Friday, January 4, 2008

Are Our Sommeliers Better?

Mike Steinberger seems to think so. At, he writes:

Many French sommeliers came to the job not by choice but by conscription, and the position has usually been a life sentence.

In France, the sommelier was often someone who entered the restaurant trade as a barely pubescent teen with dreams of becoming a chef (and no prospect of attending university). Then, deemed unworthy of a place at the stove, our man (and it was always a man) got shunted off to the wine cellar, where he was condemned to spend the rest of his working days in the shadow of the egomaniacal prick who beat him out in the kitchen. This was not a recipe for service with a smile.

. . . By contrast, professional wine service is a recent phenomenon in the United States (it only really started in the 1980s), and took root in very different fashion. The pioneering figures here — Kevin Zraly (Windows on the World), Daniel Johnnes (Montrachet), Larry Stone (Charlie Trotter's, Rubicon) — were all college-educated and came to wine out of passion, not because they were frog-marched into the bottle room. They saw their role as mainly pedagogical, an outlook perfectly tailored to a time when Americans were developing an interest in wine. They made wine service educational, and they made it fun. They also brought an entrepreneurial spirit to the work . . .

One of the [U.S.'s] brightest young sommeliers is Indian-born Rajat Parr, who oversees wine for San Francisco chef Michael Mina's restaurant conglomerate.

. . . Here, too, the contrast with France is vast. France may be a multicultural ountry, but wine service there is still a strictly Caucasian affair, and the few exceptions are made to feel their exceptionalness. Hideya Ishizuka, a Japanese sommelier who spent a decade working at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Bordeaux and who now owns a restaurant in Paris, recently told me that many French clients simply refused to accept the idea that he had wine advice worth heeding.

Parr says that trips to France early in his career taught him valuable lessons in how not to be a sommelier, but he thinks things are beginning to change there . . . They both say that younger French wine waiters, encouraged by the examples being set here, are showing clients greater respect and are trying to make the experience more convivial.

When I am dining at a restaurant that retains a sommelier, I sometimes ask for the sommelier's advice, although I don't always take it. When I seek their input, it is usually to see if there is a wine I haven't tried before that might worth drinking. Like any advice I get, I take it with a grain of salt.

My experience tells me that sommeliers are a lot like interior decorators — they may say they want to suggest something that reflects your taste, but the result is usually something more reflective of theirs.

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