out with a number of folks who have either achieved their MS, or are close to it. A few of them are pompous, but most of them are humble people busting their tails. Why do they crave all this knowledge? Do they desire fame, fortune, the opportunity to swill great stuff, travel to exotic vineyards or all of the above? Every one of them will have a different response. With the good sommeliers, their passion shines through. When I’m dining in a restaurant, sometimes they know that I’m in the business, other times not. Either way, they add to the pleasure of my meal, often showing me wine avenues I hadn’t considered. I wonder about some of the negative comments in this thread. Are these folks the ones that love to play “stump the somm”, or are convinced they’re about be swindled? Stop viewing the sommelier as your competition. Relax, communicate your tastes/budget, and let him/her show you solution(s) to a great meal. One more thought for the negative nancys out there: the sommelier you saw in the restaurant last night might have been spending time before and/or after his/her shift studying, not only to pass an exam, but to make your restaurant experience a little bit better. You don’t have to thank him/her, but please be nice.

  7. Bill Haydon permalink
    January 20, 2012

    I don’t ever see the MS program having a significant influence on shaping the market and consumer thinking. As others have noted, this is in large part due to the fact that many of them do not have the communication skills to reach a broader audience. This may come off as elitist, but it’s nonetheless true. I know several MS who have no formal education beyond high school. Several others who never finished college or obtained hospitality management type degrees. Again, this doesn’t constitute the entire court, but it is certainly a significant presence.

    Contrast that with the MW program. While the old image of MWs coming from Oxbridge backgrounds, may no longer hold, those that I have met tend to be well educated and have the ability to write and present their thoughts critically both within the circle of wine professionals and outward to the larger public. I’ve helped three American candidates out in recent years on their third year research project. The fact that they are required to complete and present an original piece of research alone tell me the difference between the two programs.

    For this reason, I would love to see the MW program take on more prominence in the US.

  8. Chris Wallace permalink
    January 19, 2012

    For me the dining experience is about the food, the ambience of the room, the wine and most importantly the people. And like it or not, the people include all of the people, not just those at your table. Good wait staff and good sommeliers can definitely enhance the dining experience, just as poor ones can detract from it. I have certainly had many more positive interactions with wait staff and sommeliers than negative ones. I think that a good sommelier can never be replaced by a tablet (which is just a glorified wine list). The interaction with someone who has knowledge, experience , ideas, passion and a desire to make the evening enjoyable is an added bonus to any dining experience. Most sommeliers in my experience have met that description.

    Ed, your comments come across as nihilistic. Appreciating wine is not curing cancer, but it has its useful place in society as do those who make a profession of it. You have obviously had some negative experiences with snobby sommeliers. I wonder how much your attitude contributed to the outocme?

  9. Bill Klapp permalink
    January 19, 2012

    An ancillary point, Mike, speaking of fun with sommeliers: I get along VERY well with the ones who gladly wave corkage fees for a proffered pour of the really good shit that my table is drinking!

  10. January 19, 2012

    Mike great post and what a great discussion! There is nothing more telling than everyone having an opinion. If something doesn’t matter it gets no response. I love to read everyones viewpoints.

    The etymology of the term sommelier is derived from one who was in charge of logistics and pack animals in a royal court. This is a far cry from a restaurant floor. I think the definition of the term has been and is in constant flux.

    I hope to see more and more consumers attending wine education courses. However, I don’t think this will reduce the need for sommeliers but on increase the need. That opinion is likened to saying that because people watch the food network restaurants don’t need chefs. The educated consumer looks for restaurants with great sommeliers to interact with.

    While it is true that some sommeliers are pompous and arrogant I don’t think that is exclusive to our profession. You will find this attitude everywhere. As Matt stated a sommelier should be humble and interested in you and your dining experience, if this is not the case vote with your dollars.

    More and more wine professionals are seeking education as our industry in growing and many seek to differentiate themselves. They are looking to all forms of education to enhance their knowledge base. Many non-sommeliers are interested in sommelier programs. At our recent TEXSOM conference a winery representative won our ‘Texas Best Sommelier’ competition. It is a brave new world and we may need to look at our static opinions and see if they still apply. I would love to see this discussion continue and hope all keep their minds open.

  11. Matt S permalink
    January 18, 2012

    Ok, I have held the position of sommelier in one of America’s top restaurants (in Napa Valley), but I have also worked as a sommelier in Omaha, NE. A fellow Master Sommelier also worked in Omaha, NE. I am convinced that, in any reasonably-sized market in the country, the job can be created and sustained. Perhaps the number of somms will not be legion, but the equation of a burgeoning culture of food/wine and a curious clientele interested in exploration and new experiences creates a hospitable environment for the profession. This movie will help to raise awareness of the position, and help to humanize it.

    I think a lot of people continue to have outdated impressions of sommeliers. Certainly, there are a lot of bad sommeliers out there: in any sales industry there are those who care about the product and those who care only about the profit. Ed, I think that if most agreed with your assessment that wine really doesn’t matter, or shouldn’t be the subject of serious and passionate conversation, we would live in a world where most wine salesmen fell into the latter camp. That would be pretty boring. I want someone selling me something–anything–to be passionate about it. I have friends who obsess over the most random and trivial things, and godddamn if the world isn’t richer for it.

    I think a lot of people, if they have a bad experience with a single sommelier, tend to extrapolate that experience and apply it to the whole lot. Fine, human, understandable. I do the same thing with insurance salesmen. But I think it is important to consider that a good sommelier realizes that, in order for the wine program to make a tidy profit, guests have to fundamentally enjoy it, and want to return. So, a good sommelier exercises humility rather than hubris, and listens. I want to get you the best possible bottle for you, at a price that will not make you flinch. I want you to enjoy your time with the wine, the restaurant, and our interaction. If you tell me that you like Opus One, well, I am going to recommend a bottle of wine that costs several hundred dollars, in that style. If you tell me you like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, I am not going to try to stick you with premier cru white Burgundy. If Russian River Pinot Noir is your jam, I’m not going to give you a hard sell on Madiran. I am going to do my best to listen to you, to recommend based on your preferences, to speedily get a bottle of wine down, and then to take care of you (and your table) throughout the evening. That’s all we do. It is not an exalted profession, but it is an honest one. Sommeliers work hard (often 60+ hours a week), study hard, and try to know and perfect their craft in the service of the guest. In our days off we visit wineries, or hit the books. If we get a vacation we go to wine regions. We constantly strive to improve. Why denigrate that kind of attitude?

    The best sommeliers remember that, ultimately, they are in the service industry. We are here to serve. Period. If this movie can help the public understand that this is the goal of the sommelier, and that all of our education, certification and study are in service of this goal, then I think it accomplishes something outstanding.

  12. Bud Carlos permalink
    January 18, 2012

    Mike, it’s arguable whether upmarket bistrots are the rage in Paris. It’s the wine-bar annex of the gastro-bistrot that is trend (just as was the bistrot d’à côté trendy a decade or two back.)
    That has, at least, been my experience, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Paris during the
    last couple of years researching such stuff for a possible book. You are correct in pointing out that few new bistrots employ sommeliers, although I can provide a number of exceptions. What is happening, however, is that increasingly there are openings of so-called néo-bistrots by
    a couple of guys who paid their dues with Constant, et al. Usually one is the chef and the other
    is the front-of-the-house guy, who is often a wine guy as well. He does double-duty as
    sommelier. As for Constant, apparently he employs a sommelier but you wouldn’t know it
    from the wine list at his principal restaurant, Le Violon d’Ingès, top-heavy with Bordeaux
    and lacking excitement elsewhere.

  13. Ed Masciana permalink
    January 18, 2012

    You guys are just making my point even clearer. Sorry, but it’s still just wine. I have a lot of friends who I think the world of who make great wine. It’s an art, no question. But to compare that to Renoir, Beethoven or Shakespeare? Are you nuts?

    Obviously, that kind of thinking IS the problem.

    This conversation is as boring as falling asleep during a discussion of pre and post phyloxera wines. Get a fucking life!

  14. January 18, 2012

    This is an absolutely fantastic discussion, and my thanks to everyone who has weighed in.

    Bill, you make a number of excellent points, as usual. As you know, I’m generally very enthusiastic about the influence that sommeliers have come to exercise in this country, and like you, I enjoy the interaction. I love, for instance, when sommeliers decide to have some fun with me and start serving stuff blind. I certainly don’t need to be entertained when I’m dining out, but that sort of thing can make for a very enjoyable evening, and it’s not a service that any tablet device can offer (yet).

    Randy, thanks for stopping by and for sparking such a great conversation. You make a fascinating point about writing skills, and it will interesting to see if the tablet devices lead to improved writing on the part of sommeliers. Thanks, too, for the link to Sommelier Journal; I had the pleasure of writing a piece for them a few years ago, and the fact that such a publication even exists is itself indicative, I think, of just how much glamour has attached itself to the sommelier profession here in the United States.

  15. Randy Caparoso permalink
    January 18, 2012

    Ditto, Brian!

  16. Brian M. permalink
    January 18, 2012

    Ed,

    I’d be hard-pressed to tell a Swiss watchmaker, it’s just a bucket bolts that tells time…or Picasso that its just some swirls of paint on a canvas. Similarly, I wouldn’t tell a winemaker who has dedicated his life to his craft, that “it just a bottle of wine…” And if I’m a steward of that bottle of wine, why should I be hated on for exuding the same passion as the man or woman who made it.

    You’re entitled to your opinion and I realize that we’re not saving lives here, but neither is Picasso, Mozart, or Hemmingway. They just brought beautiful things into our world. Why can’t wine be that for some?

    If you want to confine this to a sales argument, ” ’47 this or ’53 that” is unimportant to some guests, true, but to others it’s very important — important enough that they would be willing throw down 10k+ on a bottle…that’s if they had a trustworthy palate and mind guiding them. And if they don’t need to be guided, they’ll more often than not want to, at the very least, be around a somm who gets it. And that’s good for business.

    I agree with you that some people lord their knowledge over others to feel self-important. But that’s a recurring problem everywhere you go, in every field, in every walk of life. And it aint goin’ away. The Court of Master Sommeliers and MW program do not breed this; it’s a fault of mankind.

  17. Randy Caparoso permalink
    January 18, 2012

    Here’s the thing, my friends: everybody knows the entire restaurant concept (owners, chefs, entertaining waiters, beautiful hostesses, wisecracking valets, et al.) can be an “ego” thing. No doubt, that’s why people keeping going back to restaurants — to eat, drink, experience the show, and even kiss the girls, slap the owners’ backs and cross swords with the sommeliers…

    I agree, of course, that sommeliers can be intimidating to less wine knowledgeable people; and sommeliers who can’t handle that situation with intelligence, grace and aplomb are, basically, lousy sommeliers. Hey, there are lousy people everywhere — lousy chefs, lousy car mechanics, lousy cleaners, even lousy winemakers. But you can’t blame entire trade industries for the less proficient individuals.

    Personally, I’ve always felt that wine snobs have resented sommeliers mostly because it bothers them to have *their* egos bruised — not that the sommeliers have an ego. Then again, there’s nothing wrong with this. If you’re knowledgeable about wine, then you should have an ego about it, but that goes for both wine savvy guests and wine savvy sommeliers. After spending over 25 years walking restaurant floors, I think I’m in the position to say this.

  18. Ed Masciana permalink
    January 18, 2012

    Absolutely on the knowledge. You have to know what you have as well as what you don’t so you can guide the consumer. But let’s face it guys, it’s really not that important in the real world. All this falderal is sooo unnecessary. Knowledge of art, music, history and literature is much more interesting, and those people don’t run around with letters after their name or brag ad nauseam about the ’53 this or the ’47 that or bret, barrique and Brunello. That’s all bullshit.

    All these programs for certification just gives lesser people bragging rights about a topic that really isn’t that important. And, as if I don’t feel strongly enough about this, what galls me most is that there really isn’t any desire on the part of these programs to share that knowledge. It’s like “let’s build a wine robot.” Do you really need to have all that stuff in your head for instant regurgitation? Like reciting all the Grand Crus in Fixin? Look it up.

    It’s not what you know, it’s what you impart.

  19. Brian M. permalink
    January 18, 2012

    Agree to agree, Randy!

  20. Brian M. permalink
    January 18, 2012

    Ok, this I agree with Ed! Thanks for clarifying! But while knowledge can lead to ego, the answer is not to abandon knowledge. For every diner who doesn’t want a know-it-all in their ear, there’s a well-informed diner looking for well-informed opinion. A great sommelier knows when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.

  21. Randy Caparoso permalink
    January 18, 2012

    Brian it’s strange that you agree with me on only “some points,” and at the same time simply repeat what I was saying about Master Sommelier exams not emphasizing writing skills (and it’s not my fault that they’re called “oral exams”). How about if we just agree to agree? Sommeliers aspiring to MS levels must know wine, and they must be able to intelligently present wine orally aside from serving it properly.

    But my other point is that too bad the MS exams doesn’t encourage sommeliers write more literate wine lists. Like many people, I think pad devices will become the wave of the future — not the only way to present wine lists, but certainly a common way — but it will be a shame if sommeliers won’t be able to fill them with information because they can’t write a complete sentence.

    Be as it may, the sommelier trade will continue to survive and even expand. But to those who object to the original definition of the word, referring to someone who serves wine in a public place: sorry. You may call yourself a “sommelier” although you never have or don’t work in a restaurant or hotel, but please give these restaurant and hotel working stiffs their due respect by acknowledging that they are, no matter what anyone says, the “true sommeliers.”

  22. Brian M. permalink
    January 18, 2012

    Love your comments, Bob. Celebrefying vs. educating the waitstaff. Putting myself in the shoes of the restauranteur, why not both? After all, when the celeb is done shaking hands someone has to educate that wine staff…

    Ed…really? Thanks for stepping in there Randy!

  23. Randy Caparoso permalink
    January 18, 2012

    Mr. Behlendorf, your vision of a “true sommelier” sounds grand, and I’m sure a lot of sommeliers would love it if people really did want their opinions about wine and wine/food matches. But the fact is, most people are either afraid of asking are simply don’t want a sommelier’s advice, no matter how good he or she is at it.

    So in respect to your definition: a “true sommelier” is also a restaurant-spun psychologist: someone with the good sense to help where it is needed and wanted, and to stay the heck out of the way of people who don’t want their help. That’s also why sommeliers are *always* in charge of staff training: many people are more comfortable talking with their waiter rather than someone known as a sommelier. Therefore, the sommelier’s job is to turn the wait staff into wine “experts,” too.

    All your great restaurants around the country — from Gramercy Tavern in New York and No. 9 Park in Boston to Michael Mina in San Francisco and Alan Wong’s in Honolulu — work this way. Sommeliers are there to provide expertise and give you a good wine program to begin with, but it’s still all about service: the last thing they want to do with guests in make them feel like fools or idiots.

  24. January 18, 2012

    So, to be a Sommelier, you have to work in a restaurant?

    To me, being a Sommelier is about figuring out a way to open up an extraordinary experience with wine for someone who previously did not have access to it. I have found ways to use that knowledge outside of the restaurant setting…but I still wear my Sommelier pin proudly and I still find opportunities for work where I get to talk to people about wine, regardless of whether they are scratching their heads or not. Maybe I am lucky.

    And Ed is right, it is about selling wine, but it’s not just “moving inventory”… Sommelier’s are passionate about wine sales, service, history, culture etc. There is a difference between “feeling important” and being proud of the work you do, whatever it is.

  25. Ed Masciana permalink
    January 18, 2012

    Good points. Obviously training the staff is the most important as the Wine Person can’t be at every table all the time. Having a balanced list and trying to offer as many tastes as possible while adhering to a budget, both the restaurant’s and the customer’s, is easier said than done, but not impossible.

    What I object to, as I have for over 40 years in this business, is the snob factor. It’s what has turned people off about wine for generations. Way too many people where their wine knowledge like some sort of right of passage. It’s just a bottle of wine for christ’s sake! It has no importance other than what some people try to give it and that’s when I start loading the gun.

    Most diners can’t even pronounce the word sommelier so the intimidation factor starts before they even sit down. Please tell me what good that does? Just what you want, right? An intimidated diner who is there to enjoy themselves and right off they can’t pronounce your title. Get rid of the freakin’ word! It sucks. Do any of you know that the word in French literally means the person who stocks the pantry. Their stockers. So stock the pantry, help the customer, but don’t walk around like you’re god’s gift to the wine community. And, hey people, we’ve all seen them haven’t we?

    MWs are even worse, but let’s not even start on that. Even Jancis Robinson agrees.

  26. Brian M. permalink
    January 18, 2012

    Randy, I agree with you on some points. The MW program is commendable for its emphasis on journalism. It’s a fine program which I have a tremendous amount of respect for. The MS exam does not emphasize writing skills I grant you, but then again, it’s goal is not to make you a journalist. It’s geared toward being a sommelier at the highest level, which has less to do with prose and more to do with taking care of a guest, running an effective beverage program, honing one’s’ palate, etc.

    To say the MS exam “focuses strictly on oral communication” makes it sound like they’re teaching you how to navigate a route canal. The MS exam is much more than “oral communication” and “rote knowledge”. If it weren’t, there would be many more MS’s out there.

    Certainly the MS program is not for everyone, nor is it a necessary path to be a great sommelier, as evidenced by the aforementioned Parr and Johannes. But this film seems to be attempting to show us exactly what sacrifices a select few sommeliers have made for their craft.

    Mike, to answer your question posed to Brandon, As for the younger breed, there are certainly plenty of people like Eric Railsback at RN74, who are making names for themselves outside the Court. I will say, however, most are seeking certification. Nationwide and especially here in the bay area, the number of people signing up for exams is growing exponentially — so much so that it’s hard to keep up with demand.

  27. Bob Behlendorf permalink
    January 18, 2012

    The true sommelier – a wine scholar whose sensory skills are sufficient to weave a guided path for his/her customers through the daunting maze of flavors, aromas, tannins, bodies, acids, etc., etc., etc., to the point of blending his/her understanding of the customer preferences with the potential right matche(s) from his/her wine inventory – the truly talented sommelier who is constantly learning, yet never above it all – the true sommelier who can express verbally the qualities of his/her recommendation without presumption, always in the best interest of the customer – the true sommelier has my sincerest appreciation.

    I am totally comfortable finding something acceptable in almost any American wine list. Yet I will always listen to the sommelier until I either accept his/her recommendations or decide they are simply marketing for restaurant inventory clearing purposes. The true sommelier will ask me first what I am selecting to eat. Then he/she will inquire about my wine tastes and preferences, something beyond “White with fish and red with beef”. He/she will then recommend several and one of choice and offer me a sample. If the sample pleases, me, I have learned something about the sommelier, that he/she has intelligently listened to my wine preferences and suggested a wine that truly fits me. To me, that is the essence of the sommelier, to successfully fit me to the wine and the food I am about to eat. Anything less is less.

    The true sommelier these days will more likely be an informed waitperson, and maybe for the good. The waitperson has a better opportunity to observe the customer response to the wine/food pairing. Perhaps, the wine community would be better focused on educating the wait staff and less on “celebrefying” the sommelier. After all, if the food is good and the wine is good with the food, you will leave remembering and possibly returning. That’s all there is.

  28. Randy Caparoso permalink
    January 18, 2012

    Ed, I beg to slightly disagree (re “why are sommeliers so important?). First and foremost, sommeliers play an important role of getting wine to the table in a busy restaurant — so in that sense, they exist to fulfill a basic service principle (and people hate bad service in restaurants).

    Second, it makes sense that sommeliers must develop something of an expertise because people also hate it when, say, beauticians don’t know hair, mechanics don’t know cars, chefs don’t know food, and sommeliers don’t know wine. Yes, “sales” is part of it, but the basic principle is still service.

    Third, sommeliers also run wine programs, write wine lists, train staffs, and do the physical work of stocking cellars or supply rooms, polishing wine glasses, working with chefs and owners to develop menus and promotins, etc. You can’t really run a restaurant with a credible wine program without someone with some kind of expertise (either a little or a lot) to do a decent job of it. So in this sense, sommeliers exist to fill a necessary operational role. Someone has to do it — it could be an owner, a manager or bartender, but smart wine savvy restaurants employ a specialist: the sommelier.

  29. January 18, 2012

    They’re salespeople. That’s what they do. They sell wine. Period. Who cares how much they know about wine? They’re not there to hold a wine class. They are there to move inventory. I could never figure out why they think they’re so important.

  30. Randy Caparoso permalink
    January 18, 2012

    Real sommeliers, of course, are those who fill that position in restaurants; and so just like retailers, they’ve always had the advantage of having direct one-on-one interaction with consumers on a daily basis. Having worked as a full-time restaurant wine professional for over 25 years and, at the same time, a regularly published wine journalist (newspaper columns, magazine pieces, etc.) for just as long, I’ve always felt that my perspective was different from that of other writers — especially in terms of food conciousness and the simple issue of knowing what people actually like to drink.

    So it’s not surprising that significant numbers of sommeliers have also transitioned into full-time wine writers — a process that will undoubtedly continue for as long as there’s little green apples and no summer rain in Indianapolis. For those interested in reading bunches of them at a time, check out Sommelier Journal at http://www.sommelierjournal.com/.

    Finally, if anything, the emergence of tablet device wine lists will make development of writing skills even more of a necessity for working sommeliers. As it were, Master Sommelier exams focus strictly on oral communication and essentially rote wine knowledge (as opposed to Master of Wine exams, which absolutely require writing skills), which explains why most wine lists (not all) are either minimally literate or as interesting to read as old fashioned telephone books. But if devices are handed out, *someone* has to write good text for the content. It will be a good day when that becomes a rule rather than exception.

  31. January 18, 2012

    Thanks, Brian; much appreciated. That’s an excellent point about the difference between European and American sommeliers and how they are perceived, and it will be interesting to see if the documentary reaches a big enough audience to foster greater awareness on these shores. And you may well be right: perhaps the role of sommelier will simply evolve as the clientele evolves–there will be less need for hand-holding, but maybe new needs and wants will arise.

  32. January 18, 2012

    Brandon, thanks for stopping by. You mention the Court of Master Sommeliers; how important do you think certification is to the sommelier profession here in the US, and are younger sommeliers increasingly going the certification route and pursuing the MS?

    Paul, that’s an interesting point about retailers. I’m not sure I agree; retailers should be hugely influential, but a lot of them have abdicated any real advisory role and rely on points to sell their wines. Hopefully, this is starting to change, and more and more retailers will get back to selling wines rather than selling points. I think sommeliers have shown the way forward on this score-as I said before, I think they’ve done an amazing job of championing wines and grape varieties that might not get much if any attention from the major critics.

  33. January 18, 2012

    Guilty as charged, Jay; New York does skew one’s perspective (although I actually live closer to Baltimore than I do to NY). Is Washington significantly better than Baltimore in terms of sommeliers? At any rate, I think the superstar sommelier phenomenon is very much a New York/San Francisco thing, with a few outliers in other places.

  34. Bill Klapp permalink
    January 18, 2012

    Mike, Jay confirms what I have always observed about sommeliers in this country: it ain’t a real job, much less a growing profession, outside of major urban areas, and even in upscale semi-urban or suburban markets that give it a go (mine stateside is the so-called “Research Triangle” area that encompasses Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, along with a research park and six or so colleges/universities, including Duke, UNC and NC State), sommeliers are often tried briefly and abandoned as an unnecessary expense.

    Also, while I have not made a grand tour of France’s Michelin-starred palaces lately, I note your indication that the trendy bistros are doing without sommeliers, and from extensive experience, I can tell you that sommeliers are rare in Italy, as the waiters or owners/maitre d’s handle the wine service, and as knowledgably and well as the best sommeliers in the U.S. Of course, a case can be made (and I believe that you made it by implication in a blog just a few days ago) that most European restaurants, especially the smaller ones, are more parochial in their wine selections and focus almost exclusively on local and perhaps national wines, which undoubtedly allows proprietors and waiters to amass meaningful tasting experience quickly and easily. There is also the experiential tailwind provided by the fact that nearly everyone drinks wine with meals in Europe, unlike the U.S.

    It does not surprise me that sommeliers have attained popularity in the larger U. S. markets that harbor many serious wine buffs, since America is, as I have so often said just to piss off the culturally insecure, the land of the culturally insecure. Advertising absolutely PREYS upon those insecurities. And we have to have an alleged “expert” validate our every opinion and hone our every skill: golf and tennis pros, ski instructors, art/movie/TV critics, fashion magazines, Car and Driver and Motor Trend (by the way, has this website won any J.D. Power awards yet?), Time, Newsweek, CNN and Fox News to predigest world news and spin it into distorted and often false “realities” that cater to various American constituencies. And so it goes. Oh, yeah, let me not forget wine critics. And sommeliers. My sense is that sommeliers could easily be replaced by IPads, just as I see wine critics being replaced by online sharing of tasting experiences and wine literature. I am not so much in favor of that, actually. An IPad wine list is to a sommelier what a Kindle is to a leather-bound copy of Dickens. I am not opposed to the IPad or the Kindle, as both can be incredibly useful in many circumstances (not having to haul books when traveling internationally prime among them), but, by the same token, I am not ready to part with the human element of a good sommelier (where available) or the smell and feel of that Dickens volume…

  35. Brian M. permalink
    January 18, 2012

    Mike,

    A very thoughtful article. Are somms the next great wine communicators or will there influence eventually wane? Great question.

    I agree with Mary that there is major confusion out there. Seth, when you met a person for the first time, how many scratched their heads when you said you were a sommelier? As one, like Seth, who has ‘sommed’, I always just told people I worked in a restaurant. Otherwise, I was in the same boat as the guy or gal with the ridiculously cryptic corporate title — you know, like Logistical Coordinator or Director of Strategic Positioning… “You do what now? Sommewhat?”

    There’s no mystery to what a chef does. If someone wants to be the next Colicchio or Batali, they’ll have a pretty good idea that ground zero starts in a kitchen. But Mary alludes to the fact that many people don’t even make a connection between sommeliers and a restaurant. If we conducted a survery, what percentage of the general public would have any clue what this film is about from the title?

    It’s ironic that in Europe, the concept of a sommelier is mainstream, but the model is, true to its roots, utilitarian. Conversely, the American version adds a little more bling, but is a relative unknown to the casual wine drinker. Somms have yet to reach a huge demographic; Seth’s “cheap swill” crowd. If that gap can be bridged, will we then see the “era of the sommelier”? I’d like to know if this documentary can succeed toward that end.

    Regarding the empowered wine consumer, Mike, I think it’s a wash. The somm will grow with his consumer. It’s my belief that “an increasingly, self-confident wine culture” will have the discernment to know when to take the helm and when to put themselves in good hands. And I can’t speak on behalf of the others, but I’m extremely disorganized…

  36. January 18, 2012

    Sommelier as celebrity is an interesting (and I think positive) trend – I think chef celebrity has elevated people’s awareness about dining. Sure, some celeb chefs are more celeb than chef, but more people pay attention, and hopefully demand for great and innovative food increases. Likewise for wine.

    I think the most influential people in the wine world are retailers. I put far more stock in the recommendation of my favorite local wine merchants (I also live in Baltimore, hi Jay!) than I do in something the Wine Spectator said about a wine I may or may not be able to find.

  37. Brandon Tebbe permalink
    January 18, 2012

    Vinologue,

    The statement, “many people will just start being their own sommelier with the wealth of knowledge out there.” That is like saying bloggers will take over the roles writing with the knowledge of a Master of Wine because they’ve read a few books.

    The knowledge required to run the better programs anywhere in the world, is a life long study.

  38. Brandon Tebbe permalink
    January 18, 2012

    Mary,

    While I agree with you that there are many people that have taken on the term “sommelier” that should not, and that regardless as to whether restaurants take on digital ordering devices, a sommelier will always be needed. After all, will the computers decide which wines to buy and offer? Silly.

    This is why the Court of Master Sommeliers has become so relevant in the world of wine today. This is also why this movie is important. Hopefully people will have a better idea what to ask when dining out, or who to recognize as actual wine experts.

    In the same way, there are just as many wine writers out there that are not qualified to be such, and simply labeling oneself as such does not make them an expert either.

  39. Jay S. Miller permalink
    January 17, 2012

    I think you guys are all from New York. Once you leave the more sophisticated places the picture is quite different. I live in Baltimore, a decent wine market and a so-so restaurant town. There might be a half-dozen people here who could reasonably be called a sommelier.
    MrBigJ

  40. January 17, 2012

    That’s very interesting, Mary, and really surprising; I would have figured that most people by now would know what sommelier means. But as you say, with many sommeliers moving into other areas of the wine profession, the word “sommelier” is acquiring a more expansive definition.

  41. January 17, 2012

    Seth, thanks for the comment and for the kind words; much appreciated. You make a great point: sommeliers have been a vital link between consumers and small producers of often-overlooked wines. In fact, I would say that sommeliers have been instrumental in championing an alternative aesthetic (alternative to Parker, etc.), and deserve a lot of the credit for this really dynamic wine scene that we now have here in the United States. I’m sure the finest sommeliers will remain esteemed and influential figures, but will they remain exalted figures? That’s harder to say.

    Jack, that’s an interesting observation, and certainly consistent with what I’ve seen and heard. The best sommeliers–people like Daniel Johnnes, Raj Parr, etc–are truly great at their jobs, and add enormous value to the restaurateurs for whom they work. But amid all this wine euphoria here in the US, a lot of insufficiently qualified people have been thrust into the role of sommelier, and that can really ruin a dining experience. Those restaurants would be better off just letting waiters handle the wine duties–at least then customers would have lower expectations. But this is the kind of problem that usually gets solved during a recession.

    David, thanks for stopping by. You may be right–restaurant work is punishing, and it doesn’t leave a lot of time to dabble in other things, like writing. I think one has to do what Andrea did–leave the floor, leave the restaurant business, and just focus entirely on wine “communicating,” if you will. And I suspect that more than a few sommeliers entertain thoughts of doing just that, in part because restaurant work is such a slog.

  42. Mary Ewing-Mulligan permalink
    January 17, 2012

    Mike, I do indeed find that some wine drinkers don’t understand that a sommelier by definition means someone who works in a restaurant. (And as sommeliers segue out of restaurant work into writing, consulting and selling wine to trade buyers rather than to consumers, those wine drinkers will increasingly be correct.) I have encountered many people who say they want to become sommeliers until they are told that the title refers to a restaurant position, and then they say that no, they don’t want THAT, they just want to become experts in wine.

  43. January 17, 2012

    Thanks for the comment, Vinologue, and you may well be right; it could just be a moment of glory, something that fades as time goes on. It will be interesting to see what impact if any this forthcoming documentary has. As I said, it seems likely to further glamorize the sommelier profession. But in the great tradition of contrarian indicators, perhaps it will turn out to be the high water mark for the sommelier-as-demigod thing.

    Mary, thanks for stopping by, and you make a very fair point. Even if a restaurant does away with its sommelier, it still needs someone to manage its wine list and inventory. And, yes, if a waiter is trained to also handle wine duties, he or she could presumably be classified as a “sommelier.” But do you find that people think “sommelier” just means “wine expert”, and that they aren’t aware that it has any connection with restaurant service?

  44. David F. permalink
    January 17, 2012

    I doubt we will see sommeliers expanding their duties to communicate more. Restaurants are low margin businesses and even most restaurants that have a sommelier also have them serve in other roles (often as a general manager). Most of them tend to work quite hard and have little time left over to appear on wine panels and to write. Andrea Immer had to stop working as a sommelier in order to enter the wine media (for lack of a better phrase).

  45. Jack Bulkin permalink
    January 17, 2012

    The first few Somms I ever had interaction with were in Aspen, CO and New York in the 80’s and I was impressed with their depth of knowledge and tasting ability. Many have gone on to excellent careers in wine and food.

    I am unable to travel as much these days since I am a single Father, but the few Somms I encounter today in AZ, Nevada and in N. CA are in my estimate frequently clueless pushers of high price wines that do not even go well with the food to be paired and some can’t even recognize a corked or tainted bottle.
    I certainly can and will not indict the entire industry, but certainly I have not observed by my limited contacts an organized and cohesive Professional group. IPADS seem to me to be a terrific replacment for the ones I less than fondly mention above.

  46. January 17, 2012

    Mike, I’m also looking forward to Somm. The trailer is captivating and engrossing.

    While the market demand for sommeliers has never been higher, there is no doubt that a ‘saturation’ point exists. I am seeing some restaurants losing somms, but I also think sommeliers, or at least well educated service staff, are indispensable in a wine-centric restaurant or retail outlet. The Era of the Sommelier is simply a response to the market demand, is it not? This movie is proof…

    Sommeliers, or self-taught wine junkies at least, are a key link between small producers the world over, and smart consumers, who are looking for something more than ‘just another’ vinous experience with their lunch or dinner. Even if tablets continue replacing somms on the floor, someone still needs to taste, buy and organize the wine. I’ve managed restaurants and I have ‘sommed’ and I find the two jobs to be rather mutually exclusive.

    While I disagree that people will eventually ‘become’ their own sommeliers, there is a rising wine consciousness, due in good part to intelligent blogs like this, the proliferation of great local wine shops and better marketing by wineries. But I’m not sure “good and cheap wines” will ever becomes the new “small-production, artisinal, site-driven wines” that populate most sommelier’s wine lists and get the store clerks excited.

    Until I stop seeing average consumers buying cheap swill, the Era of the Sommelier, has not come to a close. Only time will tell.

  47. Mary Ewing-Mulligan permalink
    January 17, 2012

    Provocative article. I think you take the term sommelier too literally. Even if wine service positions were to disappear, sommeliers would still exist in name and reputation, if not in function. Many people think that “sommelier” is just another word for wine expert, and lots of people who call themselves sommeliers apply it in that sense. It’s like “reserve” on a bottle of California wine: unregulated, loosely defined and only sometimes meaningful.

  48. January 17, 2012

    I find the most probability in the second part of your argument.

    Sommeliers are just having their moment of glory. While they’ll probably always exist (for the eternal reason that many people want to be advised instead of choose on their own) many people will just start being their own sommelier with the wealth of knowledge out there.

    I can only hope that in the near future in the US, this will eventually overload everyone where it gets to the point like here in Spain where you’ll be able to order a “vino tinto” and get a good cheap wine for €6 without needing to think about it.

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