Thursday, April 4, 2013

Little Jimmy Steward, Child MS

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.” 


Charlie Olken said...

The zingers. So many. Such a nice take on the somms who know everything but know nothing because they read it all in books and can pass tests.

Well, give them time. They will get old and be able to serve without needing a step stool to reach the table.

Samantha Dugan said...

Skinning my knees while going down easy was in fact how I passed my MS exam. Loved this piece Ron, especially seeing as I watched SOMM a couple of weeks ago, which I loved but man...aint going to change anyone's mind that thinks somms are either wankers, or full of absolute shit. I love you!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

One day the idea of a kid MS just jumped into my head-sort of Doogie Howser in the wine business--and it started to make comedic sense. Especially now that I'm old. The zingers just come from a disturbed place.

My Gorgeous Samantha,
I haven't seen SOMM, but have no desire to. I'm glad you loved this piece. I like its tone, and even its pace.

I had a laughable experience with a sommelier not too long ago, which probably inspired some of the zingers. Something about the title and the monkey suit that brings out the arrogant and presumptuous in people. Because you know a bit about wine doesn't mean you get a pass on hospitality and service.

And so "wankers" is your new word?

Charlie Olken said...

Sam is simply in love with your new status as "bloke in a can".

Do you spray it on or inject it?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

With Boner in a Can, you can choose between the inhaler, or the convenient suppository. Finger-lickin' good!

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,
A friend got me a copy of SOMM, it hasn't been released yet but I do hope you take the time to see it. It is a great film and for people in our industry, especially people like you and I that don't take this stuff too seriously, it is a truly fascinating and compelling film. I wanted to watch it again when it was over but I wanted to send it to a friend with whom I share similar opinions and knew he would love it...and I wanted someone to talk to about it, so I didn't get the chance to watch it again before having to return it.

One guy I know went on a tear about it, all passion filled and acting like this movie was going to prove something and the thing is, it does but not in the way he thought it might. Can't wait to hear how he spins things when he does finally see it. Kinda looking forward to the after with that movie.

No, wanker is not my new word, I've always used and adored wanker/wankers, beef-witted is my NEW one. Well that and when referring to wine blogs and awards, Potemkin villages. And for the record, I don't eat anything from a can, not even the things with a cream filling...

Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,
"Potemkin villages" is exactly right, and for most awards, which tend to be about the people who give them rather than the folks who receive them.

On your recommendation, I will make it a point to see SOMM. Is there any nudity? Or should I just watch it naked? Wanna watch it with me?

The cream-filled Boner in a Can is fine, but most folks prefer Crunchy Boner in a Can. Me, I like the free magnifying glass.

Marcia Macomber said...

So many wonderful bits (and even the best HoseMaster groaners -- the ones you can't not include)!

From "Poached Per Se" to "Grower Champagne Tit-du-Cuvee" and even the "cervix professional" (rat-a-tat-tat!), what a great way to start the day. A gem!

Thomas said...

Yes, many good ones in this one. I vote for: "...except in Greece, where they have the sense to worship young boys..."

Made me stop reading--I can't simultaneously laugh and read.

Unknown said...

Great stuff as always Ron.. just curious, what were you like as som for 19 years? Wear the monkey suit, the cowbell? Make dickhead suggestions just to be a pompous asshole.. sell expensive wines just to please the owner? ha ha.. there's grist for a great column.. spill spill spill.. confess! confess confess!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Marcia Love,
Thanks, as always. I just liked the conceit of a child sommelier and MS. I do wish I'd come up with a better name for him, though. Any suggestions?

Assyrtiko could only be a Greek variety.

Funny you should ask. I was contemplating a piece entitled, "Why I Was a Lousy Sommelier." I still may write it. I had a sort of a monkey suit--a horrible polyester jacket--but didn't wear a tastevin. I loved the job, but have no idea how customers or others in the biz remember me. But I should write that piece.

Quizicat said...

Ah it reminds me of an oft used and occasionally appreciated comment I've made to lady friends... At your Cervix Madame!

And do they actually make Orange wines? Perhaps they just haven't made it to the east coast. Since I only drink reds, they could be the gateway drug to whites for me.

Thomas said...


You haven't been looking closely enough. Underneath those biodynamic reds is orange.

Unknown said...

i loved the last line. can't wait for him to release his own label

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Oh, don't worry, Jimmy has his own wine in the works. It will be the classic sommelier wine--low alcohol, low scores, high price.

Unknown said...

i've been waiting for you to write an article about a somm describing how wine is made: "first come up with a concept, then some stuff happens, taste some barrel samples, some other stuff happens, and you've got wine!"

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Sounds like you need to start your own blog. Unless you want to write a guest post here.

Are there any sommeliers that actually make their own wines? It seems they mostly sit in on the blending trials, which is like going to a table reading and then saying you wrote the play.

Unknown said...

Lol. I've been comparing it to putting toppings on a burger and calling yourself a chef

Unknown said...

Loved the Miley & Cab comparison, outstanding start to the day.

Dean Tudor said...

Lotsa good stuff here, beginning with "reservations" (yeah, I've had reservations about that place too)...You do know that 9 human years is 63 in dog years, the cur...all wineries have dogs...all dogs have Robert Parker to thank for that...63's not too old...just watch out for the dog sommelier's tastevin: they tend to get lapped....wasn't there a painting about dog sommeliers? or was that poker?

Speak to me, Ron: you are the greatest....

Samantha Dugan said...

Yikes, I think Dean may have passed even me in the heart-on for Washam category...

Doug Frost said...

It was not crayons! It was cray-pas, cuz I'm a classy guy!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I've always said that the only original artwork I'd want to own is the original of "Dogs Playing Poker." Though "Somms Playing Poker" might be cool, as long as it's painted on velvet.

Dogs don't tend to like wine, in my experience. I think the number of aromatic compounds in your average Pinot Noir overwhelms their mighty noses. Plus, if the dog tasting next to you is wet, all the wines smell corked. And, actually, I almost wrote a piece about a canine sommelier--he'd be the only sommelier that only licks his own butt.

My Gorgeous Samantha,
Don't let that happen! But now that you mention it, I do need more female admirers around here. Some days it's way too much of a dick show.

Thanks for dropping by the asylum. Seems I was misinformed about your written exam for your MS. But I did see where it received two Smiley Faces from the judges and you were given the ceremonial Master Sommelier noogies. Congrats on that!

Man, you never know who's lurking around here. Goddam Google Alert. I need to mention more porn actresses.

Cris Whetstone said...

Kudos! Terrific piece.

Hoping Samantha is going to have copies of Somm at the Wine Country for giggles.