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.