World's Best Sommelier vs. World's Worst Customer

Aldo Sohm of New York City's Le Bernardin is as good at pairing wines as he is at charming customers. But to truly test his mettle, F&W secretly enlisted critic Frank Bruni to play the role of nightmare diner. Read on to find out how Sohm survived the ordeal — and to see the exceptional matches he chose for star chef Eric Ripert's elegant recipes.

Aldo Sohm
Photo: © Francesco Tonelli

I vetoed the Champagne that Le Bernardin's Aldo Sohm suggested at the meal's start, telling him my mood wasn't so bubbly. Rejecting his advice again, I insisted on having a red instead of a white for the charred octopus, then I staged a tabletop tantrum over the price of the Montrachet that he initially paired with the monkfish.

As dinner progressed and Sohm's face turned an increasingly flustered shade of red, I accepted only one of his recommendations, a sake for a smoked-salmon carpaccio bejeweled with glittering salmon caviar. Otherwise, I grimaced and protested while he stammered and perspired. I wanted to see how well the "world's best sommelier" could roll with the punches — and just how many of them he could take.

That's what had brought me and a companion to Le Bernardin, one of Manhattan's most esteemed restaurants for more than three decades. We were staging a sort of contest, which pitted a pesky, deliberately obnoxious naysayer (i.e., me) against a wine savant of world renown. The restaurant's venerated chef, Eric Ripert, and a few of his lieutenants knew about our ploy. But they hadn't informed Sohm, whose reactions to me would ideally reveal something about the flexibility of wine pairings and the deliberations of a master sommelier.

Sohm, 38 at the time, is certainly a master. Born, raised, and educated in Austria, he moved to New York in 2004 to work with Kurt Gutenbrunner at Wallsé and the chef's other restaurants, then left to take charge of the wine program at Le Bernardin in 2007. While working full-time there, he boned up for sommelier competitions and bested rivals from around the globe in Rome in 2008, winning top honors from the Worldwide Sommelier Association. He was judged on his ability to recognize wines in blind tastings, to edit a wine list and to suggest pairings for food.

It was the last of these talents that I focused on, assessing the agility and inspiration with which he navigated Le Bernardin's list of about 750 wines from 14 countries. The wine list emphasizes France, but I wasn't going to let Sohm do that. Nor was I going to let him return too frequently to his homeland, which he's been known to do.

"We're yanking you out of the Alps, Aldo," I made clear at the start, when he tried to substitute an Austrian Muskateller for the spurned glasses of Champagne. So he toggled to the island of Santorini and a 2008 Thalassitis from Gai'a Wines. He likened the body, bite, and citrus notes of the Greek white to a French Chablis. But why was it the right wine for our canapé of raw tuna pressed in briny kombu seaweed?

"Acidity and minerality," he said, explaining that the wine should brighten and sharpen the taste of the fish the way a splash of lemon and a scattering of coarse salt would.

Bit by bit, Sohm detailed his philosophy on wine-food pairings, saying that not only should the wine burnish the food, but also the food should burnish the wine.

"Food and wine are in a marriage where both should get better," he said. "It's a two-way relationship."

"But shouldn't it be a three-way?" I asked. He blushed. I explained: "Shouldn't you consider the drinker, too, and what his or her taste in wine is?"

"That's true," Sohm conceded, then added that he was only now learning what kind of wine drinker I was.

I accelerated his education, telling him I'd long been prejudiced in favor of drier wines. That inclination, not just orneriness, was why the Greek white had worked better for me than the Austrian.

It was also one reason I waved away the floral Tramin Gewürztraminer from the Alto Adige region of Italy — the Alps, mind you — that he paired with the exquisite octopus, a Mediterranean-meets-Asian dish combining Bartlett pear with fermented black beans and a squid ink–and–miso vinaigrette. I told him to give me something drier and demanded a red to boot. So he presented two California Zinfandels, which he said would be fruity enough to match the dish. But the first one — a 2006 late-harvest wine from Dashe Cellars — had definite sweetness. The second, a 2005 from Martinelli's Jackass Vineyard, didn't, though there was a price for that.

"Seventeen percent alcohol," Sohm noted, thus commencing a tutorial on another crucial aspect of wine pairings during a meal that includes a half dozen courses or more: pacing. The wines, in sequence and aggregate, shouldn't exhaust a diner's palate or leave him too tipsy.

Without being asked to, Sohm chose as many wines for under $100 a bottle as wines that hit or exceeded that mark, even though roughly 80% of Le Bernardin's list falls in the higher-priced category.

But for another stunner of a dish, supple pan-roasted monkfish in a gingery sake broth studded with honshimeji mushrooms, Sohm got a little bit ritzy: He wanted to pour glasses of a premier cru 2006 Chassagne-Montrachet from Domaine Bernard Moreau Les Chevenottes. It was white Burgundy at its most regal, and it cost $150 a bottle.

"Too much!" I declared, trying for the vocal equivalent of a pout.

So he trotted out another white Burgundy, because he said the sake in the dish called for a wine with soft tannins. This one, a 2005 Philippe Colin Maranges, was $75, and, though it paired beautifully with the fish — making the broth's flavor seem deeper and earthier — it had less elegance than its regional kin. Sohm studied me as I registered the difference.

"When you've driven a Ferrari and you go back to a Mercedes, you can feel a little lost," he consoled me. "That doesn't mean the Mercedes isn't any good." The Maranges was in fact excellent, and its crispness made it in some ways a better match for the monkfish than the Montrachet. We also preferred it to a California Pinot Noir that he threw into the mix at the last minute.

I noticed that the redness in Sohm's face had faded somewhat, and that he now seemed much too calm. So I became even more strident and implacable for Ripert's final savory course, an upscale surf and turf of grilled escolar and Kobe beef with pungent anchovy-butter sauce.

"No Bordeaux!" I said, dismissing his pick. "No red wine, period.

"And no white, either," I pronounced, my voice turning sinister. "In fact, no wine. I want a pairing of hard liquor. It can be in a cocktail. It can be served neat. Your choice."

Sohm looked baffled. Nervous. Then he vanished.

When he reappeared — too soon, and with a stride too brisk and steady — he had in his clutch a bottle of Zacapa rum from Guatemala, aged up to 23 years. He said it just might work with the Kobe and escolar, and sure enough it did, providing precisely the sweet-with-unctuous charge that distinguishes a classic union of Sauternes and foie gras. And because the rum had been aged so long, it was gorgeously smooth.

By that point, Sohm had taken us to eight countries, presented us with about a dozen grape varietals and, most impressive, maintained extraordinary grace under pestering. What could be left?

As it turned out, beer. In part because of its carbonation, which can cut richness and settle a full stomach, Sohm sometimes likes to throw it in toward the end of a long meal, and on this night he offered a Westmalle Dubbel Trappist beer from Belgium for a milk-chocolate pot de crème topped with maple-syrup caramel. The dessert neatly underscored the vaguely chocolaty aspect of many dark brews. Sampling the food and the beer together, I was put in mind of a chocolate egg cream.

Visions of a Jewish deli staple at a haute French restaurant? The evening's last laugh belonged to Sohm, who bid us good night with beads of perspiration on his forehead but a triumphant gleam in his eyes.

Veteran New York Times writer Frank Bruni, the paper's former restaurant critic, is the author of the Times bestseller Born Round.

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