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Looking For Wisdom But Finding Youth and Inexperience

By Stephen Eliot

Last week, Charlie and I hit the road to Paso Robles for the annual CAB Collective event that promotes the virtues of Cabernet Sauvignon and its related Bordeaux varieties grown in northern San Luis Obispo County. This year’s gathering turned out to be heavily geared to getting the message out to sommeliers who were hitherto unaware of what the region had to offer, and a few old media hands such as yours truly were invited along for the ride.

As we sat though a number of tastings and panel discussions on topics ranging from the significance of clones to Paso Robles Cabernet Franc and how local Cabernet Sauvignons measure up with the iconic wines of Bordeaux and Napa Valley, and my thoughts inevitably turned to the standards of expertise displayed by the various presenters and panelists who were called upon to speak. For the most part, the participating winemakers who spoke were concise and informative if loath to pass judgment, but the mostly young bunch of gushingly enthusiastic sommeliers was, frankly, anything but.

I could not help but think about Jancis Robinson’s thoughtful article published last fall1 in which she mused without judgment on experts and amateurs and the rapidly changing definitions of each in the ever-broadening world of wine.

Over dinner, our conversations with experienced winemakers who we have known for a long time were punctuated with self-effacing and often funny comments about how much we all “knew” when we were new to the game and, by comparison, how little we admit to knowing now, our decades of experience notwithstanding. I could not help but wonder what experience is really worth in the twentieth-first century wine arena, and the questions of how much knowledge is enough and where the roots of real wisdom might lie dogged me throughout the evening.

I admit to being baffled by the many wrong-headed, factually faulty pronouncements heard during the course of the two-day event and was at times exhausted by the astonishing amount of purple prose proffered by folks who clearly loved to hear their own voices. There were occasions when I found real challenge in sorting the wheat from the chaff, and I wonder what those whose infatuation with fine wine is still new would chose to embrace as the truth. And, I was happily surprised when one relatively experienced sommelier stood up and openly accused his trade-mates of not knowing what they were “f***ing talking about”.

Genuine expertise, I think, is gained with time and attention and those who might have acquired it can only have that accolade conferred by those who listen to and read what we might have to say. No title, no job description, no test or a string of letters after your name is proof. To a sommelier, it is their customers or, their “guests” as they like to say, and for those of us that toil with the written word, it is our readers and subscribers.

I am glad that I went for more reasons than a few, not the least of which was that I tasted a raft of very good wines. Make no mistake, Paso Robles is undergoing serious changes and its image as a backwater suited only to making heavy-footed, overly ripe wines is as wrong as wrong can be. The area is attracting talented winemakers bent on producing wines of the first order, and its portfolio of outstanding Cabernets and various Rhône red and whites is expanding with each vintage. But, even more, the event was a catalyst to real thought about where the wine business is, has been and is going, and I look forward to next year’s meeting.



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Youth and Inexperience
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/22/2016 9:30:48 AM

The occasion in question was a tasting of Cabernets in which wines from Paso Robles, the Napa Valley and Bordeaux were tasted along side each. The wine were poured blind, and the only thing we knew, both the audience and the panel of sommeliers, was that the wine were Cab Sauv based and from one of three place. This was no beauty contest, but rather an interesting excercise in which we were all asked to identify the source. 

Not surprisingly, because place is important, whether or not one wants to employ the term, terroir, the wines did tend first to separate themselves into California and Bordeaux more times than not. But, also not surprisingly, because they were all Cabernet Sauvignons, whose strong personality does tend to transcend place in well-made wines, there were also similarities. 

The folks in the room, by show of hands, seemed, on average to get four of eight right, to confuse the occasional Paso wine with one from Napa, and to also find great similarities in hillside wines from both CA locations. 

By way of slight bragging, we got six and five right between us and Steve identified a specific wine blind--so an extra point for him.

What surprised us, and angered the experienced sommelier sitting next to us, were the number of factual mistakes made by the presenting somms. Even with just a few years experience for some of them, this was a hand-picked group of presenters. Things like not knowing the Right Bank of Bordeaux from the Left or the cepage of Barolo (all Nebiolo).

There is nothing wrong with youth (we wish we had more) or inexperience (we all have some and used to have more), so much as there is with expecting those who have not yet paid their dues to have great vinous wisdom. Some of those twenty-somethings should not have been asked to be presenters, but some of the problem is caused by the notion that anyone who has the title, sommelier, is somehow automatically possessed of enough knowledge to be a gatekeeper. Vinous knowledge and the ability to use it is hard won--just as competence in most any learned field must be hard won. 

I hate it when Steve and I sound like the old cranky guys yelling at the kids to get off of our lawn. Maybe we should just shut up and let those with inexperience earn their cred publically instead of quietly through books, at the tasting table, out and about in wine country. Maybe.

Nah, not likely.

Thank You
by Inexperienced Somm
Posted on:4/26/2016 1:38:42 AM

Thank you for the very informative article. I always have spelled Nebbiolo with two "b's" but since you're the experienced wine expert, I guess I'll need to update my the spelling on my wine list! Thanks again!

New World
by Scott Young
Posted on:4/26/2016 8:07:04 PM

Sorry for the essay ahead of time.  Charlie and Steve, the wine world has changed.  No longer are Sommeliers(Somms) the same as what your precocieved notion to be (male in a tuxedo, tastevin around his neck).  If you have chosen not to climb the CMS, WSET, etc  ladder I do agree as it's a young person's game with all the darn memorization and time commitment involved (my 3 & 5 year olds ballet practices or my MW?).  It takes grit and fortitude to work the floor each and every night, maybe not in the traditional sense of primering a glass and decanting each wine but now most Somms handle inventory, costing and manicuring a list.  Yes, these twenty something floor Somms are the gate keepers, they are the mouth piece in which extraordinary (sometimes crappy) wines are sold to guests (yes guests..not customers, Somms are on the hospitality side of the biz). I'm turning 40 this year and have spent the past 20 years of my life dedicated to this craft(been on both sides of the wine biz)...might be good as a journalist to fact check. 

You gents might  have paid your dues through your extensive travels, reading and worldly experiences...but then you would know that Wine is a journey with no end to which is why ALL of us love it so.  I'm here to enjoy it, lets cheers to that.  

New World or New Belief System
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/26/2016 9:28:45 PM


Thanks for writing. Much of what you write is spot on, but, when you throw in little snippy attacks like "preconceived notion", you miss the point entirely.

Steve was not complaining about every somm, nor was he suggesting that many, many somms are not brilliant servants (in the best sense of that word) to their "guests" (your word, which is not exactly without its own sense of value judgment when it is tossed around loosely). 

But "sommelier" is its own loosely defined word and has no more specific meaning than does "natural" or "auithentic" or "Reserve". It is used as loosely and without meaning too many times to gain status on the basis of the word, not on the basis of the deed.

If you look down the list of blogs on the home page, you will find my expressed disappointment with a somm at a very good local restaurant. This young man was an exceptionally nice person who dissed CA wines because he did not know what he was talking about. No need to go over the story. He simply was uninformed.

So were the somms that Steve was talking about--some, not all. But it was an older somm (no more than ten years their senior, with longer experience, and probably a lot like you, Scott, who was outspoken in his criticism and went to so far as to say out loud, "these people are embarrassing my profession". 

I had a long chat today with Doug Frost, MS and MW about this and other issues. I did not ask him to take sides, one way or the other, and we were talking more about learning curves in general, but one can easily understand that he expects knowledge and experience to be the basis of learned judgment--not memorization. Yes, books are important, so too is tasting and training the palate in the fires of tasting and tasting and tasting.

Believe it or not, Scott, I rely on sommeliers more often than does the average punter. I like to bring a well-aged bottle of something I could not afford on the lists of fancy restaurants, and I routinely ask the somms to taste said bottle, and then to go find me something on their lists that I will not have tried. I trust the somm to do that. Sometimes they succeed wildly like the best CA Grenache I had tasted to that date and sometimes they do not, but tasting new is part of my journey--as it is the journey of us all--and not just the new somms. Yes, Scott, "cheers to the journey". I have been on that path for four decades and I am not stopping now.

Embarrassing the Profession
by Inexperienced Somm
Posted on:4/27/2016 3:33:41 AM

As a sommelier who proudly guides her guests five-six nights a week in the fashion you describe in your final paragraph, I am also entitled to my own prediclictions and subjectivities. The two are not mutually exclusive. I don't know everything, and I learn something new every single night on the floor, and every day studying. That is why I chose this profession after getting TWO college degrees. I work in an underpaid field wearing many hats because I wanted to continue to learn everyday about something I love. I will readily admit that I am no expert, I have no 'innate' tasting ability any more than any other sommelier who learns to hone their senses. I am just making educated guesses, always learning along the way, being a good listener, a hard worker, striving to show people an experience they will remember and inspire them to learn more themselves. 

Guests come with an idea of a profile, price range, style, region of origin, producer preferences etc and I use what I know to help guide them toward a selection that will enhance their dining experience and build trust between us, all with the insurance policy that if I select the wine and they dont actually like it, I will gladly take it back and find something else more suitable. This is what I would do for someone in my home at a dinner party, a family member coming over for a holiday occasion; make sure that I use my hospitality skills and know-how to ensure that everyone is having a great time.

Meanwhile, I am allowed to not *LOVE* certain styles of wine for own personal consumption, or to feel that a certain winemaking philosophy is important when considering the wines I choose for myself. I leave these feelings out of my interactions with customers, because its not about me and what I like, unless the guest inquires, at which time I am honest and open, and I show them wines that I stand behind that may be new or unfamiliar to them. I explain that wine made with purpose, integrity, and with passion is first on the list of considerations when I think about wine I want to drink. I think small production wines of place are increasingly being overshadowed by mass produced wines made to consistently taste the same year after year in the name of creating a brand identity. I encourage my guests to understand the origins of these grape varieties, what their true expression is, and show them producers who embody that. I personally like to drink certain wines, but have a place for all types of wine in my program. There is a wine for everyone, I want to help them find it, and I want them to come back saying "You get me!"

I feel its somewhat ignorant to proclaim that the entire profession of sommeliering (yep, i just made up a new word) is headed down the drain because one panel of people couldnt tell the difference between wines made in a very consumer-friendly, vague style. Lets be honest, all the wines from California were not particularly 'special' or terroir driven - they were made to be likeable by the american market at large. Which is FINE. That is the bread and butter of a wine program. We need to understand and speak well of these wines because they sell.

Lastly, I very much look up to those with 40 years of experience in this field, and seek the mentorship of those who came before me whenever possible, but I dont see too many people in that age bracket willing to work 12 hour days into the wee hours of the morning, for not that much money. Maybe it turns out that the people who do have the tenure and do have all the answers decide to do something else to make their mortgage payment every month, and leave these positions open for younger people who are willing to do more work for less money because they are hungry and eager, and suddenly one day, those who were once an 'embarssment' will have grown up to be master sommeliers, beverage directors, wine educators, winemakers...the possibilities are endless. The road for us will not be without stumbling blocks, but the only way we can get there is by showing up, speaking on panels when asked, networking, learning, reading, working the floor. To discourage these intentions and this pursuit is an affront to the business as a whole 

The Road Is Long But The Journey Is Worth It
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/27/2016 9:44:56 AM

Welcome to the road. I wish you would reveal who you are because it would be fun at this point to see your list, to talk about why you chose the wines, you did and to see the breadth that you have suggested does exist on your list.

Yes, we are all entitled to our predilictions and prejudices, but we, and that includes the folks who write this blog and our newsletter, are also responsible to serve the people who keep us in business. 

We try, as you do you, to have an open-mind and a wide swath of acceptability. There is no such thing as too light or too big until it gets to the point at which joy is lost. And, that is a value judgment that we all make for ourselves and for our clients (readers and guests).

Your note above is very much appreciated. Thank you for taking the time to write back and for engaging in thoughtful, passionate discussion. 

Please do be aware that noone here has suggested that the art of good sommerialing (perfectly good word you have brought into the discussion) will ever disappear. A good somm, one with breadth of experience and the humility we all learn as our knowledge base expands and the understanding of how much we do not know expands at the same time, is a boon to the way I enjoy wine. Thanks also for trodding the pathway to knowledge and enjoynment, In that, we are together in spirit.

by Scott Young
Posted on:4/28/2016 4:03:42 PM


I definitely appreciate the response and please do not take offense as written words might not have the same enduring tone I'm attempting to take.  Email me, I'd love to discuss more. 

4 decades in an industry is amazing, please write an article about the wine industry in the 1970's, then follow that up with the 1980's and into the 1990's...please do, I love history and I'd like to hear about all the cool stories of what amazing wine you bought, sold, cellared and the business in general as it's changed).  

Preconcieved, yes.  Both you and Steve have stated "opinions" or "ideas" not facts just criticism of other wine professionals.

Words, Words, Words
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/28/2016 4:04:56 PM

Having published/edited a publication that has always been a collaboration, you can imagine that we have debated the choice and the meaning of words more than once. 

I have no problem commenting on the wisdom and knowledge of anything and anybody in the wine biz. Lord knows, as a critical review publication, we here at CGCW have come in for our share of criticism--and some of it was deserved although I can't remember what.  :-}

We have frequently resorted to the following quote from Alice In Wonderland--"When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean" when debating before publishing.

As for writing a history of CA wine in the dim past, it is not really my thing, although I love to talk about it from my perspective, which is entirely anecdotal and not all studied in the manner that true wine historians like Charles Sullivan and Thomas Pinney bring to the task.

No Subject
by David Ramey
Posted on:5/1/2016 10:36:35 PM

Not knowing the Right Bank of Bordeaux from the Left or that Nebbiolo is Barolo's grape should disqualify anyone from being on a wine panel. 

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