The Young and the Restless
A new breed of twentysomething sommelier has emerged, notes Lettie Teague: confident, ambitious and extremely fast-moving.
Although we live in a youth-obsessed culture, there are a few professions where experience is still considered a desirable thing. Lawyer, doctor and sommelier are three that first come to mind. At least until recently. Now it seems as though every sommelier I meet has the gleaming white teeth and wispy goatee of someone not long out of his teens. Suddenly, the old '60s saying Never trust anyone over 30 has become a wine-service creed.
Where did all these new wine professionals come from? Did they drop out of college, or perhaps high school? Did they apprentice in France or obtain student loans to study the art of decanting? Most importantly, how much could they really know about wine after drinking it legally for such a short time? Wine, after all, is a complex subject, requiring years of study, tasting and travel to understand. And yet these twentysomethings have sped through the process in remarkable time, learning the names of the important producers, tasting the best vintages, creating interesting wine lists and achieving positions of considerable power—often before turning 25.
How does someone who can't even legally rent a car acquire such influence? A few possible explanations occur to me. For starters, there are a lot of new young wine drinkers around: In fact, wine consumption in this country has grown to such a degree that by 2008, the U.S. will be the largest wine-consuming country in the world. And who better to give advice to the young than a peer? Then of course there are so many new wines that need explaining, made from obscure grapes from obscure countries (Tannat from Uruguay, Žlahtina from Croatia). Who can revel in such arcane facts more easily than someone who's just spent four years studying plant biology, econometric theory and Proust?
But to truly understand what the twentysomethings are doing, and how well, I knew I needed to see them in action. So I called up friends and colleagues and solicited the names of some rising young stars, sommeliers who'd created particularly noteworthy lists. Then I set out on a five-city tour in search of some answers—and youthful insight.
First, I focused on New York, where the concentration of wine service juniors seemed highest. For every twentysomething sommelier that I found, I heard about five or six more.
I met Troy Weissmann almost a year ago, when he was 26. My friend Peter and I had gone to Beacon for lunch. Troy had recently assumed his duties there, fresh from a sommelier position at Jean Georges. When he first approached us, Peter suggested we ask for ID since Troy looked to be about 17. And yet he proved more articulate than most sommeliers twice his age. He had opinions about all kinds of wines—both well-known and not. We chatted a bit about Susana Balbo, a top Argentine winemaker whose Torrontés (a little-known white varietal) was on Troy's wine list. Troy was a big fan of Argentine wines and hoped to visit Argentina sometime soon. Several other young sommeliers said much the same thing. Indeed, their fascination with Argentine wine seemed to equal their interest in American or French.
In the weeks that followed, I went back to Beacon a couple of times searching for Troy. But he was traveling in France, according to the woman at the maître d' desk. She named a far-off date as the time when he would return. I made a reservation for that date and moved on.
I'd happened upon Troy quite accidentally, but I learned about BLT Steak's 28-year-old wine director Fred Dexheimer long before meeting him, thanks to a series of enthusiastic press releases. Fred, it seemed, had won a local sommelier competition and had placed third in a contest abroad. Intrigued, I made plans to eat at BLT Steak with my husband and two wine-merchant friends.
Fred had a wispy mustache and looked even younger than his advertised years. He stopped by our table and suggested a French country white and a Priorat red from Spain. "Those are the same two wines he recommended the last time I was here," whispered one of the wine merchants. Did twentysomething sommeliers develop fixations on wine like other twentysomethings did on music, playing the same album over and over?
Several months later, I heard Fred had also been named wine director of BLT Fish. How did he manage two busy restaurants? I asked Fred, over dinner at BLT Fish. Fred had a couple of assistants, most of whom were a few years older, he said. But he had no problem with the age gap. "I'm a 28-year-old who's really 30," he explained, adding, somewhat mysteriously, "I grew up around a lot of older people. I saw things I shouldn't have."
I figured Fred wasn't talking about seeing his elders drinking red wine with fish, but there wasn't time to pursue this particular thread. Fred's presence was required by a table of men. "I'll be back," he promised, leaving my friend and me the wine list. I found it very fairly priced with plenty of good choices, though many of them were esoteric (Swiss Pinot Gris from Neufchâtel; Ribolla from Friuli, Italy; and again, the Torrontés of Susana Balbo).
Fred returned a few minutes later. "I want to introduce you to one of my guilty pleasures," he said, producing a bottle of 2001 Montus Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Sec, a white wine from southwest France. From a respected producer of Madiran (the region's much better-known red), this deep gold-colored white was made from the obscure Petit Courbu grape. Its aroma reminded me of Viognier, though in the mouth it was more like a well-oaked California Chardonnay.
"It tastes like a California Chardonnay," I said to Fred, noting the lavish amounts of new oak. Fred disagreed with me, insisting "No, it doesn't. It tastes like a Burgundy." After Fred left, my friend said, "It tastes like cologne." Fred checked back to see how we liked it. Not much, we confessed. "You're the first people who haven't liked this wine," he said, sounding hurt. "Could we try something simpler, like a Riesling?" asked my friend. Fred left and returned with a lovely 2003 Schloss Gobelsburg Urgestein from Austria. And though we praised this alternative enthusiastically, Fred still seemed a bit forlorn. He wanted us to like his first wine. Twentysomething sommeliers certainly seemed more emotionally invested in their selections—they wore their wine passions on their sleeves.
A few days later, I left for Philadelphia, where I hoped to meet John Rothstein, the 29-year-old sommelier at Barclay Prime steak house. Conservatively attired in a Brooks Brothers-type suit and tie, John told me he was a "certified sommelier" who had worked for nearly seven years with the Starwood hotel group. I thought his certificate should have been in physical fitness, as he was the most agile sommelier I'd met; he spent well over 20 minutes squatting quarterback-style next to my table as we mulled over various possible wines by the glass. John recommended an Argentine Malbec: "There are lots of exciting wines from Argentina," he opined. Then why was there only one on the Barclay Prime list, which was dominated by California Cabernet? His clients wanted those wines, John replied, although he was trying to change their minds: "We didn't have any Argentine wines on the list at all when I got here. But now every time a Cab is depleted, I add something from Argentina or Chile."
Did that mean he preferred New World wines to those of Old World countries like France? "I love old white Burgundies," John replied. What were his favorites? "I tell people my favorite wines are the wines of the day," John answered. "For example, if it's freezing out, maybe you need a Châteauneuf-du-Pape to heat your body up." (Would that make it a sort of vinous Ben-Gay?) But what were some specific wines that he'd been impressed by, wines he'd particularly enjoyed? "I did have a '63 Haut-Brion once that was pretty incredible," replied John, naming one of the single worst vintages in the history of Bordeaux.
John had received an Introductory certificate from the Court of Master Sommeliers, an international organization dedicated to improving wine service and knowledge. Anyone, in the business or not, can take this course, which covers "wine service, social skills and legislation" among other things, though not tasting ability, according to Kathleen Lewis, a Court representative. The course has a 95 percent pass rate, she added.
A Master certification was the goal of many young sommeliers. Almost all the ones I met were working on getting one—taking classes, tasting wines and entering competitions. "There's been a tremendous increase in the number of sommeliers who want to be Masters," acknowledged Larry Stone, himself among the first (he became a Master in 1987). Wine director of Rubicon in San Francisco, Stone is on the board of directors of the Court of Master Sommeliers and a mentor to two decades' worth of the best wine pros in the business.
The Master certification, however, is far from easy to achieve; it takes years of testing at various levels and exams that are both written and oral, with lots of blind-tasting. No wonder only a handful of candidates secure the title each year, though this year there were an unprecedented 11 new Masters—10 men and one woman.
I'd met up with Larry in Seattle, where I'd gone to see Nelson Daquip, a 27-year-old sommelier at Canlis Restaurant—famous for its large, far-reaching wine list. A native of Hawaii, Nelson had moved to Seattle "for wine." Tall and good-looking with very white teeth, Nelson smiled quite often, as did his peers. (Were twentysomething sommeliers better-natured than their senior counterparts, or did they just have superior dental work?) When I asked what he thought of the wines of Washington State, he answered, "They're the best." He was particularly devoted to Washington Syrah. Nelson smiled and said his feelings about Oregon wine were much the same. He'd met with several Oregon winemakers and named two—Doug Tunnell and Tony Soter—he particularly admired. Nelson was currently a sommelier only three nights a week, but he was studying hard with his mentor, Shayn Bjornholm, the 35-year-old Canlis wine director (and a new Master Sommelier), and with a teacher who drove down from Vancouver each Sunday to conduct an eight-hour class. Nelson suggested a very good Cristom Pinot Noir, the 2002 Marjorie Vineyard to drink with my duck, saying, "Pinot Noir and duck are a classic combination." It had been the lesson of the Sunday before.
Shane Lessard, the 28-year-old wine director at the restaurant UpStairs on the Square, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was leading a wine class on the night that we met, lecturing a roomful of Harvard MBAs about Pinot Noir. "But I'll be in the dining room, too," Shane assured me, straightening his already impeccable cuffs.
Shane's wine list was eclectic and well priced. He'd allotted full pages to producers and importers he admired, with a wide selection of their wines and even brief (and highly flattering) biographies. Shane explained, "Having just one wine on a list is like hearing only one song by a band on the radio; I wanted to offer the entire CD." The analogy made sense: The pages of the wine list read like album liner notes from an impassioned fan. Among Shane's favorites were Au Bon Climat, Silvio Jermann and Isole e Olena wineries and two importers, Kermit Lynch and Terry Theise, whom Shane called "a special person in the world of wine."
Shane had been in the restaurant business for more than seven years even before he'd graduated from college in New Hampshire with a degree in economics. He was largely self-taught about wine, though he too was studying for his Master's and had just passed the first-level exam. Shane loved small-grower Champagnes and featured five from Terry Theise (on the Theise page), including one of my favorites, the Pierre Peters Blanc de Blancs.
I'd hoped to fly to Atlanta the following day to meet Chantelle Grilhot, a 23-year-old sommelier who'd won the south-central regional competition for young sommeliers back when she was 22. But Chantelle was in France and wouldn't return to her job at The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead's Dining Room for a week. Twentysomethings certainly spent a lot of time in the air; by contrast, Larry Stone told me he was at Rubicon six nights a week.
So I visited Jeremy Noye, the 28-year-old wine director of New York's Bistro du Vent, instead. The first time I'd met Jeremy, he'd talked me out of ordering a $55 Gigondas in favor of a much cheaper and little-known Languedoc red that turned out to be quite delicious. Twentysomething sommeliers don't seem to believe that you need to spend hundreds of dollars in order to get a good bottle of wine. Perhaps because they haven't been making much money themselves for too long.
On the other hand, it could be that they just really love obscure wines. When I told Jeremy I might order the 2002 Domaine du Closel Savennières ($44), a Loire Valley white from a great producer and year, Jeremy answered, "You could," in a neutral tone that suggested he had another, more adventurous idea. "Or you could try the Cour Cheverny Cuvée Renaissance Le Petit Chambord de Cazin" ($42). This was a Loire Valley white made from the almost-extinct Romorantin grape, found in the tiny appellation of Cour Cheverny.
Wasn't even a reasonably obscure Savennières interesting enough to a twentysomething sommelier? But I trusted Jeremy's palate and liked his ideas about wine, so I took him up on the suggestion. The Cour Cheverny was a deep gold-colored white, exotic though perhaps a bit schizophrenic. Up-front, it was lush, ripe fruit while the finish was all acidity. While I wasn't enthralled, to Jeremy's credit, he'd called the wine's profile perfectly: "On the edge between Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc."
It turned out Chantelle had visited Bistro du Vent only days before I had. "I was looking for a wine called Cour Cheverny and the sommelier actually had one," she said when we finally met in Atlanta. It seemed like a pretty remarkable coincidence. What had inspired Chantelle's search anyway? "I'm looking to add to our selection of Loire wines," she replied. But what about adding a few more-obvious wines, like Pouilly-Fumé? After all, she had only one on her list. And no Muscadet at all. Chantelle only smiled in what seemed like a vaguely pitying way.
Chantelle was quite poised, although I was surprised by how small she turned out to be. She was nearly dwarfed by the elaborate decor of the Dining Room, never mind the enormous wine trolley she pushed around. Indeed, the sight of Chantelle at work with her wine trolley reminded me of a line in A Midsummer Night's Dream: "And though she be but little, she is fierce."
And Chantelle's ambition was certainly fierce. "I'm very confident in my passion, and I know the future is full of amazing opportunities," she declared, adding that she was competing in the young sommeliers finals and planned to acquire her Master's.
Chantelle's mentor and former employer was Philippe Buttin, the wine director of Atlanta's Joël restaurant. Buttin had recommended Chantelle for the Ritz job. "Philippe felt I was ready for this opportunity," she said, "I trust him completely. He's been in this business a long time." How long? "He must be 39 years old. And he's still working the floor," Chantelle said, in a tone of disbelief. Chantelle wanted to travel as well, and there were many places on her list, including Argentina and Alsace. "I want to have Jean Trimbach show me the Clos Ste. Hune vineyard," she said, naming a legendary Alsace wine. I mentioned I'd visited recently. "I saw the Rosacker vineyard, where Clos Ste. Hune comes from," I said. "Really? Rosacker?" she repeated, giving my pronunciation a corrective tweak.
A few hours later, I watched Chantelle wheel her trolley to the table next to mine. The man wanted a glass of port to drink with his cheese. What kind of port do you like? asked Chantelle, who promptly recited the possible types: ruby, tawny, 20-year-old tawny, 40-year-old tawny, vintage, colheita. What about a 1900 colheita? she suggested. It was a beautiful wine and would really be something, she promised. Naturally, the man agreed. And Chantelle triumphantly wheeled her trolley away.
I was impressed. And I had a feeling that Larry Stone would have been too. "Young sommeliers have so much zeal and so much passion," he'd told me. "It's good for the business." It certainly seemed to be. These men and women worked long hours constructing creative and challenging wine lists. And while some could be a bit overzealous, their enthusiasm was inspiring and certainly helped to sell a lot of wine—from small-grower Champagne to colheita port to what was surely the entire production of the appellation of Cour Cheverny.
I finally succeeded in having dinner at Beacon on a night Troy was there. In the year since I'd first met him, he had grown a mustache and a goatee. Where had he been all this time, in addition to France? "I've been doing some consulting, some private parties. Waldy [Malouf, Beacon's chef and owner] wants me to do more work outside the restaurant," he said. But did that mean he was spending less time on the floor? Troy nodded and looked a touch regretful. I thought of Larry Stone, the most famous sommelier in the country, still working the floor of Rubicon so many nights, after so many years. Troy paused. "Time goes by too fast," he said.