Monday, April 22, 2013

The Old Sommeliers Home

I’m not sure when I first noticed the problem. It only slowly worked its way into my conscious mind. I think the first incident was an old guy I saw standing along Highway 29 just in front of Opus One holding a sign that said, “Homeless Somm—Looks of Disdain 25¢” I was being tailgated by a limo filled with a bachelorette party, Feels on Wheels, so I couldn’t stop. But the sight of him, unshaven and dirty, like a nominee for a Country Music Award, extending his empty tastevin pleading for quarters, stuck in my mind. And once that happened, I began to notice them everywhere.

Leaving the grocery store parking lot a few days later, there was another old somm, distinctive in his worn tuxedo, looking more like an attendant at a funeral parlor in Appalachia than a sommelier (he should be working at French Laundry, I thought), pushing an old, wobbly dessert cart filled with his last earthly possessions—a few corkscrews, a copy of the 1984 edition of Parker’s Buying Guide, several logo hats from varied wineries around the world (I noticed one that said, “Chapeau Souverain”), and an autographed and well-worn photo of Robert Lawrence Balzer. He was clearly mad. I walked over to him and, as inconspicuously as possible, dropped a dollar bill into his tastevin.

“Thanks,” he said, “that’s usually where I urinate.”

Why, I wondered, were homeless old sommeliers turning up everywhere? It’s understandable that they’re unemployed. They got old. Their senses of smell and taste had abandoned them, all the bluffing and prevaricating in the world can’t stop the march of time. Old umpires go blind and live off their pensions. Lame ballerinas open dance schools and torment young anorexics. What does an old guy who’s lost his sense of smell and taste do? All the major wine critic jobs are already taken. But I thought there was a Home for Old Sommeliers. I was sure there was, but why, then, was I suddenly seeing the poor old wine stewards out on the streets begging for food, work, shelter and the latest issue of Mutineer Magazine (apparently, very absorbent)? I decided to find out.

In San Francisco one breezy afternoon, I spoke to an older gentleman who was approaching strangers and trying to sell them old corkscrews for a dollar apiece. “I must have had a couple of hundred of these when I retired from the restaurant,” he told me, “but now I’m down to about twenty. That doesn’t auger well for me.” He chuckled at his own pun. Asshole. So I kicked him. You know, no matter how many times you do it, it just feels right to kick a sommelier.

I asked him how he ended up on the streets after a lifetime of service. “I spent twenty-five years as a sommelier, worked in some of San Francisco’s best restaurants, talked down to its wealthiest residents. In fact, I was the guy who first marked up wine list prices 400%! That was me. Before that, hell, you could pay a few bucks above retail for a wine in a nice joint. I should have trademarked the idea. Everybody stole it. And do you know who created the first wine-by-the-glass? ME! Listen, I told my boss at the time, you’re screwing ‘em on the cocktails, we can do the same damn thing with wine. It doesn’t even have to be good wine! If I tell ‘em it’s good wine, they’ll believe me. I used to sell White Zinfandel for eight bucks a glass. Then it was Chardonnay with residual sugar. Now it’s Moscato. The public doesn’t get any smarter, you know.”

He was very articulate, and, at first, didn’t seem at all mentally ill. But then he told me he’d been married to both Jancis Robinson and Jay McInerney. McInerney I believed. He also claimed that he loved orange wines. I wondered how a guy with mental issues like that could survive on the streets.

Had he ever tried to get into the Old Sommeliers Home? “Oh, for Parker’s sake,” he told me, “yeah, I was in that loony bin for a couple of years. Have you ever been around a bunch of old sommeliers? Hell, man, they can outbore Michel Chapoutier. You fart and they all start to chant, “Mercaptan, O My Mercaptan.” That they can smell. They endlessly bitch about the wines they serve at the home. Like you really need Sancerre to wash down lung oysters. It’s horrible there. And the nurses treat you like crap. Taunting you all the time. ‘How’s your worm workin’ now, old man?’ I just up and left one night. Besides, I hear they closed the place. Ran out of money. Turned ‘em all out into the streets to fend for themselves. Bunch of old guys with no usable skills at all. Sommeliers don’t have skills, they don’t do anything useful. They get people drunk and take their money. Know what we used to call that profession? Father O’Reilley.”

I decided to check on whether the Old Sommeliers Home had been closed. He was right, it was gone. No one had noticed. But I guess there just weren’t that many sommeliers to put there. There just weren’t that many sommeliers in the United States thirty years ago. Americans didn’t buy wine in restaurants, not unless it featured some sort of colored person—a Blue Nun or a Green Hungarian or a Zeller Schwarz Kat. Yet it won’t be long before the need for an Old Sommeliers Home will be desperate. In recent years, there has been a huge infestation of sommeliers. Where will they go when their noses fail, their tongues become as tasteless as Verdicchio?

There are more sommeliers now than ever before. More degrees, more letters to append to your otherwise worthless name, more hubris walking the restaurant floors than a stadium filled with Grammy Award winners. You have a “well-chosen” list of 20 Italian wines in your wood-fired pizza joint—you’re a sommelier! You took an online test and passed the fifth time, you’re a Level One sommelier! You work in a wine bar with eleven different wines that you buy from a different broker every month because you owe all the other ones money—you’re a sommelier! The world crawls with them now. They have Journals and conventions, they’re rock stars and gatekeepers, they’re winemakers and tastemakers. They’re this generation’s deejays.

I asked the old sommelier in the park if he had any advice for all the new, young sommeliers out there. Any words of wisdom from all his years being a sommelier.

“Being a sommelier is like a Riedel wine glass—it’s beautiful and clear when you first pick it up, but everyone can see through it, and, eventually, you can be sure, you will be a victim of  planned obsolescence.”


Eric V. Orange said...



Eric V. Orange said...

Bahahaha, I couldn't help it.


Anonymous said...

My heart breaks for them. What can I do to help?

Unknown said...

those retired sommeliers could always become wine bloggers...

Anonymous said...

i thought all old somms followed your path and became wine bloggers.

Cris Whetstone said...

I think I saw one in my local BevMo working as a greeter.

Marcia Macomber said...

You had me at “Homeless Somm—Looks of Disdain 25¢”! Fabulous!

Samantha Dugan said...

My Love,
Maybe he could like become a wine blogger or something...

I just couldn't stay away love, even from Spain I need my dose of HoseMaster! I love you so!

The Sommeliere said...

Hose, you made me laugh even though someday I might end up in the old lady section of the Old Sommeliere's
home! Good thing I make pennies on the dollar writing for Somm Journal and about 10 other mags. And, better yet that I have a husband who is NOT in the wine biz!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Gang,
Somehow I think becoming a wine blogger isn't the answer to sommelier homelessness. In fact, I know that isn't the answer.

My Gorgeous Samantha,
Hey, stop reading wine blogs and enjoy Spain! A dose of HoseMaster sounds like some kind of nasty disease. I suppose it is.

I love you too, Baby.

And to think I used to give those Looks of Disdain away. Silly me.

The Old Somms Home isn't segregated by sex. You're either in "Red," "White," or "Unusual Varieties." We can share a bunk in the latter.

Charlie Olken said...

Old somms never die. They just lose their bottle.

* For translation, see British slang.

Anonymous said...

Ron I bet they would publish HoseMaster articles in Mutineer. Hopefully they would take suggestive pictures of you in schoolgirl outfits like they do their "featured" bartenders / mixologists.

- 'Knurd / Chris

Ron Washam, HMW said...

When Mutineer first started, I met with Alan Kropf in Healdsburg because he wanted me to write for Mutineer. I'm published in the first few issues. I did it for free. He wanted more, but I asked to be paid, and after that, I never heard from him again. Crap publication, written for dimwits by dimwits, so I didn't care.

As for the schoolgirl outfits, hell, those photos are all over my FaceBook page.

Matt said...

Delusional self worth, no usable skills and shot Olfaction? Hell, they sound overqualified for General Motors management. Ship 'em up here to Michigan, they'll make Plant Manager in no time.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Sounds like a plan, but only if they can drink on the job.

Matt said...

We've got stock piles of Lodi Zinfandel ever since The Government banned us from using it as transmission fluid. Will that do?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I actually thing that my personal transmission fluid is mostly Lodi Zin, but that's another story.

Martin said...

you're a fucking genius writer. Outrageously talented and funny. I hope for your sake you make money out of it, either via some sort of book/radio/tv/internet/youtube set up or just charging for this site. I'd pay to subscribe, as I'm sure would others.
Martin Moran MW

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Gosh, thank you, those are very kind words that, coming from someone with great reputation and talent, carry great weight. I'm humbled.

I'm afraid the only money I make is what Tim Atkin pays me once a month. I'm not sure how many folks would pay to read my nonsense. And I've found that the wine business isn't particularly fond of being satirized, and also doesn't tend to believe that comedy should be part of its culture. Well, I suppose it would be more accurate to say that the biz would welcome a Noel Coward, but doesn't really find an old sommelier with a penchant for raunchiness and well-targeted insults amusing.

Satirists, like priests, take a vow of poverty.

Dean Tudor said...

Retired sommeliers in Canada live off the bottle deposits, ranging from 10 cents to a quarter depending on the province and size of bottle. I once gave an older sommelier an empty Ch. Latour 1970 magnum: he was so grateful -- it had a few drops left and was worth 30 cents deposit because of its size. Better take than a pension. Of course, they have to scrounge through the recycle bins and load up their shopping carts.

But it is a living, and actually, you know, they make more than I do; I'm just just a simple wine writer with a few paying outlets.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

One of the great shames of the wine business lately is how the market for old, empty bottles of great wines has dried up since Dr. Conti was put in jail. That empty magnum of '70 Latour was worth at least $50 in the good old days! Dr. Conti and Bill Koch have ruined it for our desperate and homeless old sommeliers. Bastards.