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Friday Fishwrap
Bashing The Sommelier

By Charles Olken

There was a time when the “funniest” person in fancy restaurants was the snooty waiter who looked down his nose at you when you asked questions like “what is “Ris de Veau?”, and when he answered sweetbread, you asked “why is it not on the dessert menu”?

Well, those days are mostly gone. Now most waiters are younger than Taylor Swift and smile twice as much. The waiters union has decreed that snoot is out and being a pal is in. Frankly, I don’t know which is worse, because, in neither style did waiters actually make you think that they knew anything—just that they once thought you supercilious and now find that they like you and that you will tip better if you want to adopt them.

No, the snoot these days is no longer the province of the waiter in his penguin suit. It now belongs to a new genus, Sommelier Youngus, whose talents are immediately evident when he makes you think that you cannot possibly drink wine in his restaurant without accepting that only he knows the keys to kingdom.

I have been offended by this new kind of being, this new mutation of personhood for years now. I have openly said that I will not go to restaurants whose menu selections require you to pass the first two rounds of the Master of Wine course in order to recognize the obscure selections on the list. I have refused to go back to the San Francisco restaurant whose sommelier told me that she had zero California sparkling wines on her list because “they are all too sweet and low in acidity”. Maybe she is just too young to know better, or maybe she has been reading the new rules for sommeliers.

I never knew that such rules existed until Ron Washam, himself a reformed sommelier, told the world about them in his blog (Hosemaster of Wine, ). There, in an article entitled, “The Secret Official Sommelier Manual—Leaked”, Mr. Washam reveals, for the first time, why it is that the world has come to hate sommeliers that way it used to hate snooty waiters.

Take for instance, the section of the Sommelier Manual entitled, “Attitude”. I guess I should have figured this out on my own, but now I (and the rest of the world) know why we are second-class citizens when staring at some of those “Look at me. I am the Sommelier” excuses for wine lists exist. This is the advice that the new snoot tells sommeliers to follow.

You’re a god. No, you’re God. You’re Karl Rove with a tastevin. You’re Rush Limbaugh with breast reductions. You’re Paul Ryan with a boner. You’re Barbra Streisand with replacement rhinoceros hormones. You’re Larry Mathers as The Beaver. You’re Michel Chapoutier with lifts. You’re God with a Robert Parker complex.

OK, I get it now. And there is more, a lot more revealed in this seminal look into the reason why people have stopped drinking wine in restaurants. It used to be the food that intimidated us. Then we all became foodies. Now it is the wine list and the attitude behind it that is making wine service so much of a bother.

I highly recommend this editorial by the Hosemaster. He knows whereof he speaks. And before you dismiss his commentary as pure comedy, just because he makes fun of Rush, let me tell you that there is more truth in that article than in most blogs. His words may pass for comedy at first glance, but like all good topical humor, they are based on truth and reveal more about this new cult of the sommelier than most straight articles would ever dare to do.

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The douchiest profession
by Nth
Posted on:11/30/2012 10:42:48 AM

I got to sit next to one of these tw@s at the bar at Commis in oakland once. He decided that it was his duty to try to educate me on coulee de serrant; a wine I've been drinking on and off nearly as long as he'd been on this plantet. He just made the assumption that because I was eating alone and drinking a wine from, forbidd it, CA, that I knew nothing about wine and it was his duty to educate me.

I enjoyed quickly eviscerating him and getting on with an otherwise excellent meal

Sad, Really
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/30/2012 11:50:40 AM

Sadly, the San Francisco restaurant scene is now filled with these young, too-hip youngsters who have not tasted enough to have either beadth or depth of experience on their sides. As the result, so much of what we see on wine lists in now driven by "then next obscure disovery" syndrome.

Now, between us girls, I will admit that I rarely drink CA wine in restaurants, unless I am bringing something with lots of age from my cellar, simply because I taste thousands of CA wines and like to look elsewhere. I even will trust a good sommelier to recommend either a new and interesting wine to pair up our dishes with his or her choices from the by the glass list when that list is good enough.

But, when my sort of ordinary, middle-class winedrinking neighbors go to places like Commonwealth and AQ and Slanted Door and Nopa--and this could be much longer--and cannot see a wine they recognize even though they are interested in wine and have decent palates, then they are put immediately on the defensive.

You, at least, have the background to stop that kind of nonsense in its tracks. The ordinary, interested punter does not.

by Ron Washam, HMW
Posted on:11/30/2012 12:32:50 PM

Hey Charlie,

Thanks for the shoutout. My post was a last minute thought that I slapped together after a day when I read countless slams against sommeliers. That there's truth in it is purely coincidence.

I've said this before, but there is certainly a learning curve for being a sommelier. The first few years you tend to think it is your job to educate the customers. This never ever goes over well with people who actually do know about wine. And you educate them by pushing them to drink wines that you've recently "discovered," or were convinced were great wines by charming and articulate importers like Terry Theise or Jorge Ordonez, or others too numerous to mention. In some ways, you're funding your own wine education with the customers' indulgence and nickels.

The good sommeliers soon mature from this phase and come to understand that their only job, their ONLY job, is to help assure that the customer has an enjoyable evening. And that's not just about recommending wine, by the way. The lousy sommeliers, the people who really shouldn't be in the profession, remain convinced that it's all about their palate. This might be true for great chefs, but it's not true for great sommeliers.

Oh, and I guess now I'll have to reveal more from the Secret Sommelier Manual. Thanks again for the plug!

No Subject
by Nth
Posted on:11/30/2012 1:36:54 PM

Thing is, they are rarely obscure. Jura seems to be big now. There's NOTHING obscure about Jura wines. However, many in the "somm class" are touting them as though they've discovered a new element: smugsnobium

Lists aren't the real problem
by Bill Geofferys
Posted on:11/30/2012 5:06:17 PM

I find the lists here in SF less of a problem than the sommeliers themselves, to be honest.

Their lord and master, the insufferable Rajat Parr, has put together some excellent list; not terribly difficult to do if you have access to his level of funding. However, as a person in the service industry, he is an absolute failure. A dreadful person

by Mike Dunne
Posted on:11/30/2012 11:53:43 PM

Charles, I'm not about to belabor the point. You and Ron have been delightfully entertaining in reminding us how boorish sommeliers can be. But to suggest that supercilious sommeliers are responsible for diners not ordering wine in restaurants is off the mark. That may happen, but for the most part people are ordering more wine in restuarants than ever before, to judge by casual observation. That is, if they aren't ordering beer, which is really the rising challenge to wine consumption, more so than unpolished sommeliers. Most restaurants don't even have sommeliers, though many have a manager or server who is genuinely interested in wine and who is willing to share his or her impressions with diners in a casual, non-threatening way. That, I suspect, is why wine actually remains as popular as it is in restaurants.

Wine In Restaurants
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/1/2012 1:01:41 AM

Hi Mike--

You make the related points that wine sales in restaurants have never been higher, and then you go on to say that most restaurants do not have sommeliers.

I judge restaurants wine lists by several standards--and one that is particularly dear to me is the "would my worldly but non-geeky neighbors be able to fine wines on the list that they recognize.

There are other criteria as well, but the one that I am shooting at here is the nose in the air, above it all, customers be damned wine lists.

The twenty-something sommelier at Commonwealth in San Francisco openly said, "why would I let my customers dictate my list?" as her explanation for why every wine on her list was a "what's that?" for my neighbors.

You have made the point here previously that you like lists that challenge you. I say "Amen to that", but the ability to challenge the geeks is not a good sole criterion by which to judge in my opinion. Nor is a standard that unknowingly, uneducatedly blasts all CA sparkling wine as sweet and low in acidity as if Schramsberg, Roederer, Dom. Carneros did not even exist.

No Subject
by Nth
Posted on:12/1/2012 9:43:55 AM

The other thing that I find truly strange, is how often, as a vocal advocate of CA wine (who can be very critical as well, I DO have my issues), that I'm prejudged as some sort of GOP wingnut, which couldn't be further from the case. It f*cks me off that the NewSomms have made this false equvalency of CA Wine Lover= Right Winger

Rush Loves CA Wine?
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/1/2012 9:54:41 AM

Ouch. Had not heard that latest bit of slander towards CA wine. What a bunch of idiots are those folks?

I guess the reason that Nate Silver has proclaimed the Bay Area the most liberal large voting block to be found is that  we don't drink any CA wine.

No Subject
by Nth
Posted on:12/1/2012 10:07:30 AM

yeah, the sense I get (hypothosizing here) is that they saw or heard that there were a bunch of Romney/Posters up in the NV and made the intellectual leap that this defined the framework.

Or perhaps its that I'm an ex-NYCer and tend to overdress for my environs...

No Subject
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/1/2012 11:46:57 AM


Poking my eye out with a stick
by Vth
Posted on:12/1/2012 5:47:46 PM

Arrrgh.  As a means of escape, I read wine stuff.  Too much "real" world out there.  So I come here, and what do I find?  Somms compared to Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, blah, blah, blah.  Like there's nobody "snooty" on the other side?  Does John Kerry ring a bell????  

Dang Charlie, give it a break.  I'm sure you're a good wine writer.  Stick to that.

What pisses me off most is that I JUST re-subscribed, two years no less, to read this f'ing blather.  

Ooop.  There goes the other eye.  Do you guys offer a braille version;)?

Fair And Balanced
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/3/2012 12:25:27 PM

Dear Vth--

I recongnize that those political comments do not pass the Fair and Balanced test, but I will point out that they were quotes from somewhere else and pass for both wine humor and political satire.

That said, snooty is where snooty is found, and it is found or not found in people, not necessarily in generalizations.

Do keep reading, though. We rarely practice politics around here.

A Word For The Good Young Sommeliers
by Paul Wagner
Posted on:12/3/2012 4:01:47 PM

A minority opiniion here. Young people are passionate (the good ones) and that leads to opiniions. We old curmudgeons think they should be more respectful of what we have learned over the past fifty years ... and we are insulted when they don't pay us homage or attention.

Eh, I remember when I was young and full of enthusiasm and my own opinions, learned through life experiences and contacts with legitimate gurus of truth. I could not understand how anyone could hold an opposing opinioin without being an idiot. What's changed? I grew up. And so will these young people.

For what it is worth, I know a ton of bright, young, enthusiastic sommeliers who live to learn more about wine, and are open to a world of wine possibilities--including having a few old warhorses liek CA Chardonnays on their wine lists. But not every restaurant has to have the same wines--or even California wines. Should A16 carry a selection of CA wines for those customers who are too provincial to explore the world of Italian wines? That's idiotic. (Please see the paragraph above if you disagree).

To that way of thinking, every restaurant should include White Zinfandel on the list--after all, about 12-18% of Americans prefer White Zin over any other wine. Shouldn't every restaurant carry it? No? Why?

Because you don't want to drink White Zin. Again, Eh?


Part Two
by Paul Wagner
Posted on:12/3/2012 4:13:08 PM

As for training and education, I know that the Master Sommelier program works very hard to make sure that every student/sommelier is very clear that his or her primary job in the restaurant is to make the customer happy. Any candidate that fails that basic test witll also fail any of the MS exams.

Restaurants use their wine lists and menus to differentiate themselves from their competitors. And they should. Morton's is steak and potatoes and red wine. But if you want something different, shouldn't I be able to open a restaurant that offers an innovative menu and unusual wine choices. And if you want basic steak and potatoes, shouldn't I suggest that you would be happier with Morton's?

Finally, eating and drinking are two sides of the same coin. Both server and diner have a role to play in this improvisional comedy. If the diner can't find any familiar wines on the list, it is the diner's job to ask for help from the sommelier--even if you are a world famous wine expert. That's just common sense.

But we are old curmudgeons, and we don't like asking for directions. Remember when we used to not trust anyone over thirty? Now we don't trust anyone under thirty. And we're grumpy.

There is Much Truth To What You Say
by Martin Slavin
Posted on:12/5/2012 9:52:15 AM

I have passed the first two levels of the Master Sommelier exam, and you have hit a nail on the head. Wine is supposed to be pleasurable, and can appeal to many people in and emotional, and intellectual way. Somms should be there to help and assist, all within the tastes and preferences of the guest, not the other way around. Part of the Somm exam is salesmanship, and that means being able to effectively find out what the guest wants and solve his/her needs with what's on the list. And the list should have something for everyone, or you won't well a lot of wine.

Well Said
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/5/2012 10:50:56 AM


Thanks for stopping by. You make a point that bears repeating. In addition to bringing a fair bit of wine expertise to the job, a good somm will also bring an appreciation of his or her customers.

And there are plenty of good somms. I have pointed out some in San Francisco whose lists are beyond abstruse and whose attitudes (publicly expressed attitudes at that) is that their customers do not matter. I will not support those restaurants.

But, I do understand and expect that restaurants whose cuisines are unique and indeed beyond the ken of most merely mortal home cooks will also have lists that are intentionally as unique and unusual.

However, when a restaurant like Spruce, with its suburban San Francisco clientel, produces a list with no local sparkling wines because the sommelier has no idea what she is talking about and basically tells here customers, as she told me n no uncertain terms, that (a) the locals are all sweet and low in acidity and (b) well, we must just have different palates, then I withdraw my patronage.

Well, Martin, you get the point, and I appreciate your willingness to come by here and say so.



Sommelier Representando
by David Stevens-Castro
Posted on:12/7/2012 7:38:59 AM

Hi Wine People,

I enjoy reading your views about Sommeliers, I am actually a Sommelier in Salt Grill Restaurant @ Hilton Surfers Paradise, Australia.

It's always interesting to read about other sommelier arenas, by the sounds of it, is pretty much what's happening over here in cities like Melbourne & Sydney.

What really shock me it's that there are many sommeliers out there with very little knowledge of the wine world, people who relay into tasting wine non stop with their friends the representatives of the wine companies, but never read or study anything. That's unacceptable for me, and If I ever come across with a sommelier working the floor with some crapy bullshit like the one you mention I will let them know on the stop how wrong they are.

Cheers !


Cheers, Indeed
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/7/2012 8:51:37 AM

David, mate, thanks for stopping by.

Surfer's Paradise, eh? Too active for my old bones these days. I can barely stand up on my own let alone on a surfboard. Oh well.

I have had the great pleasure of visiting your fair isle several times and wandering around both its big cities and its wine country. In some ways, Australia is a lot more relaxed than the US, but I do agree that one can run into wine service in Sydney or Melbourne or Adelaide that simply sets one's teeth on edge.

Wine does that to people. It does not have to be that way, and two of my favorite wine experineces happened at restaurants that could have been full of snoot, since they have such good lists, but were not. Both at Gary Danko here in San Francisco at at Rockpool in Sydney, I found lists that combined the obscure with the better known and good despite their lareger distribution. At Rockpool, for example, in discussing the Riesling list with the somm, we found ourselves gravitiating to a Tazzy (Tassy) Riesling because of the clear explanation about why it was different from those of the Clare or WA.

In the end, it all comes dwon to this. A good sommelier enhances your experience in the restaurant. A snooty sommelier thinks you are there to enhance theirs.

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