Where's the stuffy wine guy?
I think we all remember movies where the wine snob comes to a couples’ table only to recommend the most expensive bottle on list, in the rudest French accent possible, cursing them under his breath as he walks away. Throughout my work experiences, I’ve watched “talented” sommeliers sell wine based only on price, and I do mean sell. These experiences have been far too common and are what jade diners’ views of both restaurants and the value of sommeliers, but such practices are becoming rare.
Twenty years ago—let’s be honest, as little as eight years ago—wine lists were very similar, and, dare I say, stale. Diners would scan the wine list to find their go-to bottles. In a sense, I’m sure there was comfort in that; no host wants to serve a guest something inferior, any more than a guest wants to be served such a thing. Back then, that was about all the excitement a list had to offer.
Now, however, is a unique time in the restaurant world. Food has never been more exciting; dining is evolving at a rapid pace. It only makes sense that the glass of liquid sitting right next to our dinner plate for so many centuries would evolve alongside it. And it has. Simply put, the quantity and quality of wine available today is beyond anything seen before. A little thing called globalization has allowed us access to over 24.6 million metric tons of wine produced annually. Much of this wine is coming from “new” regions that span the globe, and trust me when I say they’re worth tasting. As a consumer, how do you choose a bottle when so much is foreign to your palate? Enter the sommelier.
Today, the role of the wine professional or sommelier is embedded within the heart of a restaurant and, even more so, it’s integral to a guest’s overall enjoyment. The term sommelier, in all its variations of pronunciation, has never been so prevalent. There are local, national, and international competitions; academic training that rivals the dedication of any doctoral program; and even one of the most popular documentaries of 2013, SOMM, had everyone saying, “fresh cut garden hose.” It’s time to take advantage of the restaurant sommelier.
Like many of the emerging chefs in our region, the wine professionals of Western New York have been all over the world, traveling, working, and attending school, and now they are returning home with an excitement and energy to share what they’ve learned. As fundamental components to restaurants, somms are building lists meant to complement the intricacies of the food and expose guests to new styles of wine, all of which are meant to heighten the dining experience.
Terms thrown around today—such as farm-to-table, locally sourced, organic, biodynamic, sustainable, and natural—all reference the joint effort of food producers and servers to care more about the environment. It’s a sort of symbiosis of both centuries-old practices and current thinking. A good sommelier must understand the importance of these styles of wine and have the resources to search them out.
It’s important to know how food and wine can elevate one another, or how they can negatively detract from each other. Finding one bottle for four people to match every dish they order can be an overwhelming challenge. However, with a well-designed wine list and a little guidance from your friendly wine guy or gal, choosing a bottle can go from an unnerving experience to an entirely memorable one.
The process of guiding a somm through what you’re expecting might be what worries you most. You’ve already accepted the fact you’re going to ask for help, but if you want red wine, well then damn it, you want red wine, not the “hippest orange wine” the somm just found. Put your concerns aside, for this is the job of a good somm. Through discussion, questioning, and the polite determination of how much money you intend to spend, a somm’s desire to point you toward the best bottle for that specific night should remain unwavering. And money is almost always a participating factor, but it shouldn’t stand between you and a good bottle.
Whether you call them sommeliers, wine professionals, or just nerds, this is a craft and a profession that requires dedication, continuous education, and true passion. Diners, it’s time to forget that stuffy stigma and take advantage of your somm.
Tony Rials is a certified sommelier and the beverage director at Bourbon & Butter.