~Jason, whom I have not met in person—only via the Internet—but whom I respect for his many decades in the wine business, recently wondered online over the real purpose of a restaurant sommelier or wine buyer.
~The question came to Jason after an experience he had in an upscale restaurant around San Francisco. Boiled down, the experience included a so-called sommelier who displayed woeful regional wine knowledge, a wine list that the restaurant produces itself but can’t seem to keep updated, and a dessert wine that the server recommended but Jason discovered was deficient in a particularly important component for dessert wines—good acidity—leaving Jason to wonder why the high-priced restaurant’s wine buyer even brought that wine into the place.
~His displeasure having been posted online, on a bulletin board forum devoted to wine geekdom, Jason of course was greeted with all kinds of reactions to his wail, but generally people agreed that the situation was deplorable.
Did you know that there is no firm requirement that allows you to call yourself a sommelier?
~While there are schools and programs to teach wine sommeliers, to be a sommelier in the vast majority of restaurants across the United States does not require that you show up with a Master Sommelier certificate. Just a little wine knowledge will do; quite often, that little knowledge may be more than the establishment’s owner or manager holds.
One of the most annoying things about dining out in the United States is that, with some exceptions, the American restaurant trade cares rather little about the relationship between wine and food, and some care even less about paying for quality employees.
In fact, it’s built into the restaurant trade’s collective business plan to pay below the federal minimum wage—which is legal—in the hope that an improperly trained staff will make a living on tips forked over by guilt-ridden consumers.
Few in the restaurant industry seem to think that paying for quality wine knowledgeable employees, or at least trained ones, might improve their bottom line by enticing consumers to keep returning to the restaurant and to keep ordering wine.
~Unfortunately, in many, many restaurants the person who appears to have the most wine knowledge, and is willing to work for the least paycheck, gets the sommelier title and maybe even the title of wine buyer. What it often means is that the person is a glorified inventory control or logistics manager, one who would likely earn more money performing the same function in manufacturing, leaving me to fear that should American industry choose to start manufacturing products ever again the restaurant trade would be sorely deficient in wine buyers!
~To be sure, this is not only an American problem.
~Travel the European countryside and you often find yourself dining at local restaurants whose cuisine may or may not be stellar but it may always be regional and therefore not much different from restaurant to restaurant.
~In regional European restaurants the wine service is usually good, but the sommelier has so little with which to work that it would be a waste to go to school to learn what to serve with what food. Regional European restaurants generally serve the local wines—period.
~Granted, local wines in Europe often pair well with local cooking, but not always. For instance, in a place like Cahors, in France, where the local wine is 100% deep, dark red Malbec, restaurant servers seem to recommend the wine to pair with everything from a rich cassoulet to a fine broiled fish—not on your life does the wine have that kind of range. A good sommelier should know that.
~Sorry to have to tell you, Jason, but you are old enough to understand and I think you can take it: until the American culture sheds its Calvinist values and places value in the hedonistic pleasure of dining (which even the sacrilegious are likely to admit is a gift from God) the wine sommelier will remain a wonderful-sounding title for the position of logistics person with sales abilities.
~Our unending task as wine lovers is to seek and find those enlightened restaurants that make an effort to serve wine that pairs with their menu, both in the palate and in the wallet.
Note: I had the good fortune to have gotten my early wine training from the first American Master Sommelier, Edmund Osterland. Here is his Web site:
May, 2007. All Rights Reserved.