The Joy Of Corking
A day in the life of a Master Sommelier.
Thursday, October 4, 2001
Originally, a sommelier was the monk who had charge of the crockery, linen, bread and wine in a monastery--the "cellarer." During the Ancient Regime, the king''s household had several sommeliers, whose primary function was to receive the wine brought by the sommiers, from the French betes de somme--beasts of burden. Before 1690, in the Royal Court, the sommelier was the person who laid the table and prepared the wine for a meal, whereas it was the "échanson" or "cup bearer" who served the wine. Today, the word sommelier refers to the person responsible for wine in a restaurant.
I would be surprised if 10 percent of Americans know what a sommelier is. Remembering how to say the word (SUM mel yay) alone gets the intimidation factor rising. I still prefer the French, though. Otherwise I''d be saying "Hello. I''m your beast of burden this evening. May I recommend a nice glass of Champagne to whet your appetite?"
Here in Monterey County, we have very few career sommeliers. For most it is a transitional position. With few openings available across the county, not many would-be sommeliers can see the job as a viable career choice. In the not-too-distant past, only a smattering of our restaurants employed sommeliers, and unfortunately for both the guests and for the profession, many of these were intimidating wine snobs.
Today there may be more working sommeliers, but their ranks could be expanded. In too many of the larger establishments, the duties of sommelier or wine director are delegated to an overcommitted manager or to someone with inadequate training.
As a sommelier, I am there to help guests select wine, to make sure it is sound, and then to keep glasses full throughout the meal. A top-notch sommelier--a Master Sommelier or a Concours Mondiale champ--may also be expected to answer questions about production methods of wines and spirits, international wine laws, wine regions, grape varieties, and the harmony of food and wine. Knowledge of waters, liqueurs, brandies, ports and cigars is also required.
A good sommelier is a showman or showwoman when out on the floor. The act of decanting a bottle of wine or sabering a bottle of champagne adds drama to the theater of dining.
Behind the scenes, I can tell you that things are not quite as glamorous. I taste and evaluate wine daily, looking for value and menu compatibility.
Professional tasting is just that--tasting. The wine is not swallowed in most cases, as the alcohol build-up would tend to impair the evaluator. It is a sterile evaluation process. In the wine''s appearance I check for cleanliness, brightness, viscosity, color and hue, depth of color, as well as rim variation and maturity. In the aroma I note first impressions, then ask "Is it clean? Does is smell sweet or dry? What about the fruit, alcohol, wood, maturity and grape variety?" On the palate I note my first impressions, check if they confirm the nose, check the alcohol, acidity, dryness or sweetness, wood, tannin, texture, intensity, ripeness, flavor, balance, persistence and quality.
If the wine passes muster, I meet with the vendor and place the order. Wine is not at all like a menu item based on a cut of meat or fish, which has been ordered from a reliable source. Each and every vintage of each and every wine from all reaches of the planet need to be tasted for quality, style and value.
At the same time, I must decide if a particular wine will marry well with what is coming out of the kitchen. I must also negotiate with my vendors, try to lower my pouring costs, increase sales volume and turn my inventory quickly. I strive to improve service standards and oversee sommelier and server training, as well as setting up special wine luncheons and dinners for guests.
I personally stock the wines and take physical inventory monthly. Off duty, I read stacks of trade and consumer publications, visit wine regions and try to hone my pairing skills.
Sommeliers are compensated usually with a percentage of their sales plus a small base salary. They rarely are in the servers'' tip pool--though most guests assume they are.
The Court of Master Sommeliers was established in 1969 "to encourage improved standards of beverage knowledge and service in hotels and restaurants," and internationally recognized in 1977. The Court explains: "In the service of wine, spirits, and other alcoholic beverages, the Master Sommelier Diploma is the ultimate professional credential that anyone can attain worldwide."
The Master Sommelier is a professional title earned after several years of examinations and tastings. The Court of Master Sommeliers is based in the UK, and is modeled on the trade guilds of the 19th century. As the titles infer, the program examines the wine world from a British standpoint. North America takes a back seat to Old World areas such as France and to New World areas such as Australia--the UK is Australia''s number one market.
Hundreds begin the program each year but very few candidates successfully complete it. Only 102 have earned the MS--only ten of us are women.
Before sitting for the MS Diploma, one must complete an advanced sommelier course, which requires several years of practical experience in the restaurant industry. After passing the Advanced level, one is invited to sit for the MS title. Here one gets three years, or three tries, to pass all three sections at the Master''s level--theory, tasting and practical service. If the clock runs out it is necessary to start again. Once all three are passed, an invitation is extended to join the Court.
According to Kevin Zraly, America''s premier wine educator and author of Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, the sommelier "may be the one person who can help orchestrate and enliven your entire meal. Using a competent sommelier offers two advantages: He or she has tasted the wines on the list more recently than you, and also knows how the menu items you ordered are actually being prepared."
Tom McGowan, maitre''d and sommelier at Casanova, Carmel''s romantic restaurant, adds, "One of the most unique things about being a sommelier in Monterey County is the fact that the region produces several spectacular wines. In addition to the fine wines, there are also many special restaurants from which to choose. Several of these feature grand award-winning wine lists. Fantastic wines and great food...just about everything one needs for a truly memorable experience."