4 Master Sommeliers on the Reality of the Job Today
"90 percent of it is not sexy."
"Four Master Sommeliers walk into a bar." The sentence sounds like the setup to a joke your wine-geek uncle would tell—but it did in fact happen on a chilly afternoon in January at New York's Lupulo. (Okay, so the four master sommeliers walked into an excellent Portuguese restaurant with a killer bar. Close enough.)
The somms—Dustin Wilson of Verve Wine, KyungMoon Kim of The Modern, Alex LaPratt of Beasts & Bottles, and Brahm Callahan of Grill 23—were gathered to expound upon the new era of wine culture we've recently entered: Whereas 30 years ago consumers may have felt intimidated or overwhelmed by sommeliers, these days they tend to have a much better understanding of wine and, consequently, of what these experts do. Simultaneously, sommeliers are more approachable and communicative than ever before, encouraging an unprecedented and collaborative dialogue with restaurant guests.
To lubricate discussion, I asked each of the four to bring their favorite affordable (under $30) bottle of wine of the moment. Together, over the course of 90 minutes—during which tasty Portuguese cuisine, accessible wine, and even (gasp!) refreshing beer was consumed—the five of us dissected what it means to be a Master Sommelier today.
Here are highlights from the conversation:
On Romance vs. Reality
Dustin Wilson: My family definitely didn't understand what a sommelier was at all until the movie Somm came out, no matter how many times I would tell them.
Brahm Callahan: Slugging cases is more of your day than it is being pretty and selling wine on the floor. If you work in a restaurant that sells wine, you're going to be doing manual labor, moving bottles around, resetting tables.
DW: 90 percent of it is not sexy. The only part that's sexy is when you approach the table and get the guy who's like, “Oh man, I just love your job.” You're like “Yeah, you don't really love my job…”
On the Evolution of the Sommelier:
DW: The suits on the floor are definitely way better now.
BC: Twenty years ago, fine dining was a very different experience. As a sommelier you had a very clear [message]: “This is what we do… these are the things that we're going to pair with our food.” Now you're trying to make a connection.
DW: The perception of what a sommelier was 20 to 30 years ago was this snooty old guy who wanted to talk down to you, and try to get you to buy the most expensive thing…. The best way to beat that stigma is to go completely in the opposite direction and say, “we're here to make wine super fun, really approachable.”
On The Guest Experience:
BC: We have to be so informed to do our jobs. That doesn't mean anything to my guests…. They don't need to know how much time it took me to get where I am, or the time, effort, and energy I spent working and studying. That's irrelevant to them. If they get a better guest experience—that's what really matters.
AL: We see young somms who get excited about how much they know, and then they start off like a robot: super cold, telling people facts and figures. That just isolates them from the experience, because wine has so many different levels—how it tastes, the history around it, who made it, its influence, its culture—but you've got to find out what [the guest is] looking for, and then give them that little piece.
BC: Yeah, and make them feel comfortable. That's the number one thing. I think the stigma that we still fight is the idea that sommeliers are there to take advantage of you…. If I sell you this thing once and I make a lot of money on it, great—but if you don't like it, there are 70 restaurants opening in Boston this year! So if we don't perform well every time and make you happy and comfortable, then you're not coming back.
DW: We all love hanging out together, or being at events and tastings together. And I think people in the restaurant industry recognize that customers don't want to go to [the same restaurant] every single day of the year—they like to explore, so there's not that level of [business] competition. We're not competing against each other; we're just all in the same, fun pool together.
BC: What's so cool about getting a bunch of people together who are really passionate and have pushed themselves to be really good at what they do is that you see all these different angles. You can take pieces of it and be like, "I love what you're doing here. How can I take that experience and figure out how it works in my space from a different angle?"
DW: It's collaborative in the sense that we all want each other to succeed and be as good as we can possibly be. But collaboration doesn't usually take place on a business level.
AL: It's such a competitive market, it makes it difficult for us to work together and for everybody get paid and make profit. But I like to use my peers as great resources, and I always try to make myself available as a resource.
DW: You don't see this camaraderie in a lot of industries. If I'm like, selling cars at one dealership, and I go to another guy's dealership, he's gonna be like, “Get the fuck off my lawn!”
On Drinking Beer Over Wine
BC: I'll put it this way: I have no wine in my fridge. There's like, two cases of beer in my fridge.
DW: I appreciate the geekiness of beer, and for our exam we have to learn how it's made. I have some sommelier buddies who geek out on beer just as hard as they do on wine…. Then there are guys like me: I love beer; I probably drink beer more often than wine—but it's Modelo Especiale. Or a Corona or something.
AL: The effervescence definitely makes a major impact on us, too. When I reach for a beer, I look for 'refreshing' in some shape or form. I often don't want to have to get intellectual or spend time thinking about it: I want to relax and let my hair down—although I'm bald....
BC: So that's what happened to it! You just let it go.
DW: We're overanalyzing wine all the time; sometimes you just want to drink and not think about it.
BC: I still have shower beers for that reason.
On Master Somms Who Don't Like Beer
BC: I know one.
ALL: (chanting) Out him! Out him!
BC: No! Not doing it.
On Go-To Beers
BC: High Life—ice cold High Life. Like... beyond cold High Life. Or a Belgian dubbel.
KK: I like Maine Beer Company Peeper Ale. It has all the hoppiness on the nose and the palate, but it doesn't have the bitterness. It finishes really clean.
AL: After working long services, usually I'd have a Sixpoint Crisp in one hand, a Delirium Tremens in the other, and a shot of bourbon. Triple-fist.
DW: Modelo Especial. Not the Negra—that's way too dark and bitter for me. The more it tastes like water, the better.
AL: ¡Ay, caramba!
On Favorite Affordable Wines of the Moment:
AL: 2015 Finca Villacreces Pruno (Ribera del Duero, Spain). They're right next to Vega Sicilia. It's 90% Tempranillo, 10% Cab; 2015 is a sick vintage. Some of the top estates in Ribera can overextend the oak aging; this only has 12 months, it lets the fruit show through. Not that I give a shit what Robert Parker thinks, but he called this the best wine in the world at this price point. I think it's pretty fucking awesome.
DW: 2012 Dominique Joseph, Le Petit Saint Vincent "Les Clos Lyzières," (Saumur-Champigny, Loire Valley, France). Joseph is a young guy, really ambitious, doing some really cool things. I'm a huge Cab Franc drinker, and finding really great Saumur Champigny... at a cheap price is getting harder and harder. And I've been really impressed by these guys.
KK: 2015 Envínate, Garnacha Tintorera, "Albahra" (Almansa, Spain). Envínate is a project between four guys seeking out really unique terroir. They have 5-6 cuvees from many different sites throughout Spain. This wine from Almansa isn't made with any wood—it's all done in cement tanks, so the unique sense of place really comes through.
BC: 2015 Jean-Louis Dutraive, Grand Cour, Brouilly (France). Dutraive is a pretty traditional Beaujolais producer. They're on a slope in Brouilly, further south out of all the crus. Mostly granite, but it's a more ripe style of Beaujolais. It's pretty cliché to bring Beaujolais, but every time I drink a $15 - $30 bottle, I'm always overwhelmed by how good it is. They're so simple, but really true to what they are -- and that's what I dig.