The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a sommelier, pronounced “some-all-yay,” as “a waiter in a restaurant who has charge of wines and their service.”
The modern sommelier is a far cry from this simplistic definition and from their austere counterparts of old. No longer just wine specialists, their professional obligations can now include restaurant management, customer relations, marketing and more.
The sommelier’s most important responsibility on the restaurant floor is to build a trusting relationship with their guests.
Dan Chapman, sommelier and general manager of California Modern at George’s at the Cove, agrees by expressing a common concern, “How do you know the sommelier) is credible?” He only wants to sell a customer a bottle of wine that they value. While one customer may appreciate the qualities in aged Bordeaux, another may be interested in a simple quaffer. He has thoughtfully created his wine list to allow for these variables.
Once the sommelier knows the customer is interested in wine, “That is when the fun begins!” says Paul Krikorian, sommelier and manager at La Jolla Country Club. As someone who spends his days off tasting and studying wine, he appreciates a lively discussion with his guests. “Be nice to the sommelier,” Krikorian added with a smile, “and you might be surprised.”
Dan Pilkey, formerly of Nine-Ten and now with the newly opened Currant downtown, thrives in his role during this new era of sommeliers. His twenty-something hipster look shatters traditional stereotypes. “Using a sommelier is a choice,” says Pilkey. However, he wants his customers to know that discussing the wine list with him will not only involve wine descriptions and pairing suggestions, but also provide for an opportunity to find a great deal on a bottle as well.
These elite local sommeliers gather in La Jolla each Monday for a private tasting to train their palate and educate their minds, working to reach the ultimate designation in their profession, the Master Sommelier. Only 74 people have earned this lofty title in the United States. It takes years of study to be able to pass the rigorous MS exam.
A typical meeting includes a flight of wines presented “double blind,” meaning they do not have any previous knowledge about what wines are poured. Each sommelier takes turns reciting a complex systematic tasting process that breaks down every aspect of the wines helping them to develop an eerily accurate conclusion about the varietal, year, and even the district of the region where the mystery wine comes from.
These specialists expand their intense tastings well beyond what is in the glass. They also study the growers, regions and producers of each selection.
Taking wine to this extreme allows them to be the paramount wine resource for their restaurants. As they discuss these wines with their guests they are an authority on all aspects of the wine, elevating its meaning and making it more enjoyable.
Wine becomes so much more than a beverage with just a little education on what is being served. Consulting with a modern sommelier can provide a special wine a unique story, and therefore an enhanced gastronomic affair.