School For Stewards
What has your sommelier done for you lately?
Thursday, September 7, 2000
A summer what? Try this: say summel-YAY. Okay, you may still cringe at the tongue-twisting, foreign word, but today you are much more likely to enjoy your experience with a sommelier. Why? Quite simply, the modern wine steward is less intimidating, more approachable and more easy-going than ever before.
A sommelier is primarily there to help you select wine and then to keep glasses full throughout the meal; they should be able to answer any questions that you might have about the wine you have ordered. A good sommelier is somewhat of a showman (or woman) when out on the floor; the act of decanting a bottle of wine, for example, or sabering a bottle of champagne, certainly adds drama to the theater of dining.
Only a hearty few have earned the right to call themselves a Master Sommelier. I am one of the 101 in the world, of which only 10 are women. California boasts 16--two live in Los Angeles, and the other 14 reside between Monterey and the Napa Valley. The Master Sommelier is a professional title earned after several years of examinations and tastings.
The MS syllabus includes production methods of wines and spirits, international wine laws, harmony of food and wine, wine tasting skills, and practical service and salesmanship. In a blind tasting of six wines in 25 minutes, candidates must correctly identify grape varieties, country and region of origin, age and quality. In the five years it took me to complete the program, I learned a tremendous amount about the job of a sommelier.
In my first "practical" exam, or simulated restaurant service test, I walked in and was asked to discuss the preparation, including ingredients and proper glassware, for a variety of cocktails that I had never prepared or consumed, even during my college days as a bartender. The next time I went in, I could recite the ingredients for Pink Ladies, Negronis and Side Cars perfectly. I had also somehow overlooked throughout the entire test the very minor fact that the dinner napkins were still in the water glasses. Where was the server, the maitre''d, even a busboy? How could I have missed that? Well, that was the whole point. A sommelier has to look at the big picture, not just at his or her wine tasks.
Another time I was asked to pair an appropriate wine with Souffle Rothschild. Even my best bluffing could not get me out of that one. What the heck is Souffle Rothschild? Eventually I found the recipe in Escoffier. Candied fruits and Goldwasser, that liqueur with real gold flakes, along with fresh strawberries figured heavily in the ingredients. Okay, I was ready now. Bring it on. But they didn''t. I never got that question again, but I came out with a new friend, Escoffier, and a new appreciation for classic cuisine.
And so it was with Germany, my nemesis. I spent weeks poring over maps, and memorizing vineyards and oechsle percentages (don''t ask). Then I went in for my theory test, and out of all the questions only two were on Germany. One was worded so that I didn''t understand it, and the other I missed. I was so frustrated. I wanted to stay and tell the judges all about Germany. Back to the big picture; I may not have answered those two questions correctly, but I came out with a tremendous gain in my knowledge of German wines.