Thursday, May 21, 2015
EPHEMERA: Abolish Sommelier (A Bait-and-Switch Blog Title)
I was just thinking the other day about how much different it would be to be a working sommelier now. I haven’t walked a restaurant floor as a sommelier in almost nine years. A lot has changed. Just as a lot changed from the generation before I started as a sommelier. Well, in the United States, there just weren’t many sommeliers in the generation before me, and what few sommeliers were employed were more often called wine stewards. I still hate the word “sommelier.” It’s difficult for people to pronounce—like “nuclear,” it’s just a word that ordinary folk mangle on a regular basis. This is not a problem carpenters have (one had anorexia, but that’s a different story). And because it’s French, and hard to pronounce, it intimidates people. A restaurant patron once said to me, when I offered him my wine list, “Oh, you must be the Semillon!” I rather prefer that. In a strange way, I think that if we rid the English-speaking world of the word “sommelier” a lot of the pretentiousness and pettiness would simply evaporate from the wine business. There wouldn’t be any Master Sommeliers, for example. They’d be Master Wine Stewards. Who gives a crap about that? That asinine movie about wine geeks would have been called “STEW,” which is far more appropriate. After all, wine geeks are slowly cooked in a liquid, and what is that but a stew? A sommelier is a glorified wine waiter, nothing more, the pastry chef of the restaurant floor. I’d rid the world of the “sommelier.” In my day, I usually insisted patrons call me the Wine Guy, or, well, Ron. And my business card said Wine Steward. But that, as I mentioned, was a different time.
If I were a wine steward now, my wine list would be far different than the one I cobbled together in my day. It would have to be. This is a different world. This is not Harry Waugh’s world, when a fine wine list was dominated by Bordeaux and Burgundy and Port. And it’s not my world, when a fine wine list was dominated by Bordeaux and Burgundy and California Cabernet and Chardonny and Oregon Pinot Noir and maybe an Italian appellation or two (Chianti and Barolo, maybe). I think those wines are now seen as the wines old fucks drink. And there’s some truth in that. If you just look at the stalwarts of wine lists from my era (I’m thinking of the late ’80’s, when I started, through the mid-’90’s), it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting them on their wine lists now. Why in the world would you have Veuve Clicquot on your wine list now if you were a sommelier? That crap won’t fly any more. Now you have hundreds of Grower Champagnes, far superior wines, and at the same relative price point. Or you’d have something sparkling and hip and Italian. Who carries First Growth Bordeaux on their wine lists now? I had all five on mine, but now they’re stupidly expensive. Stupidly. Plus, they’re from Bordeaux! Is there a less hip appellation in the world than Bordeaux? Bordeaux is about as hip as VCR’s.
It can be frustrating to go to a restaurant and read through a wine list that seems to absolutely require the presence of the sommelier. I’ve been to several where I recognize maybe 80% of the wines on the list, and I know a lot about wine. What about people who just want to quietly order a nice bottle of wine and don’t want to play, “Oh, this is really interesting wine from an underrated appellation” with the wine steward? They wouldn’t know even two of the wines on those lists. Now they have to talk with the wine steward. It’s worse than needing advice in the sex boutique—“I need something big and black, and under $25.” Maybe sommeliers these days are lonely and insecure and covet the undivided attention of total strangers who will admire their vast knowledge of wine. Sure seems like it.
Yet I get it. It is a different wine world now, and I’m an old fuck. Were I starting out now, I would be deeply immersed in Grower Champagne (which, by the way, feels really good on your testicles). I’d be proselytizing for Mencia. I’d be pushing people to South African wines—oh, man, South African Syrahs are breathtaking. Why wouldn’t I list three or four Godellos? And there wouldn’t be a Rombauer, a Jordan, a Silver Oak, a Lafite, a Duckhorn or a damned Veuve Clicquot to be found. Or a Grüner Veltliner (which is German for “Green Trash Can Liner”).
And in twenty years, wine stewards (there won’t be any goddam sommeliers) will have a different set of wines to taste and buy, and it will again be a different world. Climate change is certainly going to change the face of wine, and the next generations of stews (did I say I hate the word “somm?”) will be dealing with wines that Harry Waugh wouldn’t even recognize as wine. And so it will go. Yet the complaints aimed at wine stewards will remain just about the same, and old fucks will criticize them, and everyone, as always, will remain convinced that they know what belongs on wine lists, on what will sell, and on what the next hot new region will be.
A great bottle of wine evolves slowly, over decades. The wine business is slower. Old fucks hate that it changes, that we are constantly falling behind. There was a time I tasted thousands of wines a year. Now it’s a few hundred. I certainly know good wine when I put it in my mouth. I understand wine on a level that only, and I mean only, long experience can provide. But I cannot any longer rattle off the trendy producers, or speak knowledgeably about the latest vintage in the most talked about new wine regions. I’m a has-been. Though not a never-was.
Enjoy it while it lasts, my fellow sommeliers. You are but a few years away from being old fucks, has-beens, and yesterday’s gatekeepers. A word of advice—don’t start a blog.