For most of my adult life, I have been scared of sommeliers. Scared of their esoteric knowledge and superhuman tasting powers. Scared they'd make me feel like a fool. And convinced wine was one of those left-brain subjects that would remain forever inscrutable to me, like dystopian fiction or jazz.
So it was with some nervousness that I accepted Food & Wine's challenge: to see if I could get a little smarter by having dinner at three New York City restaurants with excellent wine programs and grilling the sommeliers, just as any customer might. Before embarking on this project, I asked a sommelier friend how to get the most out of such conversations. Her advice made sense: Ask questions, be specific, be honest. "We are all in this business because we love wine, and we love to educate people about it," she said. It all sounded so straightforward!
But when I saw the decidedly Gallic-looking sommelier Kilian Robin approaching at Eli's Table, I wasn't so sure. Eli's Table, the newest restaurant and shop in Eli Zabar's mini empire, is known for its formidable cellar of 16,000 bottles (with 1,200 on the list at any time) and vast collection of Burgundies. Since Eli's Table also offers wine classes, I figured it was a good place to begin learning.
I'll admit, I didn't start strong. "I understand that you have a serious Burgundy program," I muttered. Robin politely agreed that they did. What now?
"I don't know very much about Burgundy," I confessed. To my relief, he didn't walk away or sneer. Instead, he explained that white Burgundies are generally less oaky than Chardonnays from California and South America; that bottles from the Mâconnais are lighter and more affordable than those from other parts of Burgundy; that those from the Côte de Beaune tend to be the most expensive. This was all good information, but I knew I could have gotten it from any wine guide. I felt like one of those spoiled rich people I'd recently seen on a reality show who'd hired an Olympic skier for a remedial lesson.
Things got more interesting when I asked Robin to pair wines with each course. He began talking, animatedly, about producers and their personalities. One third-generation Burgundian vintner, he told me—"a young guy, my age"—was passionate about sustainable methods and biodynamics. Robin said he'd been to an estate where the winemaker actually tasted the soil. "I don't know any other place where they do that," he said.
My next foray was to Maialino, where the extraordinary Italian wine program is run by Jeff Kellogg, one of F&W's 2016 Sommeliers of the Year. Maialino has a small "trattoria list" of good-value wines in addition to its regular list, and in my prior visits to the restaurant I'd always, gratefully, deferred to it. But tonight, opting out of the conversation wasn't an option. Nor would I be resorting to a trick I first heard about when I was around 16, which was to always order the third-cheapest wine on the list.
This time I asked for a different half-glass pairing with each of my four courses. As they arrived—a Ribolla, a Nebbiolo, a Montepulciano and a Moscato—I found myself asking more and better questions. A good sommelier, I was learning, takes cues from you. If you don't ask questions, you might get a rattled-off spiel. But when you express interest, it is returned tenfold. I didn't love every wine I tried, but rather than just feeling bad about it, I paid attention. It may sound obvious, but to me it was revelatory that I needed to be an active participant in the process.
When you think about it, sommeliers have an incredibly challenging job. In addition to dealing with all kinds of customers—show-offs, savants, neophytes—they're having dozens of conversations every night that really approach philosophical dialogues. After all, each description of a wine is an exercise in applied phenomenology. Essentially, a sommelier must describe an individual experience in general terms, trying to communicate taste to someone else. It's a remarkable feat and an intimate exchange.
I'd saved Gabriel Kreuther, the priciest restaurant, for last. The Alsatian-focused wine list is curated by Rouanne-born Emilie Perrier, whose playful Twitter feed, @frenchie_emilie, I'd begun following. There were specific things I wanted to know about Alsace wines: what the small number of rosés are like (crisp and light); what makes late-harvest wines different (they're sweet); why the bottles have such a distinctive elongated shape (it's traditional, dating back to the early 1800s). As I was becoming more comfortable talking to sommeliers, I found that I wanted to know more, and the more targeted my questions, the more I could learn.
In fact, I'm almost at the point where I can ask a sommelier one thing I really want to know: Is there anything to the third-cheapest-bottle rumor?