This brief post accompanies “Battle of the Somm” – an Op-Chart I wrote for the New York Times on the secret language of the city’s finest Sommeliers.
First, I would like to thank the amazing experts who guided me through the world of the Somm – from front of house service to the complexities of buying, selling, and pricing.
In alphabetical order, and with their Twitter handles, they are:
Joe Campanale – @joecampanale
Kimberley Drake – @missekard
Paul Grieco – @spitpaul
Morgan Harris – @MorganWHarris
Rita Jammet – @CaravelleChamp
Pascaline Lepeltier – @plepeltier
Greg Majors – @GregDMajors
Laura Maniec – @lauramaniec
Steve Morgan – @morgansteve
Thomas Pastuszak – @thomaspastuszak
Aldo Sohm [whose tastevin you see below] – @aldosohm
Raj Vaidya – @rajvine
Dustin Wilson [whose hand you see above] – @dwilson79
Eric Zillier – @ezillier
But, vocabulary aside, the central thing I learned from these talented people is that if you are dining in a restaurant which employs a Sommelier, you should never, ever order your own wine.
If you know little or nothing about wine, they will guide you to a bottle far more interesting and suited to your food than you could possibly pluck from the list.
And if you are a wine aficionado, you will not know more than the Somm about their list – or what they are hiding off-list in the cellar.
It seems that people are afraid of Somms for two reasons: they are embarrassed to admit their ignorance, and they fear being “upsold”.
The ignorance issue is easily dealt with: a Somm will always trump your knowledge about the wines they stock. So why pretend? And even if you do know most of the wines listed, why not use the Somm’s expertise to broaden your horizons?
With regard to “upselling,” no Somm worth their tastevin [below] is interested in ripping off a diner. The inherent immorality aside, it’s just bad business to create a (probably vocal) enemy for the sake of a few extra bucks. (Moreover, as I mention in my piece, diners are more likely to order a second bottle of a cheaper wine.)
Somms spend their lives tasting, buying, binning, selling, and inventorying wine. They work long hours and study crazy-hard for crazy-difficult qualifications. It’s no more in a Somm’s DNA to “bang” a diner than it is in a chef’s DNA to contaminate the food.
So, how to best use a Somm? First, tell them what you’re eating. Second, describe (as broadly as you like) the type of wine you’re after – colour, country, region, grape, style, body, flavor, whatever. And then indicate price (more on this in a second). As you are talking, the Somm will be working through the algorithm of their stock, selecting something to suit.
When it comes to price, there is a tried and tested ritual for those uncomfortable discussing money out loud. Open the wine list, point to a price in your range, and say “I was thinking about something like this…” The Somm will know exactly what this means (after all, you’re pointing to a price, not a wine), and will respect your wishes. If the wine they suggest is a little more expensive, or indeed a little cheaper, they will check with you first.
Inevitably Somms are going to be more excited about opening a unique bottle of expensive and supernacular wine … but such events are the exception not the norm. Most diners select from the shallow end of a wine-list, and most Somms spend their evenings opening wines from this range.
Best of all, befriend your Somm: they live to drink and share wine. A truly noble vocation.