A SOMM ENCHANTED EVENING?
I took it as a compliment, rather than a threat, when I was recently asked to consult on a wine matter for inclusion in an author’s second novel! Woodrow McKane is a well respected 6th Dan Martial Arts Instructor in the UK, and he’d just made me an offer I couldn’t refuse! As you can imagine, for both reasons, I accepted with alacrity!
In one of the chapters of the new, as yet unnamed, sequel to, ‘Slayers of the Dark Web’ (available on Amazon, I’ve bought a copy for my Kindle!), some of McKane’s characters find themselves in a, presumably, rather upmarket restaurant. I’ll not give anything away, of course, but there is a sommelier involved and his part in proceedings on which I was asked to comment (sorry ladies, I believe the Somm in this case, coincidentally, is a man, though I know that these days there are many of the fairer sex undertaking this line of work with a certain feminine and elegantly, successful aplomb!) .
It made me think about the role of the Sommelier – historically a rather staid, sometimes arrogant, integral part of a ‘posh’ restaurant; but nowadays something of a female (better balance now, ladies?) or male superstar on the lines of celebrity chefs. It’s an interesting metamorphosis.
Wikipedia tells us that a Sommelier, ‘is a trained and knowledgeable wine professional, normally working in fine restaurants who specializes in all aspects of wine service as well as wine and food pairing.’ In the past, that’s at the turn of the 19th/20th Century, and before too, sommeliers were found almost exclusively in French restaurants, mostly in France.
In the early 1900s this expanded, firstly to those restaurants which were French owned, but in different countries, and then to restaurants abroad that were at least in the French style, regardless of ownership. The idea caught on and up to the 80s sommeliers could be found lurking in the cellars of many top quality restaurants, no matter the, country, style or ownership.
Their badge of honour (now relegated to that alone) was the ‘tastevin’, a small silver, or at least silver-plated, vessel hung about their person and used, occasionally to the chagrin of the uninitiated, to taste the almost invariably expensive wine that has just been ordered, on the Somm’s advice, of course!
Having pulled and inspected the cork, as well as smelling it, the Sommelier will have already decided if the wine has a fault, or not. The tasting of the wine from the ‘tastevin’ was simply to confirm his opinion, a final part of the quality control, and not to see if he himself actually liked it!
Some diners, the ones who ordered the wine in the first place, having witnessed the performance, will certainly have been intimidated, and would really not want to taste the wine themselves, thank you very much, when the Somm, pours a small amount in her(!)/his glass! Do we question the Doctor when he pronounces his diagnosis? He’s the expert, leave it to him!
Others, of course, may delight in simply being bloody-minded, go along with the tasting and then have the temerity to dramatically send it back! But some, may have genuinely detected a faint fault that had eluded the sommelier – we can all have off days/nights!
Well, that was then and these days every top restaurant worth its salt (and its fine wine vault) has a Sommelier, whose role has expanded dramatically. She/or he will very often be the wine buyer, often championing boutique producers and lesser known areas; it’s almost certain that they’ll have, not just the experience, the educated nose and palate, but also the educated brain as well.
There are Sommelier exams to sit, degrees to earn and guilds/associations of which to become a member. The sommelier will be on an equal footing with the Chef de Cuisine, and the owners at menu planning meetings. Food and wine pairings won’t just be discussed, they’ll be trialed too!
These days they’ll often have a far better ‘table-side manner’ and, thanks to social media, sommeliers are now followed by tens of thousands, making them seriously impressive influencers. There have been books written by sommeliers, of course, but also, nowadays, films, videos, documentaries and even at least one TV series.
But tell me, when she/he comes over, do you see the move as brightening or darkening the restaurant table. Any stories of your experiences with sommeliers, good and, well, not so good, will be gratefully received! firstname.lastname@example.org