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.


21 comments:

Eric V. Orange said...

Ah Hose...

"(which, by the way, feels really good on your testicles)."

The mental picture is searing...


EVO

Francly Speaking said...

Yeah, Wine Stewart and when the Owners wife would come in one would have to don on that frigging Tastevin!... there was 'curating' nothing but the number of customers who would ask 'What if I sent this back'... the daze of wine & rose's!

Ed C said...

Perhaps this should have been titled The Battle Of The Somm....

Ron Washam, HMW said...

EVO,
Glad you enjoyed it. Good luck sleeping tonight.

Francly,
Yup, that sounds like the gig. The Top 10 Things People Say to the Sommelier--"What if I sent this back?" is certainly one of them.

Ed,
There you go!

I hate the clowns whose titles are misleading and obviously employed just to get hits. So I thought I'd try it. Not working so far...

Donald Patz said...

What a drag it is getting old...

Marcello Cancelli said...

Started in the early '90s. Yellow Label was the rage.
Miss the afternoons spent with the importers themselves who still loved wine because of its human association. Great stories and a great buzz.
Most 'stews' these days are good test takers and pin lusters. "What level are you?"
Being an old fuck is quite alright.

wine man boy said...

It's smelliere not sommelier.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Donald,
Most days, yeah. Though I often feel like a 40-year-old. Luckily, I'm married to one...

Marcello,
When I mention to folks that I'm a recovering sommelier, I still get asked, "What level were you?" I tell them that sommeliers are never on the level.

Bob Henry said...

Question: “Why in the world would you have Veuve Clicquot on your wine list now if you were a sommelier?”

(Your self-) Answers: “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.”

-- and –

“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.”

No sommelier or wine steward can be on the restaurant sales floor seven days a week, every operating hour of the day “hand selling” each and every obscure bottle of wine on the list.

The public needs familiar brand names and experiences to allay their risk aversion paying twice (or more) retail for a bottle of wine.

A wine list needs to appeal to every constituency of a restaurant or wine bar – not just the adventure-/novelty-seekers or the cognoscenti.

The adventure-/novelty-seekers are fickle, and a sustainable business can't be build on their patronage.

Pacific Dining Car restaurant has long outlasted the poseurs and pretenders who appealed to fads.

The Los Angeles Times got it right . . .

From the Los Angeles Times “Food” Section
(October 5, 2005, Page F1ff):

“Incredible Shrinking Restaurant Scene;
Fifteen places close in a matter of months.
And autumn's usual flurry of openings? Not this year."

Link: http://articles.latimes.com/print/2005/oct/05/food/fo-shakeout5

By Corie Brown
Times Staff Writer

In one Los Angeles restaurant after another, the lights have gone out. With more than a dozen ambitious dining spots failing during the last two months, it's clear: L. A.'s restaurant scene is going through a shakeout.

. . .

"We are fighting for the same 500 people who regularly go out to dinner in Los Angeles," says Caroline Styne, co-owner of Lucques and A.O.C. with chef Suzanne Goin. "Whenever a new restaurant opens, we feel it. Then there is a shakeout, and business bounces back."

Ed C said...

I had to take a well known and knowledgeable Miami radio personality to task over his fracturing of the word. He could pronounce every other French word in his informative 5 minute piece correctly but I felt compelled to inform him that he was constantly referring to an aficionado of the Horn of Africa, not a wine steward. He was actually amused.

susan wu said...

I’m debating whether this piece gets somms’ goats or brings sanity back to somms’ society. Who dares to desecrate the temple of Somms? Why let the light of a MS’s halo fade away? HoseMaster, I’m curious about how many times you’ve sneezed today: Someone once told me you know how many curses you get in a day by keeping track of the number of times you sneeze on the day.
Thanks for sending laughter. We’re needing it badly now that David Letterman retired yesterday.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Bob,
Customers are comfortable with Champagne. It doesn't have to be Veuve Clicquot, and as a sommelier, it's your job to provide them with the best wine possible at that inflated restaurant wine price. That's a lot different than having a list filled with wines from Greece, the Jura, Georgia, and a bunch of weird orange wines from Italy or the Canary Islands. The public needs familiarity, but maybe not so much with brands as with varieties and price points.

That's a VERY old link from the LA Times--hell, I was still a wine steward then.

Ed,
"Sommelier" isn't that hard to spell, but its pronunciation is butchered constantly. It's like "Mourvèdre." Only French people seem capable of saying it convincingly, like "Jerry Lewis." It sucks to have an occupation no one can pronounce.

Susan,
The piece was inspired by the constant stupidity of some of the rants and comments over on STEVE!, most of them aimed at STEVE! It's STEVE!'s fault, he hates being one of the old fucks I talk about, and he's stuck in the time warp that is Jackson Family Wineries. It is a very different wine world than it was even ten years ago when I left, and the young fucks taking over now know everything. Ask them, they'll tell you.

As for sneezing, thank God that old superstition of yours isn't true or I'd be blowing as much out of my nose as Lindsey Lohan blows into hers.

I don't belong in the same sentence as Letterman. I almost wrote a tribute to him, but there's been plenty of that, most of it far more insightful and articulate than I could have produced. Letterman is that rare comic genius who managed to also become one of the most trusted voices in broadcasting. Truth will do that for you, and Letterman, on top of his sublime silliness, always managed to make truth as important as laughter. I kid myself that I do the same with wine, and the wine business.

Unknown said...

Ron:
How true, how true. I'm looking at a list from a new restaurant in LA that is 90% French and 90% producers I've never heard of. Bordeaux is dead on a wine list - and yet I just had a 2003 Lynch Bages and a 2005 Gloria and both reminded me of why I love Bordeaux!! I vividly remember calling on a restaurant owner who said he took his parents to another place and didn't receognize 90% of the wines on the list - and he was in the business. You have to figure it this way - if you're a Stew and you put Veuve and Santa Margarita and Ferrari Carano on the list, then why dues the restaurant need you? It's all about job preservation my friend - the Stew is the only one who has a clue as to how the obscure wines on the list actually taste - and also probably the only one who knows who sells the wine. A good Stew haas a 100-wine wine list from about 95 different suppliers....

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Unknown,
I get your point about why a sommelier selling familiar brands isn't really needed, but there's another point. Familiar brands also have familiar prices. When you sell obscure wines and mark up the prices three or four times wholesale, no one really knows. It disguises the profit margin. Yet, I'm OK with that--sort of.

If a restaurant has a deep list, with older vintages, stored properly, they are entitled to a triple markup just for the money and storage and experience that assembling such a list requires. If it's a small list, 40 or 50 wines, of which the restaurant has a case at most, all current vintages, then that markup is completely unjustified. Oh, there is so much to say on this topic. But I'll leave that to the lamebrains elsewhere.

Bob Henry said...

"'Sommelier' isn't that hard to spell, but its pronunciation is butchered constantly. It's like 'Mourvèdre.' Only French people seem capable of saying it convincingly . . ."

Or the place name Reims.

Wine Stewards only wish they were as knowledgeable as this "STEW":

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stewie_Griffin

(Conceiving a wine list that has no wine store offerings -- thereby obscuring direct price comparisons -- makes them as devious as the above STEW.)

Bob Henry said...

A "hot" new restaurant in downtown Los Angeles is Redbird.

I consider myself pretty familiar with wines of the world. But the "curated" list (sent to me via e-mail*) had me scratching my head.

If only the Beverage Director knows each wine (filtered through her own sensibilities), then pity the poor waitpersons trying to describe for dining patrons the drinking experience for wines they have never personally sampled, hailing from obscure regions of the world.

(*Write here and request a copy: info@redbird.la)


Bob Henry said...

Postscript.

Redbird offers this "unicorn":

UNFERMENTED WINE BY THE BOTTLE

2014 Grenache Blanc Blend, Bonny Doon, Verjus, Santa Cruz, California @ $21

I've heard of folks cooking with verjus.

But not drinking it . . .

Randall Grahm said...

Love the ontological category "Unfermented Wine By the Bottle," i.e. verjus. (Some verjus is particularly delicious to drink, esp. when mixed with sparkling water.) But the relentless proof-reader couldn't help but notice that Redbird misspelled "Romorantin."

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Randall,
I'm curious about the sweetness of the grapes you use for the Grenache Blanc verjus. Is it several Brix shy of a Lodi?

Randall Grahm said...

Interesting metaphysical point you bring up, Ron. The Grenache Blanc for the Verjus is in fact from Lodi, so by definition it is not shy of a Lodi, rather really quite at home there. But, for the record, it was picked at about 17 Brix, making it slightly more palatable as a beverage than some.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Randall,
Ah, thanks for the info (and for being a celebrity common tater).

And why is it when I hear "verjus," I want to say, "Gesundheit?" It's certainly nothing to sneeze at.