Customers often say to me, “You must really love your job. But I’m not sure exactly that you do?” So with that in mind, I’ve decided to outline my perception of what a sommelier is, and what he/she should be expected to do.
Basically, I dispense hedonism for a living. I bring wines, great and small, to thirsty folks. I also believe wine to be one of the magnificent gifts given us here on Earth.
One rarely plans to become a sommelier. I can just hear it now: “So son, what is that that you want to be when you grow up?” “Well, daddy, I want to be a sommelier, so I can dispense hedonism.” No, that’s not the way it went down. This is not a career you prepare for in advance. Life experiences lead you to this path, and if you answer the calling, it’s a response of passion.
Here are some of the things I do on a daily basis. In no particular order, I strive to have a strong working knowledge of:
1) Grape Varieties: Grapes like chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir produce distinctly unique wines. All wine-producing countries offer versions of these varieties that differ markedly from the others. There are dozens of types, each with its own traits. Their plusses and minuses must be assessed individually.
2) Wine Valuations: Cognizance of the buying, pricing and selling of wine, both on a wholesale and retail level. Sommeliers must be aware of distribution markets as well, taking advantage of the opportunity to purchase certain wines when the availability is at hand.
3) Vintage Variances: Every vintage produces a new set of wines that must be judged and compared against those that have come before. Constant monitoring of these are necessary to ensure a learned opinion.
4) Vineyard Practices: How did these grapes get to be wine? Knowledge of vineyard practices employed by wineries worldwide, like pruning, picking, pressing of the grapes, maceration, fermentation, bottling, and aging is essential.
5) Food Pairings: Wine and food are buddies. When chosen well, they complement each other’s best features. An astute sommelier should have a diverse food background, and must be attuned to the tastes of dishes from many countries. He/she can then blend the flavors of the food with the wines that suit these tastes.
6) Customer Relations: Keeping the customer informed and happy is a prerequisite. Taking the time to find out each client’s preferences, along with their willingness (or lack thereof) to learn about new wines, is also important.
7) Tableside Demeanor: True pros display a graceful and flexible demeanor tableside. They keep an even keel and are well spoken, but never haughty. FYI: the old school is out. Any sommelier showing up at your table clanking of chains and cups like the Ghost of Christmas Past should be avoided.
8 ) Service Techniques: Wine service is simple, but must be structured. These are some of the essential techniques: providing the initial taste of a chosen wine to the host for approval; serving women before men (for smaller parties); serving the host last, and pouring a moderate amount in each glass to allow for swirling (which provides a better assessment of the aromas).
9) Teaching: Having the ability to teach novices, intermediates and those advanced is the sign of a quality sommelier. Those that can pass their knowledge on in a genuine and easy-going manner, choosing their wording carefully and keeping all levels of students on the same page, will make the most impact.
These are just a few of the main thrusts of my job. Wine rocks, and I hope to rock right along with it until the day I’m dust. In fact, when the Grim Reaper comes to the door, I think I’ll offer him a glass of Chambolle-Musigny.
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. He is currently sommelier at Andina, the Peruvian restaurant in Portland