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Thursday Thorns: The Report Card
The Zester Daily Zings The New Somms

By Charles Olken

“A little knowledge is dangerous thing”.

The oft-times brilliant young wine writer, Jordan Mackay, whose comments on California wine last month rather bugged me, has this month hit the ball out of the park with his insightful evaluation of the new crew of young sommeliers. He offers plenty of anecdotes about eager beavers whose enthusiasm ultimately leads them into what he, and I, would consider to be mistakes and disservices to their customers and even to their employers. He asks for wisdom, not just a little knowledge. Thank you, Jordan. Spot on.

The article can be found at:

It grades out at straight A for me.

He could not be more correct. We see it all the time here in San Francisco where good restaurants wind up with novices for sommeliers. And it is easy to understand why that happens. The notion that a restaurant can sell more wine with an extensive list and person on the floor to push that list is probably more accurate than not. But so much depends on the how well-trained the buyer/sommelier happens to be and on the whether that person understands that it is all about the customers and not about trying to prove that two years in the wine trade and one course in wine service has made a novice into a rock star. I like Jordan’s anecdotes, but I like mine better because I have seen them first hand.

--The very good restaurant Jardiniere has one of San Francisco’s more noted sommeliers. He is no novice, but he is guilty nonetheless of what I call “sommelier hubris”. As the result, I will not eat at Jardiniere because when my wife and dined there a few years ago, the wine list was so filled with bottles from vinous backwaters that I felt very little connection to it. And while I won’t claim to be a world expert, I am no novice, and if I cannot relate to a wine list, then what happens to the ordinary punters like my neighbors—educated, urbane but not students of the wines of Puglia or Greece or Tasmania or the Jura? I do not even question that some of those wines, or even most of them, are good wines, but I do question the hubris that causes a smart wine person, or a novice, to produce a list that requires an Master of Wine degree to understand.

--One of my favorite restaurants over the past five years was Myth in San Francisco. I loved its décor; I loved its homey yet sophisticated menu. In short, Myth was on the way to becoming my “go to” San Francisco restaurant. But Myth had at time a young sommelier whose desire to show off exceeded his wisdom. The list itself was a mix of accessible and abstruse, and, frankly, I not only have no problem with that, but rather like it when one can choose between a known entity like Shafer Merlot and rarely seen offerings like Robert Foley Merlot. Still, on my first visit, this young somm, whom I saw grow in smartness over time, was asked (I like to ask the sommelier to choose a special bottle for the dishes we are eating because first of all, he knows his list and secondly, if I want to extend my knowledge, why not ask the man who put the list together). Well, my young friend chose a Taurasi, a tight, angular, tannic wine from the Avellino region of Italy. It was absolutely the wrong thing to serve with the melt-in-your mouth short ribs despite its depth and potential. On my next visit, the somm was faced with a more daunting task. Three of us showed up after a tasting in San Francisco, immediately asked for three wine lists and that event by itself sent our waiter screaming into the night to be followed almost immediately by the arrival of the somm. We all collectively discussed menus and wine choices and hit upon the idea of several courses of shared plates. The wine choices were also a mix of our preferences and his suggestions, and the aforementioned Shafer vs Foley choice of Merlot was solved by the somm recommending the Foley and agreeing to swap it out for the Shafer if we decided that we preferred the Shafer after tasting the Foley. By the time of my third visit, the somm recognized me and brought me a glass of his latest discovery, a Sonoma Mountain Grenache. Now, here was a hit. Balanced, ripe but not over the top and showing all of the potential that Grenache offers when grown in the right places. My young friend is still in the learning phase but he has grown with experience, and with the closing of Myth, he moved on to a role as one of several “floor somms” at the fabulous restaurant, Gary Danko.

--Two final notes: Two Olken family favorite restaurants, Bay Wolf in Oakland (and highly recommended to you in an earlier restaurant review in this blog) and the well-run East Asian Indian restaurant, Ajanta, in Berkeley, have wine lists of about sixty wines, all fairly priced, and chosen not by a young somm trying to show off but by the restaurant owner himself. Both lists have familiar and unfamiliar wines and both take in a wide geographic swath. These are the kinds of lists that are meant to serve the clientele while allowing the restaurant to stretch a little. And, even when a list is six hundred long or even several thousand, there is no reason why it cannot be geared to the clients instead of to the ego of the somm.


A little knowledge...
by Mike Dunne
Posted on:1/6/2011 5:45:43 PM

Charles, I haven't read Jordan Mackay's essay, but you got me downright excited about visiting Jardinere. "Vinous backwaters?" Jura, Greece, Tasmania? I think maybe not, and a sommelier who is daring enough to offer wines from such underappreciated and underexplored regions needs support rather than discouragement. The wines may be lousy, granted, or they may be glorious. In this case, the hubris, however, isn't with the sommelier so much as it is with the commentator who turns his back on them without giving them a chance. I don't think you need a master's in wine to appreciate a grounded and harmonious wine regardless of where it originates.

Gotta agree with Jordan
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:1/6/2011 7:28:32 PM

Charlie Baby as you know I happen to agree with much that Jordan laments about in this article. Not sure if it happens more in LA but we have a junk pile of douchey Somm's that truly care more about strutting their latest badge or allocation than actually talking to the consumer and getting a feel for what they like. As a woman in this business I've had my share of dismissive and annoying but few chap my hide more than someone that tells me that I have to...."have to" have Kistler Chardonnay with my lobster ravioli. Whatever dude, thanks for helping ME and I will be bringing my wine next time...

Drawing The Line
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/6/2011 9:34:23 PM


I have no doubt that you would enjoy Jardiniere. The food quality is very high. But, I found the list totally filled with unknowns. Not totally unknown places but also unknown producers, and I found very little that I could sink my teeth into. I want to be able to make a choice. If the only way for someone like me to do that is to consult a sommelier, then what does the average urbane but unprofessional wine lover do? If a wine list requres every last person in the house to choose their wines by wild guess or asking for the sommelier, then it crosses the line for me.

There are hundreds of great restaurants and lists in San
Francisco. If Gary Danko and Michael Mina and La Folie and The Ritz can have lists that combine the obscure and the well-chosen wines that do not require a
WSET certificate to know,. then so can Jardiniere.

One does not need a certificate to appreciate good wine, but if one needs one to read the wine list, then that might be OK with you. I find it crossing the line.




by John
Posted on:1/7/2011 10:38:34 AM

As a "slightly more experienced than average" consumer I can say that while I agree with Mike that we should support the efforts of an adventuresome somm, I also think it is a rookie move to pack a list with unknowns.

I love reading a good wine list. I appreciate a varied selection. It tells me a little about the buyer and the restaurant in general. For me a good list is a mix of the familiar and arcane. It is comforting to see a number of familiar wines, wines that people will buy for the label without having to consult the somm, usually at a 3x to 4x markup. These tell me the buyer knows there is a sucker born every minute. These wines give the restaurant staff room to bring in cool stuff that they love but that might be obscure to most - when I see these gems at 1.5x to 2x markup I feel that someone was passionate enough about them to take a chance, and I am willing to give those wines a try.

Charlie I don't know if you have reviewed Oenotri (in downtown Napa across from the AVIA Hotel) - the search function here on the site is wanting. If you have not been you owe it to yourself to go there for the food. The somm there, Sur Lucero, has put together an interesting list that meets my criteria. (Also, props to Oenotri for their clean website - no flash, no music, updated fairly frequently. BTW they are closed through Jan 17th.)

I also highly recommend Harvest Moon in Sonoma. No somm - chef/owner Nick Demarest (late of Eccolo and before that, Chez Panisse) hand-selects a small and eclectic list - fewer than 30 wines, with modest markups. He rotates stock nearly as often as he changes the menu (often) and his selections reflect thoughtful pairing for what he is cooking.

Napa Restaurants
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/7/2011 11:07:15 AM


Thanks for the suggestion and comments.

Downtown Napa has become a great dining spot. I have not yet tried Oenotri but will put it on my list. Napa also boasts my favorite vegetarian restaurant, Ubuntu, a great Indian restaurant, Neela's, a fine modern restaurant in Celadon and fancy eating at La Toque.



more Napa
by John
Posted on:1/7/2011 12:00:45 PM

I also suggest Angèle, and Cole's Chop House (Greg's follow-on to Celadon), and Super D burger on Soscol got more business from us at Stag's Leap than Taylor's Refresher did. I'm also looking forward to trying Bui Bistro on Pearl Street.

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