I confess that I was very surprised when the sommelier approached our table and he was only nine years old. It was an expensive restaurant with an extraordinary wine list, and I’d heard that the MS who was the sommelier had one of the best palates in the world. Rumor had it the food wasn’t that spectacular. It was a notorious knockoff of a Thomas Keller restaurant, most of the recipes stolen from him. So when I showed up with reservations for two at the famed Poached Per Se, I was there to learn about wine from the finest, and already legendary, sommelier on the planet. He was picking his nose.
Jimmy Steward MS was born to be a sommelier from the first moment he emerged from his mother’s womb. That first time he stuck his head out, Jimmy quickly pulled it back inside, and didn’t reappear for several hours. Sound familiar? He had already begun to master his calling. He was already a cervix professional.
As an infant, Jimmy refused to nurse out of just any bottle. He preferred only the finest Champagne, the Grower Champagne Tit-du-Cuvee, and turned his nose up to baby formula or Veuve Clicquot, which are indistinguishable in a blind, or nearly unfocused, tasting. His mother, Jancis Steward, was astonished that little Jimmy could ingest so much Champagne and not seem drunk. “I never knew he was wasted until he asked for a cigarette.” Doctors were amazed that Jimmy didn’t die. And, now, after years of medical research that began due to Jimmy’s amazing life, doctors know that an MS is born with an astonishingly large and high-functioning liver, which compensates for the associated brain damage. Whereas people with large brains and normal livers know enough to stay out of the wine business.
Jimmy was holding a wine list and pulling at his Johnson. No, he didn’t have to pee (I don’t think), he was simply carrying around a Hugh Johnson book that he was editing for mistakes. He was wearing a little tiny tuxedo, I later learned it was a Tom Cruise hand-me-down, and a miniature tastevin, which had a Miley Cyrus sticker in the bowl. “Miley reminds me of great Napa Cabernet,” Jimmy told me, “at about 20 they go down really easy.”
When most children start attending kindergarten, Jimmy was already studying for his MS. A couple of times every week, Jimmy and four other candidates got together to taste and study together. At first, the other four were distracted by Jimmy’s constant questions. “Does the tooth fairy live on the moon?” “Do dogs go to Heaven when they die?” “Can Parker even smell Brett?” But they soon discovered that Jimmy was already a valuable resource, and had an uncanny nose, if slightly snotty, like Larry Stone. Though those four study partners of Jimmy’s have yet to pass the MS exams, to a person they all credit Jimmy with teaching them more about wine than anyone else in their lives. “Jimmy is an idiot savant,” one told me, “and as an MS, he doesn’t need the savant.”
It wasn’t long after he learned his ABC’s that Jimmy could recite all the Grand Crus of Burgundy. “That was easy,” Jimmy said, “it’s Italian DOC’s that suck. Those laws make about as much sense as a Matt Kramer blog post, though they’re better written.” Jimmy had traveled to every major wine region by the time he was eight. He wasn’t usually allowed to taste, except in Greece, where they have the sense to worship young boys, but just being in the great vineyards and wineries of the world formed lasting memories. “I’m proud to say,” Jimmy remarks, “that I’ve been in the lap of almost every great winemaker in the world. Most of ‘em smell like butt mercaptans.”
At Poached Per Se, we opted for the prix fixe menu with Jimmy’s wine pairings. In most restaurants, this would be a big mistake. More often than not, wine pairings in restaurants are bizarre. Ordering them is like wearing a turban in your JDate photo and expecting good results. But Jimmy’s were spot on, genuinely inspired. But he’s nine, and his senses of smell and taste are still unfettered by age. So I didn’t mind that around ten o’clock he threw a tantrum when a waiter used the wrong Riedel glass. “That glass is for Syrah, Poopyhead! I hate you, I hate you, I hate you…” It was a little ugly, worthy of a W. Blake Gray blog tantrum, but I understood. He’s nine. And so's Jimmy.
Jancis Steward had some trouble convincing the Master Sommeliers to allow Jimmy to take the MS exams when he was only eight, but they finally agreed. He’d applied for, and received, a WSET spot—it was on the front of his pants. While they were extremely reluctant to pass Jimmy on his first try at all three separate exams, his knowledge and tasting skill were unmistakably superb. It was the first wine exam written in crayon, at least since Doug Frost. Jimmy identified all five wines presented to him blind by variety, vintage, region and even producer. The sixth wine he knew immediately wasn’t really wine, “It’s Cornelissen Rosé from Mt. Etna.” The judges were impressed.
Some allowances had to be made for the service part of the exam. The examiners were kind enough to sit at a very low table so Jimmy could serve the wines, which he did impeccably. Then, as now, he had the ability to pair wine and food perfectly. “It’s not that hard,” Jimmy has said, “any child, or sommelier, can do it.” Though his presentation wasn’t perfect, Jimmy thought the cigar cutter was for circumcision, the examiners all agreed he was MS material. He passed. Jimmy was exuberant.That night, he and his friends closed down the Chuck E. Cheese.
Jimmy might be nine, but he’s still a sommelier. He’s currently infatuated with orange wines and Austrian Riesling. He thinks California Cabernet is overpriced and that the real bargains are in the Loire. He talks about balance like he invented it. (Though the night I was there he fell down twice and skinned his knees.) And he’s a big spoiled baby.
But despite his fame and position in the wine industry, Jimmy is humble. “Really,” he told me, “any eight-year-old can become an MS. I think that’s pretty obvious. I was just the first one who actually tried.”
After 19 years as a Sommelier in Los Angeles, twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers' Association, I moved to Sonoma County to explore the other aspects of the wine business. I've spent, OK wasted, 35 years learning about and teaching about and swallowing wine. I am also a judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition--so I can spit like a rabid llama. I know more about wine than David Sedaris and I'm funnier than James Laube. Stay tuned for an informed but jaded view of everything wine and everything else.
I'm living proof that alcohol kills brain cells.
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