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Secret Life of a Sommelier

Wine editor Lettie Teague goes undercover at a New York City restaurant and learns there's more to being a sommelier than small talk and sturdy shoes.

Many people would define a sommelier as someone who knows a lot about wine but not much about jewelry--how else to explain the silver-plated cup-on-a-neck chain? After three nights working alongside Tim Kopec, wine director of Manhattan's Veritas restaurant (who wears a tie, not a tastevin), I'd add a few more attributes: the stamina of a marathoner, the tact of a diplomat and the callused feet of a door-to-door salesman.

It was my feet that first failed me after a recent stint on the Veritas floor. Oddly enough, Tim hadn't mentioned anything about feet, although he did name "a strong back" as his number one criterion when auditioning a sommelier. After all, the sommeliers at Veritas (three, not including me--an astonishing number for a 64-seat restaurant) carry as many as 160 cases a day down to the cellar and four dozen or so bottles back up every night. It's one reason why Veritas may be New York's greatest restaurant for wine (though it's pretty fabulous for the food, too--chef Scott Bryan is a 1996 F&W Best New Chef).

Second in importance, Tim continued, are a candidate's computer skills. The Veritas list--more like a leather-bound Bible--features about 3,000 selections, many of them drawn from the private cellars of the restaurant's owners, Steve Verlin and Park Smith. The software created to keep track of it all seemed complicated--at least to me, but that might have been on account of my age. After all, as Tim said, an ideal sommelier is "someone in their mid-twenties." (Tim is 36, though his rock star–length hair makes him look younger.) People in their twenties, he opined, are more likely to be software conversant.

Somewhat defensively, I pointed out how much I knew about wine. Tim said that might be a problem, since it could make me a bore. "Someone who knows a lot about wine can be too analytical and tend to pontificate," he noted. Or it could mean trouble of a different sort. Said Tim, "Someone who knows too much might want my job." To Tim, charisma--did he mean salesmanship?--and an unthreatening manner were more important than knowledge. On the other hand, there were enough Veritas regulars who liked to play "stump the sommelier," a wine nerd's game, that even the most charismatic professional couldn't survive without knowing Barolo from Barbera.

Had any women ever applied for a job at Veritas before? I asked. Only one, answered Tim. And while her 8-by-10 photo looked promising (she hailed from a California beach town), in person her knowledge turned out to be limited. "Too bad," Tim lamented. (Perhaps it was just that she looked better than him in a swimsuit?) All the same, I was glad to have arranged my job by phone.

And so I became Veritas's first female sommelier, albeit a pretend one, in a restaurant with more men than an Oliver Stone movie. The first night, I followed Tim around, learning the basics (how to present, open and decant bottles) and the more esoteric rules (how to adhere to prescribed dental procedures--no toothbrushing, mouthwash or breath mints after 3 p.m.). Customer-unfriendly as this unhygienic practice seems, it promotes a clear palate.

The palate was paramount at Veritas, as the sommeliers regularly tasted some of the best wines in the world. In fact, every wine served was tasted by all the sommeliers. This was the most important, most fundamental, rule of all. You had to taste wine. It was the sommeliers' duty to taste every wine poured--whether it was from a bottle he (or she) sold or one that someone else did. Indeed, the sommeliers circulated wineglasses the way I imagined cowboys passed around whiskey bottles out on the cattle trail. While the practice was intended to protect diners from the disappointment of a bad bottle, the experience was like trying every flavor in a Häagen-Dazs store. Except that instead of vanilla, chocolate and rocky road, the samples were 1990 Vosne-Romanée, 1989 Corton-Charlemagne and 1991 Côte-Rôtie.

Even more remarkable than the wines that were poured were the people who ordered them. My first night, a table of four stockbrokers toted up a wine bill of $3,000 as easily as a lesser mortal might request a glass of Chardonnay. In fact, most wine sales at Veritas start at around $100 a bottle, according to Joshua Nadel, one of the sommeliers, who referred to this amount as "a buck." Therefore, a wine costing $170 was "a buck seventy," a $200 bottle a mere "two bucks." It certainly made a three-figure wine sound awfully attainable. (This isn't to say there aren't bargains on Veritas's list--its Market section has many. I just seemed to be the only one reading that part of the list.)

Strangely, money was one subject the sommeliers weren't allowed to discuss, at least not with customers. Asking how much someone wanted to spend was forbidden. Instead, Tim and the other sommeliers sized up their customers simply by looking at them. Which was fine for these experts, with all their experience, but as a beginner, I could hardly do the same thing. How could I possibly decide if a table wanted the 1900 Margaux for $12,000 or a $15 bottle of Lirac from southern France?

According to Tim, however, there are plenty of ways to figure people out. For example, the cut of a man's suit (Armani) or a woman's hairstyle ("nice and smooth") can be tip-offs that these are people who'll probably spend money. As a bargain-wine hunter whose hair has never been "nice and smooth," I had to admit his theory might be valid. And if suits or haircuts don't give a clear picture, as they didn't with a group of men dressed for a ball game who spent over $500 on wine, there are some acceptable questions. One could, for example, inquire as to a table's "game plan." Did they want to drink one bottle or two, start with a white and move on to a red? What were the names of the wines that they liked? Their answers, said Eric Zillier, another sommelier, would indicate how much they wanted to spend. However, he added, most customers really just wanted the sommelier to help them out.

This is of course what a good sommelier lives for--a chance to assist and perform. Indeed, Tim and the others spoke of the dining room, or "The Floor," in the same way I imagine Broadway actors must describe "The Stage." Five-thirty to them wasn't just the start of dinner service but "show time," when people came in, as Tim said, "to fall in love with a wine."

Somehow, this didn't sound exhilarating to me. Frankly, it sounded terrifying. How could I counsel someone to spend more money on wine in one night than I did in a month? What if I mistook a suit from Men's Wearhouse for one from Armani? Or dropped a bottle of $500 Bordeaux on those slick cellar stairs?

"Don't worry, you'll be fine," came Tim's reply. This seemed to be Tim's answer to everything. In the reassurance department, Tim was the best. No wonder so many customers sought him out. If Tim told you to order a $400 bottle, his manner alone, never mind his expertise, made you believe it was unquestionably the right thing to do. Tim kept up his assurances (and thankfully stayed close at hand) that second night, when I made my first sale. Happily, it was to three men who knew what they wanted: the 1998 Peter Michael Les Pavots ($175). "Good choice," I remarked, immediately hating myself for uttering such a service cliché.

Tim grabbed my elbow and propelled me downstairs. I had to locate the bottle--not as straightforward as it may sound. Veritas has four different cellars (more like meat lockers) where the bottles are stacked in racks nearly seven feet high, some behind towering cases of wine. As I nearly flattened myself on the ground, searching for my bottle's four-figure bin number, Tim helpfully pointed out that I was in the wrong cellar altogether. I came to cherish these knees-to-the-ground searches as the one time I was legitimately off my feet.

I secured the bottle and carried it upstairs, making sure the label was, as Tim told me, "facing the sky." While this sounded celestial, Tim said it was just a means of telling if the wine was red or white. I presented the bottle and dutifully recited the name and year, then had to open and decant it. Thankfully, this latter operation took place in the back of the restaurant, where my struggle, I hoped, wasn't public. And a struggle it was. Although I've opened thousands of bottles before, it's not something I've ever been paid to do. I've certainly never taken care that the foil around the cork came off in "a single perfect movement" (Tim's orders) or that the cork was extracted while the bottle was tilted a precise 30 degrees, to keep from dislodging the sediment. This angle seemed to me to be a virtual guarantee that the wine would come gushing out of the bottle. Tim, ever the gentleman, assured me that even he had had to practice this a few times to get it right. When Tim wasn't looking, I cheated and raised the bottle an extra 10 degrees; better that, I reasoned, than have someone's $175 wine in my shoes.

Keeping the bottle tilted, I poured the wine into a decanter that looked like a vase for flowers, keeping an eye out for the sediment by the light of a very small candle. (I later prayed that people would order white wine or red Burgundy, two types of wine that don't require decanting.)

Next, I tried the wine to make sure the bottle was good, and of course, to see what it was like. The next step, pouring a taste for the host, was easy enough, but I had trouble pouring wine for the rest of the table. I'd never realized how difficult it could be to get precisely the same amount of wine into one glass as another. Two feet above someone's head, looking straight down, the perspective seemed skewed and I ended up short-pouring several women--giving the unfortunate impression that they were problem drinkers. In fact, Josh asked me several times, "Did you underpour that woman, or did she suck back a glass of wine in less than 10 seconds?"

I wasn't really doing much more than taking orders--all of my tables already knew what they wanted. Which was just fine with me. Not because I was nervous but because I was busy trying wines in the back. Tim, Josh or Eric would hand me a small glass, saying: "Taste this." And as they ran back and forth, fetching fresh bottles, I retreated to a corner to write quick notes on wines I couldn't believe I was tasting--like an extraordinary 1989 Haut-Brion Blanc that wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., has compared to a grand cru white Burgundy, followed by a 1972 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche, 1998 Pavie, 1982 Pichon and 1982 Léoville Poyferré. Add to that the extremely rare 1991 Cuvée Cathelin Hermitage from Chave, 1989 Latour Corton-Charlemagne, 1997 Roty Charmes-Chambertin, 1990 Anne Gros Clos Vougeot, 1982 Petit-Village, 1996 Leroy Pommard, 1992 Dauvissat Grand Cru Chablis, 1997 Dujac Clos de la Roche and on and on. At the end of that second night, the restaurant's wine sales totaled over $11,000 for a mere 47 bottles.

When I wasn't tasting wine or pulling corks, I was watching Tim perform; his tableside manner was impressive. Particularly when it came to unpleasant customers, like the man who testily inquired "Do you have any wines under $26,000 a bottle?" (For the record, the most expensive wine on the list is the $12,000 1900 Margaux). But Tim was unfazed. The man wanted a great Cabernet under $150, "if that's possible," he added sarcastically. Tim chose a 1998 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon ($125) from Washington State. Great producer, great year and great wine, I thought, but still rather daring. What was this man likely to know about Washington? But when Tim poured him a taste, the man begrudgingly admitted it was good. However, he couldn't resist one final poke: "Pretty good for vinegar."

I asked Tim how he'd made his choice. Tim, of course, had a plan: "I knew he expected me to suggest California Cabernet, so I didn't. I knew he was expecting me to go over $150, so I went under. And of course I knew that 1998 was a great year for Washington State Cabernet."

But why, I wondered, hadn't he suggested the more famous 1994 Quilceda (also on the list, at $155 a bottle)? Tim's reasoning: "If you don't know someone's palate, you're better off with a young wine."

I finally got to "perform" on my final night. A couple came in, the man looking for California Pinot Noir. He liked Tony Soter's wines, but they weren't on the list. He pointed to a $95 California Pinot and asked what I thought. Aha. Now I knew what he wanted to spend. A good wine, I responded, but there were more interesting choices. "What about Oregon?" he asked. He'd heard their Pinots were good. They were, I assured him--in fact, the most recent vintages had been particularly good, but I knew we didn't have any in his budget. "I think you can do better with a village-level Burgundy," I replied, "perhaps from the 1997 vintage, which is drinking beautifully now." The man agreed. I felt a rush of power. So this was what Tim and the others felt like. "I think you'd really enjoy the 1997 Volnay Clos de la Barre from Jadot," I said. "Volnay was a particularly successful appellation in 1997, and Jadot made a lovely wine."

"That sounds great," the man said. I got the bottle--amazingly easy to find--and when I passed through the kitchen I thought chef Scott Bryan, a passionate wine lover, gave me a nod of approval. Everything went smoothly, from the uncorking (no decanting as it was Burgundy) to the presentation. The man tasted and said, "It's good." Then he gave me an oddly suspicious look, which I returned with an enthusiastic smile. "You do know what you're doing, right?" he said.

Tim agreed I'd done everything right, although he couldn't help noting that I'd placed the bottle facing the wrong direction. But there was no time to waste; there was a table of five coming in that Tim was turning over to me. They required special treatment. Five people! Special treatment!

The party of five turned out to include my husband, our friend The Collector and The Collector's long-suffering wife. "We're here to show our support," said my husband, adding,"and we want four great wines for less than $400 altogether" although The Collector complained that this amount was too little.

This sort of thing, Tim assured me, happened all the time. Friends and regulars would show up and ask Tim to orchestrate the wine, often with a five- or six-course tasting menu. (You've got to have a plan," he instructed. "Not only in terms of what will match with the food and keep within budget, but in terms of timing. You have to coordinate with the chef to make sure you're serving the right wine with the right course." Tim seemed delighted I'd been given this challenge, adding, "And of course, you have to keep your eye on your other tables."

The four wines I chose were big hits: the 1999 Robert Weil Spätlese Trocken ($55), 1999 Colin-Deleger Les Chenottes Chassagne-Montrachet ($87), 1995 Zind-Humbrecht Herrenweg Turkheim Gewürztraminer Vendage Tardive ($95)--of which Tim said "Very daring, I would have chosen Riesling"--and last of all, the 1998 Clos du Pape Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($175). I came in under budget, and the table was out of wine. Then The Collector requested an additional course, the chef's famous grilled squab. "Let's have a look at the wine list," The Collector said. His choice? As usual, a Parker 100-point wine, the 1991 Guigal La Mouline ($700).

"Sit down and have a glass," The Collector invited. I asked Tim if I could; my feet felt like they'd been pounded with hammers. As I watched Tim pour the wine, I realized how much I had learned. Just three days ago, I'd considered a sommelier's job a pretty cushy affair: After all, they didn't have to recite specials or clear dirty dishes. They only made small talk and opened a few bottles. The truth was, of course, much more complicated than that. Sommeliers are the fighter pilots of the food world, making lightning-fast decisions under enormous duress. They keep mental notes on thousands of bottles, run upstairs and downstairs a hundred times a night and never get tired.

As I gratefully drank The Collector's La Mouline, I knew I would never belong to the elite band of Veritas sommeliers. They have the right stuff. I don't even have the right shoes.

Published July 2002
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