Thursday, July 16, 2015

EPHEMERA: Sommeliers and Drag Queens

I have to laugh when I see wine writers pontificating about sommeliers. They haven’t a clue about what it’s like to be a working sommelier, except for the few that may have actually done the job. But let’s be truthful, sommeliers spend just as much time demeaning wine writers. Only they deserve it. No one ever approaches a wine writer and asks, “What does Raj Parr think of that wine you just gave 98 points?” But every sommelier has heard, after recommending a wine, “What score did it get?” It’s as if when your doctor recommends you begin to take Cialis, you ask, “If I take it, how many pascals will my dick register on the Vickers test?” Who cares? I’m just trying to make you happy. “How hard does it have to be?” is the equivalent of “How many points do you need?” It just needs to fit with the main course. Or, in the wine’s case, with the meal.

No two sommeliers have the same job. I had one job as a sommelier for nineteen years, and it was a very different job than the sommelier’s job at Spago or Valentino or French Laundry. The jobs are the same in that you buy wine, compile a wine list, work the floor, take care of inventory, all of that. But every restaurant is different, with its own set of boundaries and rules, and more than likely a crazy owner, or a crazy chef, or both. Not to mention the eternal war between the waiters and the sommelier, a war similar to that between the Elvish and the Orcs. Waiters, of course, are Orcs, goblins who serve the Dark Powers. Sommeliers are Elvish impersonators. In Vegas, they can perform marriages.

The definition of sommelier is very elastic. In my experience the past twenty years, most of the people who say they are sommeliers are actually assistant managers, door lockers and schedule makers, who happen to know more about wine than the majority of their customers. (Oh, I mean “guests”—hookers have customers, restaurants have guests. Though, for both, it’s always the tips that matter.) They’re no more sommeliers than drag queens are women. But they got the strut down.

A drag queen has his balls tied, a sommelier, his hands. He (or she—there are so many remarkable women in the profession, many of the best sommeliers are women, but I’m using “he” as my preferred pronoun because I used to be one. A sommelier. Not a he. I’m still a he, though, grammatically, my participle is dangling a lot more.) rarely gets to set prices (though he takes the heat for them). He often has a very strict budget, and usually works for a boss that pays the wine bills very slowly (no slower pay than restaurants)—which doesn’t endear you to wineries, especially the best ones. So earning your salary as a sommelier is quite the juggling act, but a different juggling act for every sommelier. Are sommelier’s roles changing, as wine writers stupidly ask? Yeah, like very fucking week.

When I see articles about “the changing role of sommeliers,” or “sommeliers are a vanishing species,” or “what makes a great sommelier,” I read them and wonder at the emptiness of the prose, and the mindlessness of the authors. And here’s why:

If there’s a job stupider than Wine Writer, it’s Sommelier. Though I mean that in a good way.

There’s endless babble on wine blogs and in the press about “the changing roles of wine writers” and “wine writers are a vanishing species” and “what makes a great wine writer.” Sound familiar? Those are equally emptyheaded as the sommelier articles. In fact, they’re the same articles. Devoid of insight or original thought. And, ultimately, who cares about wine writers and sommeliers? Well, I’ll tell you who cares about wine writers and sommeliers. Wine writers and sommeliers. And that’s about it.

The glorification of sommeliers is laughable. No one should spend even three paragraphs talking about them (though I just have). And no one should glorify them either. Of all the occupations to glamorize, or revere, sommelier isn’t in the top 100. It’s a service job. It’s simple. It’s not that hard to do. It does no measurable good in the true sense of the word. You know a lot about an esoteric subject; you’re the resident restaurant Trekkie. Yes, it’s a cool job, one that somehow has an aura of importance that it hasn’t earned. But it’s completely unworthy of the attention it seems to get in the press and online. A sommelier’s role isn’t changing, the job isn’t endangered, nor is there any such thing as a great sommelier. Except in the sense that, more importantly, a fine restaurant is always looking for a "great" dishwasher. It needs him more than it needs a "great" sommelier.

Though in this new millennium, the dishwasher’s job may just be changing.


Joseph Spellman said...

Truth! A sommelier serves several other equally egotistical masters--guest, owner, chef, distributor, winery. It's a job title, like bartender or dishwasher or waiter, encompassing all these and more. With many challenges and insecurities. A bit of glory, lately. And, curiously, nowadays, a springboard for wine entrepreneurism--at least with the right kind of OPM!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

What I could do with a pocketful of OPM. Thanks for acknowledging the gist of my stupid rant. Damned if I can figure out how a service job like sommelier has gained so much glory. I guess it's just reflected glory from wine, which so many people hold wondrous and mysterious. And intoxicating. Maybe the sommelier just represents impending insobriety, and that's where the admiration comes from. No matter, thanks for being a common tater.

Don Clemens said...

Oh, Joy! It's Thursday! Another episode of "Ephemera"!
As a former sommelier (wine steward, wine list writer, stock boy, inventory controller, table waiter, bottle opener and whatever else needed to be done), I really enjoyed this post. Over time, I have come to the realization that it's a JOB! No more, no less. I briefly enjoyed the glamour - great wines to be tasted all the time and the attention of every major wine distributor's "key account" sales reps, vying for the dubious privilege of selling me wine - but it was a JOB position that someone was going to fill in any case. It certainly led to future wine-related positions in my life (in that regard, I really appreciate Joseph Spellman's comments - we have a long history together). Thank God for OPM!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Yeah, now it's getting to be that no one gives a shit about the comedy around here. It's all about Ephemera. Well, the good news is, Ephemera is MUCH easier to write.

Like you, I loved the occupation of sommelier. But when I read the foolishness written by all sorts of folks, from Jon Bonné to STEVE! and a hundred others, I laugh. And I cringe. Let's never forget that just because someone says he's a sommelier that doesn't mean that he actually is a sommelier. I worked in Los Angeles, where 60% of the waiters, if you asked them, were actors. Never had a part, never been paid to act, yet actors. A lot of sommeliers, these days, are the real actors.

Thomas said...

And all this while I thought a sommelier was a curator.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

No, the sommelier cure-rate is about as high as medicine's with Ebola.

Wine lists aren't "curated," though that is the trendy verb these days. They're more like the Watts Towers--assembled, and mostly from junk.

Marcia Macomber said...

I love the "sommelier as resident Trekkie"! Ha! So apt.

Carl LaFong said...

I thought sommelier translated to "guy who tries to explain why a $90 wholesale bottle is costing you $350". Interesting job, gets to taste a lot of wine but still has to explain why the diner is getting boned.

Sybaritewino said...

Funny stuff Mr Washam HMW! Sat next to a sommelier at a wine contest (another sham but good setting to taste wines) and immediately lambasted those in the profession who lord about and intimidate dinners whilst forgetting that the term means server which entails making sure guests ( not customers cause we're hoping they aren't paying to get fucked) needs are met which for the most part means not pushing esoteric wines that a bored professional finds exciting but the unexciting ones J.Q. Dinner is comfortable with and enjoys. When running my wine bar, quickly learned that my tastes in weird wines did not always equate with a guest's tastes and thus curbed my own desires to enlighten their palates and instead enrich the register with sales and the guest's evening with a wine they found pleasure in and not unenjoyable, quirky, funkiness.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Marcia Love,
Believe me, the sommelier is the odd man/woman/Jenner out at a restaurant. I feel sorry for sommeliers that don't have a restaurant background when they begin at a new place. The waiters and cooks will eat you alive. Because you're the "sommelier," you're "special." Best to come from a hospitality background--then you have a fighting chance. Otherwise, you're the Trekkie, and bound to get beat up.

Sadly, your perception is the dominant one. Because there is some truth to it, yet in the coolest restaurants, you're wrong. Pricing wines goes back to the '70's, and the expected return on liquor sales in the bar. And it hasn't yet shifted to reality. It's a shame. I won't get into it here. I was lucky, I worked in a place with great, rare, amazing wines (picked by moi), at very fair markups. That was rare then, and is still rare now. It's beginning to change, but monumentally slowly. Plus, too many sommeliers are dicks, like this:

This guy makes me glad I'm a recovering sommelier.

I've often said that it takes a young sommelier about five years, if the restaurant survives, to figure out that it's not about him/her, but about wines that sell and make the guests happy. It's NOT a job about education or personal taste, really, it's about service and hospitality. I think that in a few years, sommelier service will get a lot better when many of the dumb sommeliers out there wise up.

Bob Henry said...

Ah yes, "Other People's Money"! They should make a movie about that . . .

(Wait. What? They already did. The stage play -- caught at the Pasadena Playhouse -- was better than the lame film adaptation with its 180 degrees rewritten, treacly ending.)

You write:

"I've often said that it takes a young sommelier about five years, if the restaurant survives, to figure out that it's not about him/her, but about wines that sell and make the guests happy."

Hence having consistent, name recognition Veuve Clicquot on the wine list and not "never heard of you before" grower-producer Champagnes. VC makes the cash register ring -- paying the tab for a "sommelier" on premises.

So . . . is there any Master Sommelier who works full-time in "greater" Los Angeles?

Will any leading restaurant hire one?

Bob Henry said...


From the Los Angeles Times “Food” Section
(December 12, 2007, Page F1ff):

“Wine Service Grows Up;
Want in on the food world’s hottest career?
The master sommelier exam awaits – good luck.”


By Corie Brown
Times Staff Writer

Bob Henry said...

Seems Patrick Cappiello and his entourage are real-life "Miles Raymond" characters from "Sideways," drinking a First Growth out of a plastic cup at a fast food restaurant.

(For your amusement:

Sorry, no video of Miles drinking 1961 Cheval Blanc on YouTube.)

Rew said...

Brilliant article!! - I'm advanced certified which meant absolutely nothing until I moved to San Francisco to work. Back East in Philly and Pittsburgh I created huge one of a kind wine societies and people would ask - "so are you in school? what are you planning on doing with your life?". In San Francisco and the Wine Country you would think I was the 2nd coming of ........well you know.

I go to a wine tasting at a winery and they get nervous or they question me like I'm there for an interview. It's the strangest thing. I worked the floors for over 20 years and it was hard work - often working 70 - 80 hours a week. Nothing glamorous about the job. At least once a month someone asks me how they can be a Sommelier but they don't want to work in a restaurant.

Then of course there's the guy that pours wine once a week at a wine bar and it says 'Sommelier' on his card. He's never done the job, never tested for it, but has more attitude and opinions than any wine director I've met.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Rew,
Why do I sound Chinese?

Thanks for the kind words. The general point was that fools who write about sommeliers and have never done the job are full of crap. I don't write about being a fireman. And I'm the HoseMaster. Yet folks write about being a sommelier as if they know how it works on an actual day-to-day basis. I'm begging you, folks, ignore those jackasses.

Thanks for being a local common tater.

Rew said...

What's with the 'Why do I sound Chinese?' comment - is that an inside joke or are you being a jackass =D

Steve Osterholt said...

Lest we forget, sommelier derives from the old French word for pack animal, which came from the Latin word for pack saddle.. Not a particularly pretentious beginning - and it hasn't necessarily come that far, except perhaps in someone's mind.

Bob Henry said...

From the Los Angeles Times "Saturday" Section
(July 18, 2015, Page F4):

"Uncorked and Well Curated;
In growing numbers, sommeliers are improving the wine experience for diners in Los Angeles"


By S. Irene Virbila