We talk to sommeliers around the U.S. about their skills, training, and what you have a right to expect.
It’s 5:30 p.m., and patrons are already arriving for dinner at La Toque, perhaps because they couldn’t get a later reservation at the acclaimed Napa Valley restaurant. In the bar, sommelier Scott Tracy and chef/owner Ken Frank are tasting two Pinot Noirs to see which best matches the braised rabbit ravioli on tonight’s menu: “The ’97 Etude is great, but it’s a bit light and fruity for this dish,” notes Tracy. Frank agrees, and they decide on an alternative from Oregon, the Rex Hill ’97.
Then it’s back to his computer, where Tracy prints the wine list for today’s six-course tasting menu just in time for the early customers. He then hurries out to the dining room, consciously relaxing as he welcomes new diners, advising them of the wine and food pairings offered that night.
La Toque is one of the increasing number of restaurants serving tasting menus, or dégustations, which about half its patrons order. For the others, Tracy happily discusses the restaurant’s wine selections, from hard-to-find Napa wines to eclectic options.
Tracy is one of today’s new breed of sommeliers, one who doesn’t fit the image of yesterday. He doesn’t wear a tuxedo and he doesn’t affect a silver tastevin on a chain. The new sommelier is more accessible, filling the role of a restaurant’s chief wine enthusiast—someone you can be comfortable with rather than intimidated by. The ultimate goal is to increase wine appreciation—and wine sales—at the restaurant with which the sommelier is associated.
Today’s typical sommelier may be called a beverage manager, wine director, or cellar master, and is as likely to be a young woman in a business suit as an older man in black tie. Upscale restaurants like New York’s Le Cirque 2000 will have a minimum of two sommeliers available per shift; La Toque has perhaps lifted wine service to the extreme, for all its servers are highly trained in wine and most have previously been sommeliers at other restaurants.
Modern sommeliers spend much of their time meeting with wine sales reps, tasting and ordering wines, and training servers. Some have graduated to the level of wine directors, spending most of their time seeking out and tasting new wines and new releases for their lists. But most still consider their prime function to be helping patrons choose the perfect wine to go with their meals.
As an example of today’s new sommelier, take a look at the recent career of former ballerina Gillian Ballance, who’s been sommelier at New York’s Windows on the World (which has the largest wine cellar in New York and spawned superstar wine educator Kevin Zraly), original sommelier and cellar master at last year’s new hit restaurant, Cello, in New York, and most recently wine director at Picholine, the busy seasonal-French restaurant near Lincoln Center. At presstime, she was newly named sommelier for the Bacara resort in Santa Barbara.
At Picholine, Ballance devoted 20 to 25 hours each week to tasting and ordering wine and monitoring the restaurant’s wine inventory, but she also spent 40 to 45 hours a week at her real love, helping patrons choose from the restaurant’s 550 wine selections. To do this, the sommelier has to be able to quickly determine whether the customer wants a safe bet or an unusual selection. Do they plan a leisurely meal with many courses and wines to match, or do they simply want to eat quickly before the concert? Is the host entertaining lavishly, or is he a frugal Midwesterner making his first visit to the big city?
An insightful sommelier quickly assesses the situation to make the patrons feel comfortable with their choices. Ballance describes Picholine as “a playground for people to try wines.” She tries to help make dining fun, and a key part of that fun is trying interesting wines. Like many restaurants, Picholine offers a good selection of wines by the glass, allowing its patrons to taste unknown wines and unfamiliar vintages, and pair their wines more precisely with individual courses, including a menu pairing wines with the cheeses for which the restaurant is famous.
Then there’s Mike Bonaccorsi, head of beverage at Spago in Beverly Hills. Though he spends time with patrons, much of his job is selecting and managing the restaurant’s overall beverage service. Like most other sommeliers, he also trains the staff so they’re expert in the wines offered, teaching short classes and letting them taste as he helps them educate their palates: “My goal is to make myself unneeded,” he laughs. He hasn’t succeeded yet: He’s spent five nights a week on the floor for the six years he’s worked with Wolfgang Puck.
In San Francisco, we spoke with well-known wine director and Master Sommelier Larry Stone of Rubicon. In addition to recommending wines on the floor, Stone buys wines and supervises three assistants and a full-time bar manager. He spends much time training the serving staff, not a trivial task given the restaurant’s 1,700-bottle cellar. “With such a fine wine list, it would be horrible if no one could explain it,” he says.
Since today’s wine lists are organized in so many different ways—traditional geographic listings, varietal listings, or, the latest trend, by color and style (full-bodied whites or aromatic whites, light reds or robust reds)—a sommelier is often an indispensable translator, making the lists easier for consumers to understand. Putting together the wine list is often the sommelier’s job too, unless he or she works for an extremely knowledgeable restaurant owner.
Although most good sommeliers see it as their duty to make sure all their servers are well versed in their restaurants’ wines, since people often ask for sommeliers by name, being a celebrity is also part of some top sommeliers’ jobs these days. “Customers love the personal touch and it makes them feel special,” says Stone. “People read about me and want me to help them personally.”
Another celebrity sommelier is 30-year-old Ralph Hersom of Le Cirque 2000, who despite his superstar status wears his fame lightly, coming across as just a regular, friendly guy. One of the youngest cellar masters ever at Windows on the World, he has been the original and only cellar master at Le Cirque 2000 since its opening in 1997. Hersom spends a great deal of time with wine salespeople and managing the cellar from his computer, but he sees his main job as being accessible to customers. In what little spare time he has, he judges wine competitions, runs his own web site dispensing wine advice, and is working on a book, though given his devotion to selecting the wines for the restaurant and serving customers it’s a wonder he finds time to have a life.
A day in the life
Richard Paladino is a wine steward at the elegant Florentine Restaurant in Palm Beach, Florida, which stocks 700 wine selections. He explains that a big part of his job is training servers, including instructing them as they taste wines. In some restaurants, these tastings are formal and scheduled. More typically, however, the sommelier will open a bottle or two of wine before the restaurant’s dinner action starts, perhaps when the servers are eating and learning about the specials of the evening. The wine expert will discuss the wines, sometimes offering samples of special food items for that evening that the wine complements.
One afternoon Paladino might say, “Note the earthy tones in this Pinot Noir that complement the roasted chanterelles,” or, “Most patrons ask for Chardonnay by habit, but notice that the crispness and slight grassy flavor of this New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is a better match for the mussels with Asian spices.”
Some staff wine tastings are inspired by wine salespeople who pop in with a few bottles during the day. Most sommeliers set aside specific times for these reps, though others welcome them whenever they’re not too busy. Stop into a restaurant mid-afternoon, in between the lunch and dinner crushes, and you may see someone sitting at the bar with a number of open bottles offering tastes to the sommelier. That’s probably a sales rep.
At La Toque, Tracy takes an unorthodox approach: He has a number of representatives pour at once, an efficient way for him to taste wine—and reduce the hustle. “We’re looking for great wines, not salesmanship. I’m influenced by the taste of the wine, not sales patter and special prices. Reps won’t discuss those in front of other salesmen, so by having several at once we can focus on the wine.”
Who can you trust?
Many restaurant-goers are leery of wine stewards, having received both supercilious and underinformed service in the past. These days, it’s the inexperienced sommeliers who are the most likely to talk down to you, because those with some time under their belts know that today’s customer is likely to know more about wine than the average American of days past. Keep in mind, too, that there are no absolute credentials or licenses for being a sommelier, and many restaurants who want to push wine will hire a recent graduate of a wine course or an experienced waiter and thrust the title of sommelier upon him or her.
Sommeliers differ vastly in their knowledge and qualifications, not surprising since there’s no standard route to the job. Most end up in the job by chance. Rubicon’s Larry Stone was introduced to wine by his parents, then traveled widely in Europe tasting wines during college. He didn’t consider making wine his career until he landed a part-time job as a sommelier at a restaurant where he worked during college. He was almost through his dissertation for a PhD in chemistry, but never finished it after he fell in love with wine.
TIPPING ON WINE
Most top sommeliers are well paid and say they don’t expect tips. “Occasionally a guest will tip, but it’s not expected,”says Tru’s Scott Tyree. “I get pleasure from turning people on to good wine, and I want them to regard my help as part of our service.”
Typically, you should tip at least 15 percent on the whole check; on the wine alone, sommeliers report that 10 to 15 percent is average. If you do want to tip your sommelier personally, you can ask for him toward the end of the meal and unobtrusively offer some cash. For wines under $50, a $5 tip is adequate; more is appropriate for special attention and/or fine wines.
Like Stone, most wine directors learn on the job, sometimes augmented by travel to wine regions of the world. The key is tasting. Most taste constantly, whether at formal events or informally. Ballance learned her trade both from formal courses and from informal tastings and travel. Hersom has his basic certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Paladino has a degree in hospitality management, but he took wine courses to learn more about wine, including the Windows on the World course taught by Zraly. He also took local classes and attended the hospitality program for sommeliers at Sterling Vineyards in Napa Valley. He is working to become a Master Sommelier.
Spago’s Bonaccorsi is a Master Sommelier, but he started out by reading Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine while he tasted, and used to explore wine bars to expand his tasting repertoire. Scott Tyree at Chicago’s Tru Restaurant also got interested in wine while working in a restaurant in college. There he met sommeliers who mentored him about wines and wine service.
An MS (Master Sommelier) after your wine steward’s name does confirm that he or she has substantial formal training, but don’t expect to find one in your local restaurant: There are only about 40 in all of the United States. Fewer than 500 candidates a year receive their basic certificate from the Court of Master Sommeliers, and only about 15 a year complete the advanced course. Wine experts—in restaurants as well as in real life—are often self-taught, participating in tasting groups near their home base, traveling to wine regions and tasting there on their vacations, and voraciously reading books and magazines about wine.
Even if you don’t talk personally to a sommelier when you dine, you benefit from his or her selection of wines, organization of the restaurant’s wine list, and training of servers. For full value, however, sommeliers say to ask for advice, but be honest about what you’re looking for. “Tell him what you like—and what you expect to pay,” suggests Stone.
Patrons sometimes feel intimidated by sommeliers, fearing that they’ll be pressured into buying expensive wines. It’s true that sommeliers often have personal favorites they’d like others to appreciate, but you should never be afraid to guide them into your price range. Most sommeliers genuinely like to help patrons looking for values. Says Paladino, “I have no problem with patrons asking about cost.” Most, in fact, say they are relieved when a customer is straightforward about the price range. Keep in mind that a sommelier never wants to insult customers with the assumption that they are bargain-conscious.
WINE SERVICE’S BADGE OF HONOR
The closest thing to a formal course for sommeliers is the three-part program of the Court of Master Sommeliers, which was established in England in 1977 to set standards and recognition for excellence in wine service. Before it was created, there was no formal approach to learning about wine and demonstrating expertise in service.
Its three steps are the Basic Certificate Course, the Advanced Sommelier Course and the Master Sommelier Diploma. Each level increases in difficulty but has the same tests: a comprehensive theory examination about wine regions of the world, production methods, spirits, beer and cigar service; a blind tasting of wines; and a practical examination in a mock dining room where students are graded on their responses to questions and situations covering various aspects of beverage service.
The initial Certificate Class, taught to 75 to 95 students over a day and a half six times a year in various cities, is designed to teach prospective sommeliers the basic skills needed to serve wine in a restaurant. It covers viticulture and production of wine and spirits, how to taste wine and recognize its characteristics and flaws, principles of proper wine service, and pairing wine with food.
The course ends with a test and certificate of achievement for those who pass. About 500 people take this test each year, and 95 percent pass, according to Evan Goldstein, chairperson of the American branch of the Court. Though applicants aren’t expected to be experts before they take the course, most attendees arrive knowledgeable. The fee for the Certificate Course and exam is $395.
The second step toward getting that MS diploma is the Advanced Certification, earned after a five-day program beginning with two days of classes about wines, wine regions and wine service. It culminates in three exams: written theory, service and, perhaps toughest of all, identifying wines blind by variety and region. Applicants have 25 minutes to taste six different wines and identify the variety, country, region and appellation of origin, and the vintage.
Few prospective sommeliers attempt this challenge. Goldstein says only about 25 applicants take the advanced tests each year; of those, about 60 percent pass. The fee for the advanced Course is $795, or it can be audited without the final examination for $495. The advanced Exam taken on its own is $595. There are no formal classes to prepare aspiring Master Sommeliers to take the advanced course after they have the basic certificate. Students study on their own, traveling and tasting. Some take college classes in wine, perhaps through the Enology and Viticulture Department at U.C.ÐDavis or intensive courses at the Culinary Institute of America. Each four- or five-day course costs about $750.
To help aspirants join their fraternity, current Master Sommeliers often organize study groups and guide applicants. Once applicants have their advanced certificate, they can contact Master Sommeliers in their area; the society publishes their names and addresses. The society also provides guidelines and suggested reading. It’s not just an academic program, however. Practical knowledge is an important element. More independent study is required—lots of it. The final test for the Master Sommelier diploma is similar in format to the advanced level but much tougher, including an oral grilling by Master Sommeliers.
Though thousands of aspiring sommeliers have participated in the basic certificate program, only 40 people in the United States have qualified for the MS diploma by passing all the tests—and only a dozen work in restaurants. The others supervise wine programs for wholesalers, wine companies, resorts and hotels. —P.F.
Sommeliers at fine restaurants say they start with a basic assumption. If a restaurant is famous for its cuisine, most customers tend to look for a wine that complements the food. If the meal costs $75 per person, it’s common to spend another $75 for wine for two. If you haven’t given any indication to the contrary, that is probably where the sommelier will start.
Hersom says he tries to ascertain people’s preferences obliquely. “I’ll usually approach the customer asking, ‘May I assist you with the list?’ If they’ve already ordered their food, that’s one starting point. I may also ask if they are thinking white or red, if they have a preference for the wine’s origin—French or American, and so forth. For example, I’ve found that people from the West Coast often want to explore French wines when they’re in New York. If someone says they like Italian whites and want to try something new, I’ll stay away from the Pinot Grigio and suggest something like a Gavi di Gavi, depending of course on the food.”
He suggests that a good way to give your sommelier an idea of what you’d like to try is to share with him what you like to drink. “For example, if they say they like a Sanford Pinot Noir, and would like to try a French wine, I’d go for a basic Aloxe-Corton, whereas if they say they like a Williams Selyem Pinot Noir, I’d know I could go for a higher-end Burgundy.” Any information you can give sommeliers on your favorite grapes, countries, areas and/or appellations helps them tailor their suggestions both to your taste buds and your budget.
Stone says knowledgeable wine lovers sometimes pick an exceptional wine first, then ask for suggestions of food to accompany it. An experienced sommelier should certainly be able to suggest pairings. Even at restaurants that don’t normally offer fixed tasting meals, a good sommelier should offer you the options of half-bottles or wines by the glass to go with different courses, although you shouldn’t be afraid to nudge him in that direction.
Beyond designing the wine list and suggesting the wines, in most fine dining establishments the sommelier will present and serve your wine, decanting it if necessary. Although this may seem intimidating, decanting is usually done at your table not just for the show, but to assure you that the wine ordered is indeed what’s in the decanter.
Decanting serves two purposes: to withhold the sediment of aged wines, and to allow wines to breathe. Hersom’s rule of thumb is to decant any wine over ten years old, but warns that decanting is usually inadvisable for Burgundies and Pinot Noirs, which can be fragile. He also suggests decanting for younger vintages of wines that need to breathe to develop their character.
SOMMELIERS’ VALUE TIPS
We asked the sommeliers in our article to each pick two wines from their restaurant’s wine list—one red, one white—that offer great value. Here’s what they suggested:
Ralph Hersom, Le Cirque 2000
Mike Bonaccorsi, Spago
Michael Paladino, The Florentine
Larry Stone, Rubicon
Scott Tracy, La Toque
Scott Tyree, Tru
Another common question is what to do with the cork. A sommelier (or, more likely, a wine waiter) who presents you the cork with a flourish and looks at you expectantly doesn’t really know his stuff. To show your server that you know your stuff, you should pretty much ignore the cork. The only real reason to examine a cork these days is to see if it’s pretty enough to keep as a souvenir; it won’t tell you anything that you won’t be able to find out by looking at, smelling and tasting the wine.
Some customers are intimidated by tasting the wine in front of the sommelier. Hersom suggests simple steps: First, look at the wine. If it’s a white wine, a greenish tinge may mean the grapes were not ripe when picked, a neutral color will indicate that the wine is unoaked, and a golden color can mean the presence of oak, and/or age, and/or oxidation. For a red wine, a deep red or purple color may indicate a young wine; a brownish tinge can indicate age, or oxidation.
Second, sniff the wine to make sure it’s not corked. Don’t swirl it before sniffing, because that can hide the corky smell, leading you to a mouthful of unpleasant and unbalanced-tasting wine. A corked wine smells, Hersom says, like “a damp basement or a wet dog.” Next you can swirl the wine. Comments about “nice legs” will lower you in the sommelier’s esteem: legs simply show the presence of alcohol over 12 percent—the higher the alcohol content, the more and thinner the legs will be. This might be helpful to you in a blind tasting where you’re trying to guess what the wine is, but is simply silly when the label is sitting in front of you.
Finally, taste the wine, taking in a bit of air along with it, sucking it into your mouth and chewing on it a little if you feel the need to show the sommelier you know what you’re doing.
All the sommeliers interviewed for this article agree that you should never be afraid to send a wine back, and a good sommelier won’t argue with you if you say the wine is corked or off. Some restaurants will also let you send a wine back if you simply don’t like it, particularly if you are following the sommelier’s recommendation of a wine you’ve never tried.
Keep in mind that a restaurant has a sommelier because it wants to enhance your wine experience, and ideally develop you as a steady, wine-consuming customer.