Becoming a Sommelier
There’s a story in my family that dates my connection to wine to an early age. I must have been three or four years old. My parents took a quick vacation and left me in the care of their friend Pat, a glamorous and indulgent honorary aunt whom I adored. Imagine a sort of Mary Poppins type—if Mary Poppins had been a patrician Back Bay Bostonian with expensive taste in wine, who drank a lot of it.
When my mother and father returned from their trip, Pat greeted them at the door to our apartment with me in her arms. In the telling of the story that they passed down to me when I was old enough to appreciate it, I looked up at my parents and earnestly asked, “Bordeaux?”
Since then, I have sometimes wondered: How formative was that long weekend with Pat? Was it a defining moment? Did it set the rest of my life on an irreversible course? Who knows?
Until now, I’ve written more about spirits and cocktails than I have about wine, but the truth is that where drinking is concerned, I have always been a wine drinker and wine lover above all else. Of course I love a beautifully made, ice-cold martini—and I suspect that there are some people in my life who might never want to talk to me again for saying this—but I’d be okay if I never drank one again.
That’s not how I feel about wine, which I regard as a more essential, everyday pleasure. At the end of a long day, like many people I know, I pour myself some wine—not a shot of tequila. It’s not often that I crave a cocktail with my dinner, but I almost always want a glass or two of wine with it.
However, none of this makes me an authority on wine. The absolute barest essentials of how wine comes into being (grapes are picked, they are crushed, they are fermented, the alcoholic juice produced by fermentation is aged and bottled) may have not changed dramatically over its long history, but it is nonetheless a vast and ancient subject, one that takes years, maybe a lifetime, to master, if mastery is even possible. More than sixty countries produce wine
for consumer markets. California alone makes more than seventeen million gallons of the stuff every year. According to the most recent statistics on the website of the Wine Institute, an advocacy and public policy organization representing one thousand California wineries, Americans consumed 949 million gallons of wine in 2016—a significant increase from the previous year’s 922 million, and nearly double the amount consumed twenty years earlier.
And the subject assumes an even more daunting cast when I consider that virtually every country, every region, every micro-region that brings wine into being has its own ways of producing, naming, and describing it. When an American customer steps into a wine shop or reads a restaurant’s wine list, he or she often encounters a geographically organized system focused on the best-known wine-producing countries, which include Australia, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, broken down further into sub-regions. But now, in more comprehensive shops and restaurants, he or she might also be asked to consider wines from the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Lebanon, Portugal, and Switzerland, among other nations, all of which have long and distinguished histories of winemaking, even if their output hasn’t been well known here.
Still, it is usually the case that, when I’m out having
dinner with friends at a nice restaurant, everyone looks at me hopefully when the wine list arrives at the table, as though I’m an expert. “Why don’t you take a look?” they ask. This is because they know that much of my professional life has been devoted to writing about the pleasures of drinking. What my friends fail to acknowledge is that this doesn’t make me a wine expert, either. Sharing a recipe for a perfect Manhattan is one thing; parsing the innumerable distinctions among the many villages, vineyards, and vintages of Burgundy is another thing entirely.
The wine list—often a hulking, leather-bound volume spanning dozens of pages—is an object I’ve seen strike terror, or at least stir up anxiety, in the hearts of otherwise confident and sophisticated adults, including well-known food writers and restaurant critics. Fortunately, somewhere in the room there is a real, genuine, authentic expert to help us read and interpret it: the sommelier (in places that prefer to dispense with old-fashioned French formalities, this person is instead sometimes called the wine steward). The problem is that most people I know are even more afraid of the sommelier than they are of the list; he or she often inspires a certain look that crosses their faces, a look they might not have worn since middle school math class, a look that says: Don’t call on me. Don’t call on me. Don’t call on me.
I really wish people didn’t feel that way. No one should be afraid of a sommelier. Wine is a pleasure, and in its pursuit there should be no snobbery, no condescension, no pain, no fear. The sommelier is there to help us, to teach us, to guide us. I always know that I stand to learn a lot from a conversation with a good sommelier, and that the best sommeliers I’ve encountered have a gift for assuaging anxiety instantly, by making their impromptu tableside lessons lively and engaging exchanges.
So what is a sommelier, anyway? For better or worse, the job eludes precise description, as what exactly a sommelier does can vary considerably from restaurant to restaurant. The Oxford Companion to Wine tells us that the “sommelier’s job is to ensure that any wine ordered is served correctly and, ideally, to advise on the individual characteristics of every wine on the establishment’s wine list and on food and wine matching. In some establishments, the sommelier may also be responsible for compiling the list, buying and storing the wine, and restocking whatever passes for a cellar.” Even this expansive, reliable doorstopper of a reference book evades the profession’s complicated history.
In her book Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste, Bianca Bosker subjects
it to a far more thorough treatment, tracing sommeliers all the way back to Pharaoh’s cupbearer in the biblical book of Genesis. But the development of the sommelier’s vocation as we now know it started to take shape much later. “The job of ‘sommelier’ became official in 1318 under a decree by France’s King Philip the Tall, though for a few hundred years, it required managing the pack animals, bêtes de somme, that transported things between households,” Bosker writes. “By the seventeenth century, somms had been promoted: A grand seigneur would have a bouteiller to stock and store his wines, a sommelier to select and set them out for the table, and an échanson to serve them.” In the centuries since then, it appears that those bouteillers and échansons were made redundant, so to speak, and that sommeliers absorbed the tasks that had once been theirs. Sommeliers are now generally understood to be responsible for stocking, storing, selecting, and serving wines—but in restaurants (which they predate), not in the households of grand seigneurs, rich men.
When I spoke with Eric Asimov, the chief wine critic for the New York Times, we agreed that even as anxiety about talking with sommeliers remains potent, the state of the profession is quite healthy. Until fairly recently, sommeliers were pretty thin on the ground; Asimov’s Times colleague, Florence Fabricant, pronounced them “an endangered
species” in 1986. Now, especially in big cities like New York and Los Angeles, there’s an abundance of skillful and knowledgeable sommeliers. “I so much appreciate sommeliers,” he told me. “I don’t care how much you know about wine: You never know as much about the wine list in a restaurant as a sommelier does. I believe in most circumstances you have to trust the sommelier in a restaurant, and I do.”
I do, too. I not only trust them, I’m also grateful to them. They’ve put in a lot of hours to ensure that they can help me find a wine I’ll love that I can afford. And, almost to a person, they have never failed to answer even my weirdest, dumbest questions.
If you’ve picked up this book, it’s not only because you love wine, it’s also because you’ve thought about becoming a sommelier. I have, too. Maybe it’s a hazy, soft-focus daydream right now (as it is for me), or maybe you’re deep into your study of the subject. The work of the sommelier brings together history, topography, geology, culture, taste, and pleasure: if all of these excite you, and you honestly like working with other people, it could be the perfect job for you. A sommelier who privileges wine over people simply should not be a sommelier.
Maybe you were drawn in this direction by the Somm documentaries, or the television series Uncorked, or by
the book Cork Dork—all of which underscore how critical studying is to the sommelier’s job, how much there is to learn and to know. But superior skills at memorization, blind tasting, and acing tests, impressive as they are, do not in themselves make great sommeliers. Other qualities—including patience, style, warmth, even empathy—matter, too.
Wherever this book finds you on your way to wine stewardship, I hope you will take inspiration, along with some very practical advice, from the stories of the two remarkable sommeliers profiled in these pages: Roger Dagorn and Amanda Smeltz. The former, now seventy, grew up in a restaurant-owning French family steeped in knowledge about food and wine, and has amassed virtually every honor and qualification available in his profession. The latter is in her early thirties and was raised in central Pennsylvania by parents who never drank wine at all, and in less than a decade in New York she established herself as a star in her field, developing and tending to the cellars and wine lists of some of the city’s trendiest and most distinctive restaurants. Their backgrounds, points of view, and professional paths could hardly be more different: One was born in America, the other in France. One wears a suit to work, the other jeans and T-shirts. One went through the
grueling certification exams, the other did not. But both are brilliant at what they do, because they hold at least one crucial quality in common: they demonstrate, by example, that the best sommeliers are above all else patient, wise, and generous teachers.