Most diners are aware of the position of sommelier in a high-end restaurant. The waiter dedicated mainly to wine service, but also spirits, aperitifs, digestifs, cocktails, beer, coffee, tea, water and, sometimes, cigars. There isn’t a dedicated waiter for meat, or fish, so why wine?
It turns out that when wine is a very large part of a restaurant’s sales it becomes a full time job. Existing inventories must be maintained of a product that itself evolves as it gets older. A vintage wine that offered a diner a certain flavor profile this year may be unrecognizable just two years on. And yet, new supplies of that same wine vary, vintage by vintage, with the weather. Some wines, particularly European wines from temperate and continental climates, can differ out of all recognition from year to year. Thus, the sommelier has to stay on top of a product base that is forever shifting.
And what a lot of products. I read somewhere that there are now over 3,500 different wines on sale in the U.S. market at any one time. Contrary to the theme of some ill-informed documentaries, globalization is making the global supply of wine more diverse, not more homogenized. So sourcing matters.
First consideration in any restaurant or club is the budget. Then the tastes of the customer base determine the average cost of what fills that budget. At 100 different selections your wine list is diverse enough to deserve study. At 200, it is capable of impressing. At 300 plus, you have a potentially unmanageable treasure trove.
Keeping every slot on the list occupied by the best wine for your business is the challenge. You have to be an expert on every selection. Both the product itself, and how it works with the chef’s food. If you work for a chef who has more culinary mood shifts than Lady Gaga has outfits then that alone can be a big challenge.
It also helps to be a little psychic. When a guest says “I am having the grouper with a side of piri-piri. What is the best dry red wine to go with that?” You have to have an answer that will not just satisfy, but thrill the customer. It could be the sea-change event of the evening that induces them to return, or pass on a favorable recommendation of your establishment. A bad recommendation can be worse. It can leave them grumbling about being upsold by an out-of-work car salesman who used to be a congressman.
Given the ever evolving product space, the sommelier’s job is one of constant education. How do you get this education and how do you keep your knowledge up to date?
First, a lot of the training is on-the-job experience. Russell Burkett was the opening sommelier at Sēr, the steakhouse at the Dallas Hilton Anatole, where he created one of the best wine lists in town. He reckons he would easily taste 40 wines a week with suppliers introducing their wares. It meant that his taste memory was always fresh so he could compare the wine currently in his glass with other examples he had memorized. After a time as a sommelier, you get to hear the name of a wine and immediately know what to expect based on its grape, producer and year.
It should be said that the kind of tasting you do on the job does not involve swallowing the wine. You taste and ‘spit’. It doesn’t sound glamorous because it’s not.
You also learn a lot from books and Internet media and from lectures by experts such as winemakers and representatives of trade organizations such as “Wines of XXX” (insert your own region for XXX).
A major catalyst for sommelier education and training in Dallas is the Dallas Sommelier Society (DSS). Like most professional organizations it exists to improve knowledge and skills among practitioners in order to deliver a better result to the customer. I asked DSS President, Brian Brill, some questions about itm, starting with what the organization does:
BB: We meet many times per week. The Thursday meeting that began on the patio of Vino 100 has remained as the general meeting. All levels of members can attend and our more experienced members get a chance to lead a group and educate. They are usually blind tasting, but sometimes are meetings with Master Sommeliers, Master of Wines or amazing producers. Sometimes the blind tastings are themed, sometimes they are “Fair game” which means we blind taste wines we would expect to be allowed in an exam and sometimes its anything goes. We have smaller meeting for members further along in their studies including advanced blind tastings on Tuesday nights and Saturday mornings and theory and service review sessions on Sunday afternoons. We also volunteer our services at events like Texsom, The Dallas Morning News Wine Competition, The Lone Star International Wine Competition and Cotes du Coeur.
AC: How many members does the organization have and what do they do professionally?
BB: We have over 150 people on the mailing list and about 40+ active members. Our members are sommeliers, retail, distributors, importers, servers, restaurant consultants and even a few people who are just passionate about wine.
While most of our members have some level of experience on the floor of a restaurant, many have moved on to different things. Working retail or distribution is a pretty common change you might see. But the skills of a sommelier translate into this world as well. Helping the retail customer find the right bottle for a dinner, a gift or a party. Helping a restaurant get bottles that work with their menus onto their lists. I guess the point is the definition of a sommelier is one that has evolved and will continue to evolve, but at the end of the day, as a society, we want to improve the overall wine scene in the Dallas Metro area (and beyond!). I believe that we’re making a difference.
AC: Who runs the show and how do they do it?
BB: We had to create an official nonprofit corporation, create bylaws, decide on our mission statement, set up a board of directors, create a website, Facebook, etc. It was at that point that we went from a bunch of guys and gals trying to get our next set of pins who wanted to help people, to an organization that could provide an opportunity for individuals to share their spirit with like-minded individuals, taste wines that they wouldn’t normally get to taste, achieve those next levels of certification and help turn Dallas into a great community for those who love wine. Whether that be by improving the quality of the sommeliers, or the person managing a wine program in retail, or education of the consumer, that’s what we were going for.
We had some great mentors along the way as well. Geoff Labitzke, Melissa Monosoff, Damon Ornowski, James Tidwell, Barbara Werley and others. We really look up to these mentors and the sessions they provide for us are invaluable.
At the same time we formed the corporation, we took on Scott Barber joined us as our first educational committee chairman. He put together these great educational tracks to help people focus and prepare for the certified, advanced exams, competitions, etc. He did a fantastic job. After his year-long appointment he moved to Napa and Jason Huerta has held that post ever since.
AC: How do you see the role of the sommelier has changed in the last few years?
BB: A modern day sommelier tends to have many more responsibilities. Many manage entire beverage programs and of course are expected to make money for their employers. So there’s that whole aspect as well, working with distributors and getting the right bottles on their list for the right price. A lot goes into that.
AC: Wine Tasting. Recently I saw the latest rendition of that biennial boost-the-ratings article “Wine Tasting is Junk Science”. Could you address this. For example, is there really no better ability to recognize a wine tasted blind after a training such as yours than before?
BB: First, let’s talk about what blind tasting is to a sommelier. Blind tasting is the act of analyzing a wine that has been poured into a glass without any knowledge of what it is. You analyze the visual characteristics, the smell, the taste and its structure. You use this analysis to determine the grape variety, country, region, sub-region, quality level and vintage.
Next, let’s talk about why we blind taste. The answer to that question is simple. We want to be able to describe a wine. Whether that be to a guest in a restaurant, a customer in a retail store, a sommelier in a restaurant that you’re selling wines to, or a friend that you want to help find the right bottle, that is what we’re going for. We want to be able to describe any wine as precisely and concisely as possible. By blind tasting many, many different styles of wines many, many times over, we learn how to do that.
Now, let’s talk about the examining process and what it takes to be ready for such a thing. During the first tier of exams, you are expected to blind taste one white and one red wine and there is a written form that you fill out. This is challenging and requires much practice, but is something you can get reasonably good at. When you progress to the Advanced or Master level, its six wines (3 white, 3 red) in 25 minutes and its all oral. The first time you try one of these, it is a physical and emotional beat down. You get lost, you start to doubt yourself, you will mentally get stuck at times and will not be able to proceed. To get to a level to where you actually can pass this thing, you have to practice, practice, practice. They don’t tell you how many you actually have to get right, or close to being right, to pass but our more experienced tasters are usually getting most of the wines in what we call the initial conclusion (i.e., this is either a Syrah from the United States, a Shiraz from Australia or a Zinfandel from the United States) and around (2-5) in the final conclusion (i.e., this is Shiraz from Australia, from South Australia, from Barossa). Nobody is perfect, I have never had a perfect flight. If you practice enough, you will improve and become good at it. When you do, it will translate and help you have that conversation with your guests about wine wherever that might be.
So, are we always right? No. I think the tasters who practice a lot are right more often than they’re wrong. And outside of exams, who cares? Sure there’s a pride thing going on there, but at the end of the day, we’re trying to understand typicities of styles so that we can have a better conversation with our customers. And if that happens, everything else is good.
Brian Brill, Dallas Sommelier Society President
AC: Finally, I understand that you have a Ph.D. in Physics. How did you go from protons to Pinot Noir and synchrotrons to the sommelier society?
BB: I first started drinking wine while I was in graduate school. I would buy magnums of Concha y Toro from the grocery store because I liked the way it tasted with saltine crackers. At some point, I graduated to Michael David’s 7 Deadly Zins because I loved what at the time I described as bacon flavor. So for the longest time, I was one of these guys who knew he liked wine and knew there was a lot behind it, but did not know much more than that.
About five years ago, I decided to make the move from Plano to Uptown Dallas. I did this and my girlfriend (now wife) recommended that I go check out a little wine bar known as Vino 100. That day, I met the somm there, Denise Jones, who I am still good friends with to this day. I asked how someone would go about expanding their wine knowledge and develop the skills to become a sommelier. She told me about the Court of Master Sommeliers and about their different levels. The whole process seemed daunting at the time, but also very appealing. She also told me of the Society of Wine Educators and their certifications and the WSET and the Master of Wine program. Her boyfriend at the time, Juan Pablo Taboada (who I had also just met), was present and we made a pact to do the Introductory level of the Court of Master Sommeliers together.
And so the DSS was (informally) born. Over the course of the next year, we met on a weekly basis on the patio of Vino 100. I’d go off and study a region for the week, put together a PowerPoint presentation, then come back with my computer and give a presentation on the topic. We’d blind taste some wine and talk about different techniques for service. Shortly before the exam, we took on a third member, Robert Emery, who now lives in the DC area. Having already passed his Intro and preparing for his Certified exam, he was the expert of the group. But even in that early stage it was apparent that the amount we were learning from being in this together exceeded what we would have learned on our own.
The trend continued, we took on more and more people, fed off each other’s knowledge and know how and continued to evolve. Even at that time, we had adopted the Court’s pay it forward philosophy, which is a system of mentoring and basically means “We’ll help you grow as a somm, but never forget that and always help those that come after you.” Pretty soon we had around 10 people and most of us were able to get through those first couple of tiers of exams like the CMS’s Certified Sommelier Exam, the SWE’s Certified Specialist of Wine and Spirits, etc.
At that point, I was going up to Boston quite a bit, and got involved with a group there known as the Boston Sommelier Society. They reminded me a lot of us but were better organized and had several people that were at higher levels in their certifications than any of us. Not only did they have Advanced level Sommeliers and MW candidates, but they also really reached out to the community as a whole, mentoring anyone interested. They were a tight group that was led by an Advanced Somm, Michael Meagher. I thought what they were doing was really cool and went back to Dallas to tell the group.