Text Size:-+
07.06.2010

Wine Drinkers, Let Sommeliers Do Their Jobs!

sommelier_showing_bottle.jpgSommeliers have it pretty rough. They have to deal with the assholes of the wine world who view a conversation with a sommelier as an opportunity to demonstrate their hubris and wine knowledge like a rooster strutting before a cockfight. And then there are those who are not annoying, but still dreadfully unfortunate for a working sommelier: those who are too intimidated by their sense of the complexities of the wine world or the daunting size of the wine list, or what they see as the imposing figure of the sommelier himself (or herself), to engage.

If sommeliers were doctors, they'd spend a good portion of their time dealing with boastfully self-diagnosing patients that had never gone to medical school and people who couldn't be coaxed out of the waiting room to get examined.

More than one accomplished sommelier has, perhaps not even in a moment of unguarded and slightly tipsy honesty, told me how much they appreciated those diners that actually understood what their job was, and used them in the way they are trained to be used.

But the world is fraught with danger for even the most expert and helpful sommelier. Take Eric Asimov's article in today's New York Times, which offers yet another stumbling block in the way of helpful sommeliers everywhere: a story of an astonished diner who is troubled, if not mildly outraged, by a sommelier who tasted the wine first before pouring it for the diner and his companions.

Of course, there will always be people who, unfamiliar with the ceremony and services involved in fine dining, are taken aback by some practices. I can remember my own bumbling and minor frustration as a young man the first time I was taken out to eat in a restaurant where they pushed my seat in for me and placed the napkin on my lap. I didn't know what was going on, and was embarrassed that I didn't know.

But the issue raised in Eric's column is clearly not the product of inexperience. This diner simply wasn't used to the idea of someone else tasting the wine he had paid for. To him, and doubtless to many others, it's likely a question of principle: I bought the wine, therefore I should get to decide who gets a sip and who doesn't. Even my blogging colleague Joe Roberts, of One Wine Dude is on the record in the story expressing some amount of dismay at the idea of a sommelier tasting the wine in advance without his knowledge.

Come on, people. You don't think the cooks taste the sauce before they put it on your dish? Let sommeliers do their jobs.

I don't doubt that many people might bristle a little at someone tasting their wine before they themselves do. But I think these same people may not really know what a sommelier's job is. Now I'm no sommelier myself, but here's my understanding of what you should expect when there's a sommelier on the floor of a restaurant you're dining at.

1. There should be a wine list available for you to look at, that should include a variety of wines by the glass and by the bottle, across a range of price points appropriate to the restaurant.


2. The sommelier has either personally put that wine list together, or is paid to know it almost that well. Which means they should have a sense of how the wines match the menu, the style and character of the wines on it (i.e. how they taste), and of course, what wines they've actually got.

3. You can have a conversation with the sommelier if you want, and they will recommend wines to you based on your preferences, your food choices, and/or your budget. They should be able to answer just about any question you have that is relevant to the role that wine will play in your evening's meal. They should not be there to push any specific wine, sell you wine if you don't want it, or try to get you to spend more than you really wanted to.

4. On occasion the sommelier's responsibility will also include matching specific wines to specific dishes as part of a wine flight that goes along with a specific menu created by the chef, or to a menu of your choosing.

5. The sommelier's job (and the wine director's if they are different people) also includes making sure that the wine is purchased from reputable sources, stored appropriately, and served at the correct temperature, with proper stemware. The sommelier (or often the waiter, as well) will (always by default, but definitely at your discretion) pour the wine for you and your companions throughout your meal.

6. In states or countries where it is legal, the sommelier will also care for a bottle of wine that you have brought with you to the restaurant to consume, with the same level of attention as any bottle they might be selling you. This includes understanding how and when you wish the wine to be opened and served, and at what temperature.

7. Importantly, the sommelier is also paid to ensure that you get a sound bottle (or glass) of wine -- one that is not spoiled, prematurely oxidized, cooked, corked, or otherwise tainted. And this includes that bottle you might have brought with you. (As an aside, everyone should note that this point does not include ensuring that you actually like the wine that you ordered).

It's this last set of responsibilities that give the sommelier license to, and I might even say the duty, to taste any bottle that they open in the restaurant. And by taste, that means pouring a very, very small amount (half an ounce, perhaps) into a glass or a tastevin to smell and taste before offering the bottle to the diner for evaluation.

Sommeliers are trained or experienced enough, if they are truly worthy of holding the title, to spot flawed wine in ways that even very experienced wine lovers are not. Having them taste a bottle, even if it is one you've brought from home, is like having someone who can, in a matter of seconds, check to make sure that the brakes aren't going to fail in the car you're about to race off in.

Of course, practically speaking, sommeliers don't have time to taste every bottle they open in a restaurant, but some are much less in need of professional evaluation before being served. A brand new vintage of California Chardonnay does not need to be inspected in the same way that a 1980 Meursault does. For the most part (but not categorically) screw-capped wines don't need advanced tasting.

From my perspective, I'd love a sommelier to taste every wine I ever buy at or bring to a restaurant from this day forward. Even if, as it so happened a couple of months ago, all it means is that I can commiserate with them about how badly corked the bottle was that I had brought to dinner. The sommelier tasted it first and then, knowing I'd want to smell, came out to my table with his glass and a grimace. He didn't have to get the glass within two feet before I could smell how badly corked the wine was. We bemoaned the loss of a great Brunello, and then he was off to find me something to replace it -- in my price range, and with the particular style I was looking for.

I know I don't need to tell many of you readers how to let sommeliers do their jobs. But for some of you, it might be news that it is not only acceptable to have a sommelier take a sip before you do, it might also be a good idea. No one likes to start a dinner with a bad taste in their mouth.


Read the full article in the New York Times.

Comments (52)

Hande wrote:
07.06.10 at 11:53 PM

Alder, thank you so much for writing this - Eric's article is not quite making the point as yours does. As a sommelier, I agree with every single word, especially point 7. Also love the comment "does not include ensuring that you actually like the wine that you ordered". These are things I get asked very often during my wine education classes, thanks for writing about them!

Anonymous wrote:
07.07.10 at 12:04 AM

Great article! Well done....

Max wrote:
07.07.10 at 1:03 AM

Alder, Asimov and the Altruistic Sommelier. Something light and friendly for the dog days of summer. First rule, if I order a bottle of wine from a restaurant I really don't care who tastes the wine, before-after or during my consuming it. It is always because I am too lazy or uncaring about the food to bring my own. It's that simple. If you care about your dining experience you bring your own wine. Do you think Robert Parker orders wine from the menu? When Parker pays for diner he brings his own. If you read Vinography you should too. Wine is the number ONE profit center in a high end restaurant. Servers and Sommeliers who don't meet certain wine sales standards join the ranks of the unemployed. So, how many in the Alder-Asimov readership circle call ahead to the restaurant to line up a dinner companion? A show of hands please. Good wine, good food and good companionship is intensely personal. Take control of your experience and you will be the better for it (sans pathei mathos). That said, I am sure there will be several posts here extolling the virtues of their most favorite altruistic sommelier and I truly wish I could help you. The very best I could do for you would be to forward your email to Chris Christie so he could explain to you the realities in this world of ours, altruistic sommelier or otherwise.

Wineguy999 wrote:
07.07.10 at 5:06 AM

Good piece - I ended up here after reading Asimov's article. As one who has been in the wine business for years (as a sommelier and otherwise) I would rather make my own assessments, thank you. If I suspect a problem I'll ask the sommelier for his opinion. But if on of my guests seems knowledgable I would give the same courtesy I expect.
Max, you're being a bit of an jerk here. In many states it is illegal for diners to bring wine to a restaurant, whether they are Robert Parker or Joe Blow. Who cares about Parker anymore anyway?

Bob Rossi wrote:
07.07.10 at 5:31 AM

Thought-provoking piece, although I do take issue with a couple of things: (1) I still don't want the sommelier to taste my wine first; and (2) I'd prefer to pour the wine myself/ourself during the meal.

07.07.10 at 7:44 AM

Your argument hinges on the notion that it's okay for the sommelier to a) help him/herself to a taste without your consent and b) make a unilateral judgement on the soundness of your bottle. Regardless of the sommelier's qualifications and intent, neither is okay in the world of fine dining.

Eric's piece tells of how a sommelier said that, ‘I’ve tasted the wine, it’s fine,’. Accurate or not, that is completely unacceptable service.

Sure, the chef tastes the sauce before serving it, the same way a winemaker samples at blending. But the sommelier is no more the winemaker than a server is the chef. The more analogous question is, would it be okay for your server to have a taste of your dish before bringing it to the table?

Seems to me a small measure of common courtesy would go a long way. Why don't sommeliers just ask the customer, "Would you mind if I tasted the wine to be sure it's in good shape before I pour you a taste?"

Tom wrote:
07.07.10 at 7:45 AM

Lots of good points -- particularly now that more restaurants are hiring sommeliers to select and serve wines as a marketing appeal to customers, particularly restaurants that claim to specialize in lower-priced wines. So may customers will be experiencing sommeliers in places they don't expect to.

I agree that a sommelier doesn't guarantee you'll like the wine. But if I ask for and follow a sommelier's advice and don't like the wine (and can articulate why), I have found them more than willing to bring something else.

Steve wrote:
07.07.10 at 8:28 AM

One of our best experiences was at Taillevent many years ago in Paris where the wine preparation was almost theatrical and beautifully done. The uncorking, tasting, and pouring was so confident and professional that their display made us feel the wine was perfect, and our mouths were salivating with anticipation. I am in agreement that similar to the food, you would not want to go to a nice establishment only to taste spoiled food and have it sent back. Same with wine.

But I feel the root of the problem is the lack of training and lack of professionalism of many sommelier that leads the diner not have enough confidence in the sommelier. Many are not well trained, have not tasted enough, and some have trouble opening a cork (often bringing it to the back room to avoid embarrassment which causes the diner to wonder why the wine is going out of their sight). In order for the diner to have enough confidence to let the sommelier do his/her job, he/she should display a minimum level of competency.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
07.07.10 at 9:05 AM

Wineguy999,

I don't think Max is being a jerk as much as he is being quite cynical. You're right to point out that not everyone has the luxury of bringing their own wine.


Bob Rossi,

I prefer to pour my own wine too. That's what I meant by "your discretion" in my own article.

Winethropology,

We disagree about what is acceptable service. And yes, my analogy about tasting the sauce is somewhat limited. But there's not usually a 1% to 6% chance that your food coming out of the kitchen will have, say, mold on it. If that were the case, then I'd damn well like to have the server or the chef taking a nibble of my food to make sure it's not going to make me sick.

Steve,

Yes, training is quite important, and one should not be able to call themselves a sommelier without being trained as one.

Melissa Sutherland Amado wrote:
07.07.10 at 9:19 AM

Alder -- Your final paragraph puts the service and skills of a sommelier into complete context. No customer should ever have to taste off wine. The point (and I would suggest duty) is for the somm to ensure this doesn't occur. The ethos of a sommelier is in part hospitality, and preventing an instance of bad wine from hitting the palate of customers is generous service.

07.07.10 at 9:33 AM

I appreciate what you say, but I respectfully disagree. I don't believe it is the sommelier's job to taste the wine unbidden. The chef's sauce analogy is off the mark (I like the point made by winethropology).

I am in agreement about points 1-6, and point 7 to an extent. The business as a whole is responsible for ensuring I get what I pay for, but I don't want to be SO "protected" from life that I feel like a spectator at the meal rather than a participant. If it is off (monitoring the table for signs of an issue and maybe a discreet smell of the cork) then engage them in conversation and replace it.

Some of the problem arises when the theatre of the wine becomes more important than the relationship of the sommelier and the customer. In fact, you could argue that much of that 'theatre' is responsible for the issues you raise in the opening paragraph. It separates the sommelier from the customer by positioning him/her as the expert, defender of their palates, not a friendly face to turn to.

I wonder how much of this happens here in the UK?

Phil wrote:
07.07.10 at 9:38 AM

Interesting Alder, I don't think you would have gotten your June issue yet (it is in the mail, probably would get it any day now if you haven't already), but Catherine Fallis does the In Service column and touches briefly on this subject. I'll quote her:

"Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" Any bottle of wine ordered by the guests becomes their possession. Treat their bottle that way. Keep it in their line of vision if you have to step away and open or decant it. Don't assume you're allowed to taste it; that will depend on house policy, but in general, in this country, unless the guest offers, don't take a taste."

This will be a subscriber-only article when the issue goes up online later this week, but that's really the only part dealing with this issue. You could of course ask her, but my interpretation is that in her opinion, in this case the service imperative of not upsetting the guest, and being unable to tell in advance without asking, overrides the possibility of tainted wine. Personally I don't think it's an easy call, but I'd agree sommeliers are better off asking, "May I taste the wine to ensure the bottle is sound?" then simply tasting it. If the guest says no, then, much like if a guest asks for ice cubes in their white wine, you are obligated to give them what they want having done your best to ensure a quality experience.

Too often I think the industry expects sommeliers to prioritize education over guest comfort. Yes we want things done correctly if possible, so no ice cubes in the wine, taste to ensure soundness, try to avoid terrible food/wine pairings, push interesting and more obscure wines, etc. But sommeliers are first and foremost in the business of making the guest happy so they will come back to the restaurant and the surest way to prevent that from happening is to make them angry. So I think caution is the way to go here.

That said, I totally agree with your headline. Of course if you don't think the "sommelier" knows what they are doing, chart your own course. But when they do, you might as well let them do their job, since you're paying for it.

David Foran (Sommelier) wrote:
07.07.10 at 11:09 AM

The best Sommeliers are truly looking out for their guests best interests and want them to have maximum enjoyment in their experience. They are trained professionals in service and in recognizing the subtle nuances that may or may not conclude the wines degree of soundness. Although I do not automatically taste the wine on the guests behalf, I do smell it to alert me of any red flags. If a fault is obvious, I let the guest know of the flaw and bring another bottle. If I need a better assessment, I will ask the guests permission to taste. If I am serving many wines to a large group, I will let the host of the group know that I will ensure bottle soundness to avoid the constant interruption of him approving every bottle. At the end of the day, a good Sommelier can adapt to the requirements of the situation and an experienced diner will recognize the professionalism in which they do and allow the Somm to do what they are competent at doing. Which in my view elevates the experience of diner.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
07.07.10 at 11:37 AM

Robert,

Certainly the service experience shouldn't make the diner feel like they're being insulated from life. We absolutely need to be participants in the dining experience and the best restaurants leave us with a compelling experience that we have been a part of. So no argument there. And I'm SO OVER the theater of wine. A certain amount of ceremony is fine, but for pete's sake, let's just drink the stuff.

Of course this issue of who tastes when is not some absolute moral question, it's a judgement about what kind of action best fits the situation. Ethics.

The issue for me is that "monitoring the table for signs of an issue and maybe a discreet smell of the cork" does not necessarily help you prevent a large number of diners actually getting spoiled bottles. Most people don't know the difference between corked wine and wine they just don't care for (and are too embarrassed to say anything about, and therefore keep drinking).

I think its completely possible for a sommelier to exercise his or her skill, taste a customer's wine, and produce an experience that leaves everyone from the most rank neophyte to the most knowledgeable wine expert satisfied.

And of course, the sommelier is also free to use their judgement (or ask, as some have suggested) about which kind of people are going to object to them tasting the wine.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
07.07.10 at 11:41 AM

Phil,

I knew as soon as I hit publish that this would be a topic you'd be interested in. :-)

As I mentioned in my reply to Robert above, of course it comes down to judgement, and expert sommeliers have expert judgement when it comes to reading their customers.

However much I agree with Catherine's mandate that you not upset the guest, I think people also need some education about what is worth getting upset about, and having a professional do their job to prevent you from having a less than ideal dining experience is certainly not one of those things.

Phil wrote:
07.07.10 at 11:55 AM

I definitely agree Alder, and applaud your shining a light here. Some of the general perception around sommeliers is certainly the fault of the industry and individuals within it, but a great deal is just plain ignorance. A strong word, I know, but I think it's justified by some of what you describe in your post: the combination of thinking you know all about something when in reality you don't. That this sort of ignorance tends to exist all over the place (it's a frequent observation of mine that people tend to think every industry but their own is out to rip off customers) means that it isn't unique, but writers such as yourself and Eric Asimov explaining that no, the sommelier isn't trying to steal your wine, always helps.

Nova C. wrote:
07.07.10 at 11:58 AM

Alder,
Thanks so much for this post! I'm positive that a large majority of people were not sure what qualifies a Sommelier much less what they are supposed to do. I've always appreciated a knowledgeable Sommelier at a restaurant to make the meal more spectacular by pairing wines with the food regardless of my personal level of knowledge. My only personal Sommelier pet peve? People who use the title of Sommelier without the certifications.

Wineguy999 wrote:
07.07.10 at 1:01 PM

This goes out to Nova C and all who think the same. The word "certified" when talking about the sommelier has been misused, overused and abused to the point of great confusion.

Passing a test given by the Court of Master Sommeliers does not make you a sommelier. (The Court has greatly cheapened the title - anyone with basic knowledge can be certified for about $500.) On the other hand, not bothering to be tested by an organization doesn't mean you are not a sommelier. Any individual who is passionate about and has significant knowledge about wine, and is overseeing a restaurant's wine program, has the right to refer to themselves as sommelier. It is that passion and advanced knowledge that separates them from wine stewards.

I have met and worked with many excellent sommelier who could not care less about paper validation.

Chuck Hayward wrote:
07.07.10 at 5:20 PM

Tastevins!! Tastevins!! Needs more tastevins!!

I hear the tastevin tasting portion of the MS exam is the most difficult. Brings them to tears.

Jen wrote:
07.08.10 at 6:26 AM

Alder, I completely agree with all of your points...in theory. In reality, however, at least in NYC, I have worked at places in the past where tasting the wine, although veiled as part of the ceremony and service, is actually a chance for the new Sommelier to taste the wines. Staff turns over so often in most restaurants in New York that I imagine this happens quite frequently. Although I admit to being party to this practice when I was on the restaurant side, I really don't think it is fair to the customer who purchased the wine.

In the end I think this ceremony might best be reserved for the top restaurants with serious wine lists. My fine dining experience could certainly benefit from a Sommelier tasting my vintage Bordeaux and realizing it is not up to it's true potential. On the other hand, if I am at the corner bistro, I might take issue with the Somm taking a hit off my Beaujolais.

PurpleTeeth wrote:
07.08.10 at 7:47 AM

Ive never seen a job description for a Sommelier listed out like this before. Its nice to have it as a guidline or points to remember when enjoying a nice dinner and bottle of wine. I imagine they take a beating just as everyone in the service industry does tho...

John wrote:
07.08.10 at 8:23 AM

to Sommelier David Foran: How I would love to dine in your restaurant. Your respect for diners is very appreciated. You sound like a true professional.
I would like to add that wine is a continuing education and when a wine is flawed some of us would also like to taste it so we can identify the flaw later. So don't be afraid to present the off wine to your customer and share your knowledge with us. (I'm sure you can tell who those customers are by the way).

Thomas Burke wrote:
07.08.10 at 9:16 AM

Alder,
I think Eric's article and your insights have been helpful in illuminating some of the challenges for guests AND ALSO for sommeliers. Pretensions exist on both sides; the sommeliers (hopefully less and less so), as well as the guests. I will, however, choose a side on the issue of sommeliers tasting the wine unbidden. As a Master Sommelier I feel I am qualified to determine whether the wine I have chosen is sound or not and cannot help but feel a bit miffed when someone is tasting the wine for me. Yes, I did pay for it! Now I will accept that I may be in the minority of educated guests in the world, but there are enough people out there with the ability to perceive cork taint, oxidation, what have you that I feel it justifies sommeliers taking the ten seconds to ask the guest if they would like them to taste the wine to insure it is sound. Fair enough?
Regarding the issue of sommelier certification, I agree with Wineguy999 that certification is not de rigueur for a working sommelier. I, like you, know many incredible sommeliers without any paper to distingush them as such. BUT, as a Master Sommelier and examiner for the Court of Master Sommeliers my sense is that you may not completely understand our different levels of certification. We don't toss the term "certified" around loosely and it is a title bestowed on a sommelier achieving only the second of four qualification levels within our organization. Whether you agree with it or not, in today's world where positions for sommeliers are growing rapidly, more employers are looking for applicants with some quantifiable qualifications and the Court of Master Sommeliers certifications are highly respected within the industry. While a certification from any of the numerous organizations out there may gain potential candidates an interview, any employer worth his/her salt will look beyond the certification and see if the applicant has the depth of knowledge, social skills and work ethic to do the job.

Joanna Breslin wrote:
07.08.10 at 11:10 AM

When I read Eric's article, I was puzzled by the sommelier having tasted the wine, not only unbidden, but without the knowledge of the guest. That would require opening the bottle away from the table, which is unacceptable unless permission has been given - if the wine is to be decanted, perhaps, or has a hard wax capsule that is messy to remove.

There are two separate issues here. One is about the act itself - is the sommelier stealing wine, or demeaning the guest? More important is the element of presumption or lack of it. This is the "social skills" category that Thomas mentions, and this is the key to whether or not any of this becomes a "problem". Asking permission is easy enough, might prompt the request for an explanation, and certainly would set the tone for a positive interaction between the sommelier and the guest.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
07.08.10 at 11:16 AM

Joanna,

Thanks for the comments. It is somewhat common in my experience when I bring a bottle of wine to a fine dining restaurant that it be opened away from the table and then presented to me at the table.

Alder

Wineguy999 wrote:
07.08.10 at 12:25 PM

To Thomas: I had to chuckle as I read your defense of the Court. I actually had a great deal more respect for it before reading "...120 new Sommeliers were welcomed today..." in a release by the Court about an entry level class held at a Disney World restaurant. Perhaps the standards have been raised since then but it has been irksome for me, with 25+ industry years now, hearing these kids passing themselves off as sommeliers when they are still barely qualified as stewards.
I agree with many of your points, and I cop to being a dyed-in-the-wool cynic.
Diner: "What score did this wine receive?"
Sommelier: "95 points."
Diner: "From whom?"
Sommelier: "Me. Just now."

07.08.10 at 12:34 PM

This has to be one of the best and most honest quotes of all time: "...[Sommeliers] have to deal with the assholes of the wine world who view a conversation with a sommelier as an opportunity to demonstrate their hubris and wine knowledge like a rooster strutting before a cockfight."

I'm a sommelier and wine educator in Atlanta, and even in the kinder, gentler South I sometimes have people quizzing me on wine basics... Yes, I am familiar with Pinot Noir from Oregon and Washington Merlot, I continuously repeat. If these people weren't in the minority I'd go work for the Post Office to get some relief.

I love your post and I think the culture of DIY doesn't apply to wine. You're not in Home Depot, you're in high class restaurant -- enjoy it and stop looking in your proverbial toolbelt for a hammer. Have we become so independent that we no longer want the luxury of having someone else pamper us a bit when it comes to wine? If the sommelier isn't a stuck up schmuck, then I would love for her to taste the wine and pour it for me (I pour for many people and those who don't enjoy it baffle me. You may recall that the kings and queens of centuries passed used to have tasters who would sip out of their cups and taste off their plates to ensure they weren't being poisoned. Having a somm taste your wine is the modern day version of that!).

All that said, I do agree with Jen's point. Not all restaurants should have a sommelier -- we go to different restaurants for different reasons. Restaurants should choose the level of service appropriate to their pricing and clientele. Sometimes it's really awkward to have someone hovering over your wine...dining in a cramped NY restaurant is one of those times.

Finally, the Court of Master Sommeliers does state that you should ask the customer before tasting the wine, rather than just taking the liberty. So although my answer would always be yes, I do agree a choice should be provided and if it's not perhaps the CMS should get together a censure board to follow up with punishment rendered as a rap with a crumber (I kid).

Two main problems here -- first, guests are not always willing to be pampered and sommeliers are not always willing to be normal and make people feel comfortable. Should we just call the whole thing off and have wine at McDonald's?

Thanks for the insightful piece.
Elizabeth Schneider

Roopal wrote:
07.08.10 at 12:54 PM

I think you article is well written and definitely needed to be said. Let the knowledgeable ones guide the path....all we have to do to "enjoy" the wine once all of the decisions have been made! Cheers!

Marvin List wrote:
07.08.10 at 2:24 PM

Alder,

I have no doubt you and your fellow sommeliers have to deal with a fair share of assholes in your line of work. Unfortunately there are a lot of them out there and it goes with your territory. Dealing with them should be part of your education. Get over it!!
On the other hand I can assure you I'm not alone when associating this term with a bad sommelier experience.

Yes, a lot of bad manners and poor etiquette out there but lets leave that to to Ms. Post. As Phil notes, be careful you don't prioritize education over guest comfort. I always assume I can learn something from a sommelier (with the right attitude) but if I want you to taste my wine, I'll ask you.

07.08.10 at 7:00 PM

The training for a sommelier is extremely intense. Doesn't it take years of study and apprenticeship? Any discipline that requires that much education and preparation should be respected.

-Rob

07.08.10 at 7:01 PM

The training for a sommelier is extremely intense. Doesn't it take years of study and apprenticeship? Any discipline that requires that much education and preparation should be respected.

-Rob

Thomas Burke wrote:
07.08.10 at 8:49 PM

Wineguy999: Joke. Love it.

Hande wrote:
07.09.10 at 1:30 AM

obviously all the commenters here are highly interested in wine and knowledgable, so I do understand the statements from *you* that you want to taste your wine yourself, thank you, you are capable of it. I feel the same way when I go to a restaurant (and very often catch a taint or cork that the sommelier opening and serving the bottle didn't!). BUT: I am also in wine education - I have had thousands of wine drinkers, 95% of them just "normal" ones, who go to a restaurant and want to drink wine but don't read wine blogs or other wine publications. In many cases I did have the chance to serve them, knowingly, a flawed wine which I don't alert them to from the beginning. Not a single wine drinker has been able to point out that something was wrong with the wine. Not a single one out of hundreds. But when asked to evaluate the wine, they will very often (but not always!) say they don't like it. That is the worst thing that can happen to a wine and its producer, don't you agree?
As a side note, I did hear on more than one occasion from guests who were served the flawed wine, that "this is the kind of wine I like". Now, if the above is not alarming, this sure is!

1WineDude wrote:
07.10.10 at 5:35 AM

Like all quotes, mine was taken slightly out of context. I don't mind the practice, but what's not gonna fly with many patrons, I think, is if they see the Somm. taking a swig without any prior warning or consent - like it or not, some people won't take kindly to it and probably don't know enough about a somm's job to err on the side of the positives.

Carlos ( Sommelier) wrote:
07.11.10 at 10:30 PM

Hi Alder, you make some interesting points but as a sommelier I would never think of tasting a customer's wine unless asked to do so. I always sniff first but let the customer decide. I can usually catch something off by sniffing, but even then I let the customer taste. If they don't like it they'll let me know and I'll replace it no questions asked. Sometimes, after the first taste they may ask me to confirm that the wine is ok. This means they may have found a fault or just don't understand what they are getting. This is what I'm waiting for and feel that is when I should give an opinion.
Everyone has a different palate and ability to taste. I may think the wine is off a bit, they may love it. They make the final decision.
If they bring their own wine then I would never comment unless asked. The customer may have two more cases of this wine at home and I wouldn't want to suggest that maybe they might all be off.
For a large party, if I sniff something that is obviously off then I just replace it without mentioning it. Wouldn't want to pour off-wine into glasses that already have sound wine in them and wouldn't want to interrupt the customer.No need to bring up negative stuff either.

Matt wrote:
07.12.10 at 3:16 PM

Great article! Can't understand why anyone wouldn't want to share their wine, especially with someone who loves wines. Like most people, I value and appreciate the kinship of the Sommelier and often learn something.

Pamela wrote:
07.12.10 at 8:12 PM

Amen, Alder. It’s quite a quandary to me why folks have an issue with a somm sampling a wine. In the 90’s I used to run into many flawed bottlings with certain producers and one etiquette I think is necessary is to ask the guest if they mind the somm sampling, especially if the wine had an off color or odor. I haven’t had a guest refuse and it’s not like I’m asking to pour myself an 6 oz. pour. As David F. mentions above, somms are truly looking out for their guests best interests.

...and shame on those restaurants who use customers’ purchases as a chance for the new Sommelier to taste wines on the list. There are many ways for new somms to get educated through wine reps/distributor tastings. Besides, reputable restaurants hold educational tastings and promo it of their P&L.

Don wrote:
07.14.10 at 10:10 AM

"The training for a sommelier is extremely intense. Doesn't it take years of study and apprenticeship? Any discipline that requires that much education and preparation should be respected."

Not anymore. If you have $5k and 3 months, you to can be a certified sommelier. After 20 years in the restaurant industry, I can tell you it just isn't like that anymore. Sadly this is for me a sore point, the fact that you have a self-professed .com'er(or welder, or homemaker, etc...) who was tired of the biz, decided to take up a wine class and 3 months later viola, "I am a Sommelier", same sommelier, will provide back-handed service, serve the men first before ladies, serve the host first before the guests, leave rivulets of wine running down the bottle, ignore a request to please bring the temp of a red or white to an appropriate temp, forget to open the wine ahead of a course for proper breathing, provide incorrect glassware, forget to re-fill glasses, the list goes on and on...But, they sure have time to taste the wine, and wax poetically about how much they know and how they just got their brand new shiny certification.
There used to be a rule that you had to be a working steward, or have at LEAST 3 years of on the floor industry experience before you could even be considered for Sommelier classes. This is not the case any longer, and it shows in the complete lack of understanding of proper etiquette and the finer points to service that give the Sommelier credit. Perhaps this, coupled with the fact that for the most part wine these days is meant to be consumed fairly early in its life span, smelling the cork is "almost" the only thing you need to do with it. No, that doesn't account for older bottles that deserve more attention, and if the sommelier has any communication skills, a candid conversation of what is going to take place prior to opening the bottle so the customer understands the situation of the older bottle and the precautions needed to ensure it deserves before serving should be had. I am a fan of prior tasting depending on the situation, and the competency of the Sommelier, but for "me", and my opinion while I am dining...it has to be a case by case decision, no one rule can apply.

Joanna Breslin wrote:
07.14.10 at 11:08 AM

Re: sommelier training and certification -

First of all, the word "sommelier" in itself may be adopted by anyone who wishes to call him/herself one. It is not like "MD", or indeed, "MS", for which you must be accredited by an actual organization who will bust you if they catch you falsely misrepresenting yourself.

It is true that the training to pass the Master Sommelier or Advanced Sommelier exam through the Court of Master Sommeliers is extremely rigorous.

Terminology is another story.

There used to be only three levels of Court certification. The leap from Intro to Advanced was so radical that the Certified level was devised as a bridge, and perhaps also to keep people from calling themselves sommeliers after passing a multiple-choice questionnaire. There did not used to be classes other than the pre-exam course work for the Intro and Advanced - included in the exam fee and given on the day/days just preceding the exam.

Currently, as I understand it, "Certified Sommelier" or "CS" may be used by those who have passed the second level exam. The third level, Advanced Sommelier, may not be designated by "AS". The Master Sommelier, of course is MS.

(Parenthetically, If It Please The Court, might there be a remedy for this?)

When I was a sommelier on the floor of a restaurant, I was surprised by the confusion about this and by how many people were awe-struck by the simple use of the word.

Tom wrote:
07.15.10 at 7:43 PM

I’m very surprised that no one has acknowledged that the wine in question, mentioned in the first paragraph in the NYTimes article was a Chapoutier Cotes-du-Rhone. While I don’t feel there is any reason to taste a bottle without tactfully asking and having just cause, tasting this basic C-d-R shows that the sommelier is foolish and having this wine on the list in NYC may show a lack of experience considering the abundance of better choices available. This Chapoutier wine is about $8-$10 wholesale. Why would a sommelier need to sample this wine??

Regarding the Court, I took the first exam in 1999 (only three tests back then) and while I found the two day event useful, the exam was an embarrassment. It was the only time in my like that I was the first to finish an exam. I passed on taking any further tests as I didn’t feel like I needed to pay $800 to prove what I already knew.

Since it seems like most Master Somms use there new title to cash in on a corporate job, I find that the majority of sommeliers or acting wine person have modest knowledge, at best and I constantly see mistakes made in service. While there are some excellent people out there, just not enough.

Personally, I enjoyed my time as a hands-on sommelier/wine director. I had very few issues with customers. I had a very honest and easy-going approach. I wasn’t motivated to just building up the check.

Wineguy999 wrote:
07.15.10 at 7:53 PM

@ Tom-

That's hilarious - you caught what I suppose many had missed. But I must correct you - the Belleruche, last I checked, was more like $6-$8 wholesale.

Good catch, and good commentary. A man after my own heart.

LadySomm wrote:
07.22.10 at 2:38 AM

As a Sommelier in an Alain Ducasse restaurant, and having visited numerous wineries around the world, I taste the wine each and every time. I taste it just as much for the winemaker as I do for the customer. The winemaker has put untold hours and labour into the bottle, and I do not want the customer drinking it if it has even the mildest of taints. Often they will not know (why should they, it is not their job), and just think they do not like the wine. And as for you Max, I would never pretend to know everything about your job, so please do not pretend that you can do a better job of selecting a great bottle for the dishes in the restaurant in which I spend 70 hours a week than me. And yes, money is made from wine. Restaurants are businesses. But if you ever try to open one you will realise you are not going to get rich owning it. Cheers!!!

Paul wrote:
07.22.10 at 4:52 AM

I have to admit that I've never seen this practice of the Sommelier tasting the wine prior to the customer before.I guess it might be a bit different in Australia. In my experience bottles are always opened in front of or at least in view of the customer. We probably have a higher prevalence and acceptance of stelvin, and I also suspect that the wines we drink at restaurants are often relatively young so the need is not so great.

bebopluvr wrote:
07.29.10 at 8:29 AM

totally disagree with this article. I know when a wine is off--corked, VA, oxidation, etc. Further, as some have pointed out, there aren't any real standards for the profession.

I've personally never had a sommelier make what I'd consider a helpful suggestion. They don't know me and what I like, so I don't see how they help. An incredibly overrated and pointless service, unless you're clueless about wine.

So, no, I don't want anyone else tasting my wine. Same as not wanting a waiter come by and grab something off my plate.

Jacquie wrote:
08.01.10 at 12:07 AM

You, sir, are the kind of insecure man customer that makes me laugh and gives customers a bad name. Do the dining world a favor and stay at home.

Jeremy CS,CSW wrote:
08.02.10 at 10:43 AM

I am a Certified Sommelier, as well as a Certified Specialist of Wine, but more importantly, a bartender. What about the guest that tastes the wine upon presentation, and says the wine is corked? You bring him a second bottle, and he says the same?? What about the guest that loves every drop of his oxidized "82 Margaux that he brought in to the restaurant? What I've come to realize, working in the service industry, is that sometimes you just have to grit your teeth together and bear it. If you make that guest feel stupid, or less than you, he/ she will never come back to see you, and probably tell all their friends that your establishment should never be visited. On the other hand, if you get a third bottle from the cellar, and he is delighted with it, you've earned his trust and respect, and will have him forever. If you taste that oxidized wine, and lie your ass off in front of his date he is trying to impress, you just got him laid, and he will be your guest forever. In this kind of economy, restaurants cannot afford to lose even the smallest number of potential repeat guests. Make them happy, because even though you lost money on thier first night out, you will profit off of the rest of their lifetime.

InVinoVeritas wrote:
02.17.11 at 12:10 AM

First, to Max who stated that wine is the number one profit margin in restaurants. You have NO idea what you are talking about, and your dead wrong.
Second, to Winethropology. Your comparison is completely inaccurate. You stated, "the sommelier is no more the winemaker than a server is the chef." A chef tastes every dish before it is sent out to make sure everything is seasoned and prepared properly, however he does not grow the vegetables, nor raise the cattle or slaughter it, but he is the last line of defense to assure its quality before it is served to you, just as the Sommelier does not make the wine, however they are the last line of defense to assure that the bottle is not faulted and served to you. Personally, I could care less whether they taste it or I do.
To Wineguy99. I agree and disagree with you. First, you must understand that the first level of the Court of Master Sommeliers is an "Introduction" to the Court. Can anyone with a basic knowledge of wine and $500 get "certified." The answer is "NO." Your completely wrong. To pass the certified level, you must blind two wines, pass a written theory exam, and pass a service portion in which you act out the rolls and actually serve wine and discuss pairings etc. I know many people who have passed this level (myself included, long ago) and I think of these people more as wine educated servers.
Oh yeah, the Court does not authorize anyone to put the CS or AS after your name after passing the Certified or Advance level, that is complete crap.
To pass the Advance level, which in comparison to passing the Certified is like going from kindergarten to college as far as knowledge and tasting ability, you must blind six wines (three white and three red) with the ability to narrow them down to region (not just German riesling but Riesling from the Rheingau in Germany and here is why), grape varietal, and vintage. You must also describe (accurately) the level of alcohol, acidity, and tannins. This is essential to understand to pair with food. Hmmm, now how do you think we gain this ability? Oh yeah, we taste constantly, everyday!
Next, you must pass a written theory exam. Questions like:
What are the declared vintages of Vintage Port in the 1980's?
Where would you find Clos des Ormes?
What is Namazake?
In which commune would you find La Lagune, and what is its classification?
What are the aging requirements for Brunello di Montalcino?
Where is Rogue Valley AVA?
What is the minimum Oeschle level for Trockenbeerenauslese?
Match the following:
a. Auchentoshan 1. Islay
b. Macallans 2. Lowlands
c. Springbank 3. Campbeltown
d. Laphroaig 4. Speyside
What is Malolactic Fermentation?
What is the main grape in the production of Amyntaio?
What are the aging requirements for VS, VSOP, and XO Cognac
Name the three strains of Torrontes.
What is the soil of Coonawarra?
What is the crossing for Pinotage?
Name three Vin de Naturals and where they are from.
What are the aging requirements for LBV Port?

InVinoVeritas wrote:
02.17.11 at 12:11 AM

Lastly, you must complete a rigorous service examination. You must decant an old red wine (utilizing a wine cradle), open champagne properly (it can be dangerous), and open still wine. All of this while answering questions about cocktails, food and wine pairing, vintages (at least the last 20 years), as well as questions pertaining to cordials and spirits.
Name five liqueurs, each from a different base spirit and from a different country.
List five apertifs, disregarding sparkling wine and fortified wine.
You must also be ready to offer producers and vintages for each wine selection you offer.
There is much more, however....

To pass the Master Sommelier exam, intensify the Advance level times ten. The Theory exam is verbal, as if a guest was asking, and you must answer in an appropriate amount of time. They may even prod you for more information. In service you must now blind liqueurs, fortified wines, or spirits as well.

The "Sommeliers" our there that could care less about the "paper validation" are lazy: their comfortable with what they are required to know for where they work. I've heard many of them ask questions like, "why would I need to know anything about Malbec from Argentina? I would never carry it." It is within the ranks of these supposed Sommeliers that you will find the wine snobs.
So, how valid is your Bachelors or Masters degree? Isn't this just "Paper Validation?"

Passing the Advance and Master exams with the Court of Master Sommeliers are proof you know what your doing. You are required to have experience in the business and have worked the floor in order to apply. It takes an average four times to pass the advance, the Master is about the same. You have three times to pass the Master, if you don't, you reset and start testing it again. Oh, you can't just sign up to take the MS exam, you must be invited. In order to get into the Advance exam, you must apply, admittance not guaranteed.

There are unfortunately programs out there that will award you a certificate if you pay them. The one that comes to mind is the International Wine Guild, run by a self proclaimed and self titled Master of Wine Arts. The best part, its not even "Internationally" recognized. Heck, in the business its not even taken seriously.

In the Court, we are taught over and over that it is about the guest. That we must arm ourselves with every bit of possible knowledge, as well as the absolute best customer service skills.

I do agree with the point that the "ceremony" is unnecessary. Do not season my decanter, nor my wine glasses. Present the bottle so I may verify the vintage, open it correctly, pour a taste, once it is done serve it properly, than watch to make sure our glasses do not get too low. If I am ordering an older bottle, please pour and taste a 1/2oz taster. Have you tasted bacterial spoiled wine? I'd much prefer the Sommelier to head that one off.

Wineguy99. You keep restating your extensive years in the industry. It doesn't show, especially with you lack of knowledge in the area of wine nor the role of a Sommelier.

To Don. You speak of how it use to be that you had to work the floor for 3 years before you could take Sommelier classes. What are you talking about. It is only a recent development that there are even classes now available. I am not sure where you get your information, but you are completely inaccurate.

To Tom: you did not want to pay another $800 to prove what you already know. Good thing, back then there was no Certified level. It was Intro, than advance. Actually, I wish you would have attempted it. You would have had a greater appreciation for Sommeliers after getting raked over the coals at the Advance. As you stated, you were motivated to just building up the check. Which shows, you have no idea what it means to actually be a qualified Sommelier.

To bebopluvr: You are full of yourself, and probably, as you stated in your comment, clueless about wine. You state that there are no standards for the profession. Again, just more obvious how ignorant you are.

THE MOST IMPORTANT POINT THAT EVERYONE HERE SEEMS TO BE MISSING, IS THAT AS SOMMELIERS WE ARE HERE TO PROVIDE FOR THE GUEST. WE DO WHAT THEY WANT TO THE BEST OF OUR ABILITIES. If you want to pour your own wine, I'll let you. Finally, I will never taste your wine without asking you.

Wineguy999 wrote:
02.17.11 at 5:38 AM

@InVinoVeritas:

I stand by my comments - as one who has been through level one of the Court's program, I know of which I speak in that regard. And I have stood shoulder to shoulder with friends and associates who have completed the more advanced levels, all the way to MS. I am dead right about all the people who complete the introduction and refer to themselves as "certified" - with the Court's blessing! My knowledge of wine is solid, and my knowledge of the role of sommelier as well. Do you support all of the Court grads working retail who call themselves sommelier? By definition a sommelier is a restaurant employee. Laziness has nothing whatsoever to do with disregarding certification - certification is more for kids who need validation, and those on a money chase - the older professionals don't need to be stroked by a lapel pin. They're working, and have been since the Court was no more than a blip on the radar.

And I have to say this: Your spelling and grammar hint at your lack of professionalism. Until you learn the difference between "your" and "you're", and "their" and "they're", your writing won't be taken seriously at all. Neither will you.

Tom Laret wrote:
01.23.12 at 3:43 PM

To Wineguy999,
Your admitted cynicism is evidently on display for any and all who have read just one of your comments let alone this entire thread.
To correct you, the CMS endorses the title of "Certified Sommelier" only after passing the second exam. After passing the introductory level I class, you are considered a member of the guild not "certified"
Lastly, judging by the time of evening that invinoveritas posted their comments, perhaps they had already enjoyed some good wine that night.
Your other comments deserve no rebuttal.

Wineguy999 wrote:
01.23.12 at 4:11 PM

To Tom Laret,

No correction is applicable here. I wish I knew the issue number so I could prove my statement, but the CMS announced in a sidebar in the Wine Spectator some years back something to the tune of: Disney World now has (106 I believe was the figure) new sommeliers, as all of the servers at (some Mickey Mouse restaurant) have completed the entry level examination. I am neither fabricating nor exaggerating. Perhaps it was the power of the mouse that elicited a blessing.
As for the rest of your post: I don't give in to attempts at a flame war, but a discussion is welcomed.

debt help wrote:
10.28.14 at 6:37 PM

This article will assist the internet people for creating new webpage or
even a weblog from start to end.

Comment on this entry

(will not be published)
(optional -- Google will not follow)
Yes
 

Type the characters you see in the picture above.

Buy My Book!

small_final_covershot_dropshadow.jpg A wine book like no other. Photographs, essays, and wine recommendations. Learn more.

Follow Me On:

Twitter Facebook Pinterest Instagram Delectable Flipboard

Most Recent Entries

Vinography Unboxed: Week of October 19, 2014 Vinography Images: Divine Droplets Bay Area Bordeaux: Tasting Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernets US 2014 Vintage - Early, Fast, Eventful Vinography Images: Big Shadow Come Explore The Essence of Wine with Me in Healdsburg: October 30th, 2014 Vinography Unboxed: Week of October 5, 2014 Another Idiotic California Law Screws Wineries Vinography Images: Vineyard Reflections The Fake Tongue Illusion and Wine Tasting

Favorite Posts From the Archives

Masuizumi Junmai Daiginjo, Toyama Prefecture Wine.Com Gives Retailers (and Consumers) the Finger 1961 Hospices de Beaune Emile Chandesais, Burgundy Wine Over Time The Better Half of My Palate 1999 Királyudvar "Lapis" Tokaji Furmint, Hungary What's Allowed in Your Wine and Winemaking Why Community Tasting Notes Sites Will Fail Appreciating Wine in Context The Soul vs. The Market 1989 Fiorano Botte 48 Semillion,Italy

Archives by Month

 

Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.