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Falling In Love With A Sommelier

By Charles Olken

It happened in New York City just last week, with my wife, brother and his wife sitting there with me. We were dining at Marea, an upscale Italian seafood restaurant, rated 97th in the world by the folks who compile the Top 100 Restaurants List.

We ordered a decent, entirely presentable bottle of Prosecco (Nino Franco) as our sipping wine while we were looking at the menu and I was delving more deeply into the fifty page wine list. The sommelier brought the wine over, made polite chit-chat, had no airs of superiority and did not know that Nino Franco was the son of the former Mets pitcher, John Franco.

Neither did my brother or his wife or my wife. But, my brother, being as much into baseball as I am, bit hard on the gag, and so did the somm—at least for a second or two. Then she politely demurred, knowing I was wrong but not wishing to embarrass me. I, of course, fessed up, and we all had a good laugh at my brother’s expense—which is what brothers are supposed to do to each other.

She, by the name of Liz, if you ever go to Marea, which I can highly recommend, came around to check on us and not once did she do the “sommelier” thing. There is a bit of a backlash in some quarters here in San Francisco at the newly minted sommeliers and their wine lists that even people with in-depth wine knowledge have a hard time fathoming. And all of them are in some stage, usually the first, of studying for a Master Sommelier (MS) credential.

This business of MS and MW (Master of Wine) is so widespread in San Francisco that I have begun to think that the whole world is running around looking for letters to put after their names.

So, I asked Liz what I thought was a kind and thoughtful question, “Are you studying in the MS or MW programs”? “No”, she replied, “I got my wine knowledge from books and bottles”.

Wow. There it was. She learned by working at getting knowledge, not in having it spoonfed after a year or two on the job. And that is why I feel in love with a somm. Because she was a genuine wine lover who actually paid her dues, not paid her tuition to some credentialing committee.


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by TomHill
Posted on:7/9/2014 6:53:53 AM

Jeez...Charlie. How can you write about a Somm w/o using the word "hipster"...which seems to be de rigueur these days!!  :-)

That's a great story, Charlie. Liz sounds like an absolute gem of a lady.

Some of the best Somms I've met are lacking the MS or MW or WSET credential. But that makes them no less passionate about their profession.



initially, I thought they would help
by doug wilder
Posted on:7/9/2014 10:06:52 AM

Charlie, That reminds me of a conversation we had years ago when I sought your advice. You were right! :)

by Gerald Weisl
Posted on:7/11/2014 3:59:38 PM

At a San Francisco steak house a waiter with a Sommelier pin brought some nice stemware to the table when I produced a bottle of the St. Emilion from Chateau Figeac.  Later he asked why I had not corrected him and his choice of stemware (he had brought Riedel Bordeaux glasses) since he just realized were drinking a Burgundy!
Apparently the bottle shape and the words Chateau Figeac St. Emilion were not a sufficient clue to this "well-educated" fellow.

At another SF place with the names of two sommeliers (with initials following their names) on the wine list, we were offered a "FLIGHT OF NOUVEAU BEAUJOLAIS ."  One of the three wines offered by the 2 ounce pour was a just-released 2013 Nouveau, while the other wines were something like a Fleurie and a Morgon from 2011.  
And on the subject of people studying for their "somm"" credentials:  We had a few students come to our shop asking for "Spanish Cava which have the smell of rubber bands."  I contacted the WSET folks in London and, believe it or not, they actually teach students that what most quality Cava producers would view as a "flaw," is the "hallmark" of that type of sparkling wine.
The students, then, can only be as educated as are their instructors.   And so, sometimes the Liz's of the world are going to be much more wine-savvy than those who've spent more time with their nose in a book, than with their nose in a glass.

Looking Down The Nose
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/12/2014 11:15:31 AM

I would never look down my nose at wine classes as a source of learning, but as you say, Gerald, until you have put your nose in the glass and actually learned for yourself over lots and lots of experiences (not just one in a class), you don't "know".

I was invited to sit in on a MW class not so long ago (well, at least in my time frame) and the instructor took us through a group of wines including a Napa Valley Chardonnay. Now, aside from the wine being more or less wide of the mark and reviewed weakly by CGCW and others, the idea that one bottle of Napa Chardonnay should pass for all of CA Chardonnay is just ludicrous.

That is why "books and bottles" impressed me so much as the answer to the learning question. There is no way to get a tasting memory without a lot of tasting.

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