When I arrived to shadow Raj Vaidya, head sommelier of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Daniel in New York City, I was dressed for the part: dark suit, scuffless shoes and a corkscrew in my pocket.
Having received my certified sommelier credential with the Court of Master Sommeliers last year, I felt somewhat comfortable with the role-playing. But as I waited in the lobby for my three-day stint at Daniel Boulud’s legendary eatery to begin, it occurred to me that in this setting, my knowledge of wine and service was pretty miniscule.
Thankfully, shadowing Raj meant minimal overall pressure; I didn’t have to worry about decanting an $18,000 bottle of La Tâche for a V.I.P., if that had been ordered.
But as my time with the Daniel team progressed, I learned a lot about what it means to be a sommelier at one of the world’s preeminent dining destinations. Some of my own preconceptions were even corrected.
First, there’s an assumption that sommeliers of well-heeled restaurants taste and appreciate only absurdly expensive wines from legendary producers. True, during my time at Daniel, I checked more wines off my vinous bucket list than I thought possible: ’71 Pétrus, ’04 Chave Hermitage, ’85 Rouget Echézeaux.
But I was assured by assistant sommeliers Edouard Bourgeois and Jesse McCollum that this kind of daily bacchanal was not guaranteed. “Not every night,” Jesse said, adding with a smile, “but there are nights when we get something special.”
Raj himself later championed the less prestigious wines, stating, “I get as excited about a great German Riesling or a killer Jura Chardonnay as I do with La Tâche and Pétrus.”
Secondly, the dinner service, a veritable theatrical performance, is only a small portion of the job. Sure, during dinner the sommeliers enjoy the spotlight like rock stars, but they also double as stagehands, laboriously preparing the venue hours before the show starts.
On the first day I spent at Daniel, Raj had been in since noon. For three hours, he answered e-mails from purveyors and filed invoices for incoming wine shipments, before dealing with a problematic wine cooler.
When Jesse arrived at 2 pm, he was tasked with unloading a 25-case shipment of Grüner Veltliner into the cellar, scraping off dried wax from the candles used for decanting, and pouring out old wine from several months’ worth of corked bottles.
Finally, good sommeliers are masters of improvisation when it comes to wine and food pairings. Though they often know what bottle they’d like to pair with a specific dish, they sometimes face guest opposition. On the fly they’re tasked with plying their mental wine encyclopedia to fashion an equally excellent, albeit different, pairing. And it’s their job to navigate the politics of people’s personal choices with grace, regardless of their own opinion.
I witnessed this on the night a guest ordered the brook trout stuffed with chanterelles and Marcona almonds—a dish Raj felt paired perfectly with a white Burgundy. But when I spied him walking away from the table with a bottle of Calera’s ’94 Mt. Harlan Pinot Noir, I asked, “I thought you were serving a white?”
“I was,” he said with a grin. “But it’s a red-drinking table.”