Food Dude Article #10
By Ken Collura
Every year, I try to assess the goals I’ve set for myself as a sommelier and whether they are being achieved. I know most people do this around New Year’s Day, but August is just as good.
So now is the time to reaffirm a couple of these resolutions, my raison d’etre, so to speak. So, here’s what I came up with, and how I feel I’m doing. Resolution One:
Since the first day I put on a suit and starting walking the floor, I’ve sought to dispel the idea of the haughty sommelier. You know who I’m talking about. That’s the one mumbling in winespeak, blowing the customer off as some sort of boob, maybe even wearing a clunky cup around his/her neck! (Here’s an aside: do these guys with the cups actually taste every wine they serve? If I did that where I work, by 8 p.m. I’d be ready for cookies and milk and a nap. FYI: spitting wine on the floor during the service is distinctly frowned upon, lest you splatter the shoes of the clientele).
If we never see another image of yesterday’s sommelier, it would be too soon. I strive to redefine the public’s perception, to bring them up to speed with the agenda of the contemporary wine professional. We are sometimes thought of as being icons of knowledge, and as such are lauded, but addressed with trepidation. On the flip side, we’re can be accosted like punching bags by packs of ego-driven wine-wannabees.
Before I hang up the corkscrew, I hope to convince customers I come in contact with to believe that the sommelier is the best wine buddy they can have. Any time a true pro is asked for consultation, he/she will match your food with the top choice available, taking into consideration your price and stylistic preferences. It’s that simple.
Am I succeeding in this endeavor? Answers forthcoming after a synopsis of Resolution Two.
Eating the same foods each day would be a bore. Why do folks choose the same wine, meal after meal? I tend to chalk it up to fear of the unknown. Priortato? Gigondas? Never heard of it.
So let’s have another bottle of cabernet. I can spell it, and my uncle lives 20 miles from where it’s made. It’s this kind of closed-mindedness that drives wine dudes loony. We know what jewels are out there. It’s a boundless bounty, with bottles to appease every taste and budget. Yet, we basically have to get on bended knee and plead for Mr. Same Old Same Old to try something twice as good at half the price. Something about this does not register.
Maybe it’s because of the overload of puffed-up reviews for certain wines from the media (Wine Spam). Whatever it is, I’m out there trying to be the caped crusader (does a Sommelier wear an “S” on his undershirt?) against this blinders-on mentality.
The envelope please.
I grade myself about a “B-” on the first point and around a “C+” on the second.
More tables have put their trust in my opinions during the last six months than ever before. Oh, we still hear things like, “Does this guy think I’m some sort of a rube just off the boat? He’s trying to sell me some lousy Spanish wine for 30 bucks!” But this is more the exception than the rule. This is an area where I think progress is being made.
On the other hand, it’s still tough convincing people to try something they’re totally unfamiliar with. You get that crooked-neck, I-don’t-think-so look, and then you go back to get them the cab/merlot/chard/whatever. It can be disheartening, but I’ll keep cajoling. In a gentlemanly fashion, you understand.
A syndicated columnist for over five years and writer for the trade magazines Cheers (on the Editorial Advisory Board) and Sante on a regular basis, Ken Collura has been active in the national wine scene for many years. Prior to moving to Portland, he was head sommelier at the restaurant with the world’s largest wine list, Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, which carried over a half million bottles in stock.
I am but a simple waiter, there is much I do not understand. I want to reconcile your desire to ‘dispel the idea of the haughty sommelier’ with your goal to ‘redefine
the publics perception, to bring them up to speed with the agenda of the contemporary wine professional.’ This in a house that sells $30 spanish wine? My poor mind boggles. We can’t afford bussers.
Less than $50 a bottle it’s by the suggestion of the waiter after a short quiz, ‘ what are you having, and what kind of wine do you like? If it is not to the guests taste it gets poured off that night as a special. Big ticket wines (in my mind, $100 and up) either the guest has spotted something they know or they have it suggested to them by the sommelier. In this world of everyman enosnobs why would a sommelier not have an air of superiority? Isn’t it your best tool for the high end
guest? Not spitting on the floor? Maybe in your la-de-da fantasy world of dining.
In my experience, the sommelier has been helpful about 2/3 of the time. The other 1/3, I feel as if I’ve walked into the Whitehouse with dog poo on my shoe after the experience. Funny thing, this never seems to happen at the old standbys (even places where he wears a tastevin). It does however happen at hot spots and it seriously makes me reconsider using the sommelier at these places.
At Ken’s restaurant, I have had two individuals who gave excellent advice and one even directed me to retail establishments where I could purchase a wine that he had suggested for a dinner party. The third time, I was with a large party on a Friday night and I was condescended to and literally had the sommelier walk away during midsentence. I’ll be back as I love the food, but if that sommelier is working, you can bet that I’ll stick with my prejudices and make my own selection.
Food Dude says
About a month ago I asked a server in a Portland restaurant about a particular bottle of wine. The answer?
“I have no idea, but I’d be glad to go get the bottle and read what it says on the back to you.”
Now that’s classy service, and proves there really is no need for you snooty sommeliers! (Tongue firmly in cheek… but true story)
The Mick says
Sidemeat……I’m not quite sure what points you are trying to make here (but I can see why you became a waiter as opposed to say…..a writer) but, I find Ken’s piece interesting and educational. In fact, I appreciate all the contributors to this site, as they give an insight to the workings of the minds of some great restaurateurs and “foodies”. Not all of the comments are ones that I agree with, but good or bad…..it’s the effort I appreciate. Ken et al…….keep up the good work.
Could be worse, perhaps I’ll become a sommelier.Arg! wonderfull, full throated articulate response to everything (wtih splellcheck) Foiled by dropped mouse! For the moment, (waiter hours) 1) No disrespect to Ken or his work.
2) Where I work, (where you dine) a restaurrenteur is the bartender
that pulls back to back 13 hour shifts wih grace.
A fry cook that doesn’t melt down a 8:00 p.m. and seventeen orders of calamari.
A waiter that can put a $30 bottle of wine on the table without a lot of consultation.
People that can go out, enjoy each others company, and perhaps have some food together.
And we get to wear hats!( that say restauranteer)
First, let me make clear that my remarks are not meant to be disrespectful of Ken’s work as a sommelier. Educating the dining public and getting people to try new things is difficult as well as laudable.
While the Mick found Ken’s piece informative I found it puzzling.
Why would ‘crooked-neck ego driven wine wannabees or mister same old, same old blinders on’ think their sommelier haughty?
Is this parody?
Rubes arrive by boat?
A waiter that can’t get a $30 bottle of wine on a table should not be employed.
A sommelier that sells inexpensive wine will not be.
Like every cook or busser a sommelier must generate revenue for the restaurant. They upsell. At some point a bit of snobbishness does come into play.
Some people will spend $500 on a bottle of wine. But nobody orders $80 soup.