WineInk: Somm Standards
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
2016 Château Cambon Beaujolais, France ($20)
Among the somm set gamay is the hot red wine grape of the last couple of years. Affordable, fruity and versatile, the once overlooked grape that is the base for the famed Beaujolais Nouveau has now become a go-to. This wine wowed the staff at The New York Times as well as Helen Johanneson, from LA’s Helen’s Wines. Farmed from organic vineyards the wine is lush and fruit forward. A great bargain.
Once upon a time, a Sommelier was a gruff, intimidating character whose sole purpose, or so it seemed, was to make diners feel small as they paid ever-larger prices for wines. The Sommelier, then always a man, would often wear a small silver cup on a chain around his neck called a Tastevin that, in theory, was used to “test” the wine before deeming drinkable.
How times have changed. Today’s Sommeliers are the hippest and happiest people in the room. These men, and fortunately much more frequently today, women, embody the concept of hospitality as they strive to insure that guests get the most from their wine experiences.
So what happened? Well, for starters there has been a simultaneous explosion in the wine savvy of both consumers and Sommeliers. For the Somms, institutions like the Court of Master Sommeliers and the British Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) have upped the game as young professionals now study the world of wine in quest of certification and validation.
For consumers, the information revolution created a source for global conversation about wine. No longer is it enough to simply read your local wine column or the wine press if you want to know about wine. Now, at your fingertips, you can examine every region, every bottle and every vintage on your phone before making a buying decision.
The result is that a very different relationship exists today between consumers and the wine professionals in Sommelier positions.
THE SOMM’S RESPONSIBILTY
When you go into a restaurant with the idea of having wine with your meal, you have a right to high expectations. After all, the restaurant is charging anywhere from two to three times the wholesale price they paid for a wine, making it one of the most profitable items on their menus. You generally can expect to pay double in a restaurant for the same bottle you would find in a store. That said, even at a higher price, there can still be value based upon both the Sommelier and the wine program’s ability to meet or exceed your expectations.
At the very least, a Sommelier must know their list. They need to know which wines pair well with the food the restaurant serves. If they are out of wines that appear on the list, they need to be able to make recommendations for alternatives. A good Somm will either infer your budget based upon wines you request, or, alternatively, inquire about what you may want to spend on your wines.
A really good Somm will make suggestions for alternative wines that are good values as well. While the up-sale is alive and well, any customer feels better when they have saved a few dollars and made a wine discovery due to a smart suggestion from a Sommelier. To me, that is the holy grail of a great Somm experience.
Of course, selling the wine is just one component of the wine service and experience. Service is the next. Three things to look for: Stemware. Temperature. Pour levels.
If you are paying any more than $40 to $50 for a bottle of wine you deserve an appropriate glass. In this day and age, stemware that is applicable for a particular type of wine, say a Burgundy glass for a pinot noir, or a flute glass for a bottle of Champagne, is a standard expectation. If the same type of glass arrives for different wines, don’t hesitate to ask for an upgrade. You deserve it.
Next, warm wine should never be served at those price points. Any Somm worth his or her salt will not even bring a bottle to a table that is not at the appropriate temperature. Not only is a room temperature white wine or a warmer than that red an unpleasant experience upon first taste, it suggests that the wine has not been stored properly to begin with. If your wine is too warm, speak up. The Somm should know better.
When the pour is made, a good Somm will not overfill your glass. There is a school that suggests that the more wine you have in your glass, the faster you will drink it and the more bottles you will order. That may be true, but having space to swirl the wine in the glass and savor its flavor and aromas is key to the experience of enjoying it.
But most importantly, your Sommelier should be nice. After all the best wine experiences result from the nicest people.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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