Vail Wine Ink column: The somm has a pretty cool job
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
2015 Calera Chardonnay Central Coast — While the Gruner was a great call, I still had a yen for a little chardonnay, and I am a complete sucker for the wines of Josh Jensen and Calera. This little fruit-forward, succulent and intensely flavored wine is sourced from some of the Central Coast’s best vineyards. It is fine food wine, but also one that I can sip while watching a sunset. Sweet.
“Can I suggest a glass of our Austrian Gruner Veltliner with that?” said the well-dressed, friendly and very confident young woman as she handed me a wine list. “It is crisp, clean and has just enough acidity to rock that lobster salad.”
I had been thinking about maybe a buttery glass of California chardonnay or perhaps a savory Sancerre to pair with my lobster lunch that day, but the sommelier’s suggestion was intriguing enough to make me change my mind. After all, who would know better than the sommelier herself which wines paired best with her chef’s courses?
Such is the power of the sommelier, a profession that has blown up throughout the past 20 years or so. There was a time when sommeliers, the wine guy or gal in a restaurant, were almost always stodgy and overbearing. They could be found only in the most expensive restaurants, wearing what appeared to be a spittoon around their necks. Actually, that silver-plated device was a “tastevin,” a relic from an older day that was once used for tasting wine in dusty cellars.
Today’s generation of “somms,” as they are now so casually called, are usually the hippest people in the room. Nattily attired, knowledgeable, cheerful and friendly, they are the kind of folks who make you want to order not just a glass but a whole bottle of wine. And that is exactly the point. With mark-ups on wine coming in at sometimes more than two times the wholesale price of a bottle, wine sales are amongst the most profitable part of restaurant sales. Even casual restaurants now have extensive wine lists and smart young somms to help guide customers through them.
How this all came about is kind of chicken and egg. As consumers become more sophisticated about food, they began looking for new and more sophisticated wine experiences and pairings. Simultaneously, chefs, servers and waiters also became more interested in exploring the great wide world of wine. Organizations such as the Court of Master Sommeliers and sommelier contests popped up to provide structure for those who wanted to take the next step.
Then in 2013, San Francisco-based director Jason Wise made a film called “Somm” that followed a group of young men in their quest to become Master Sommeliers. There was a sequel, and the film morphed into a television show and, as we all know, if it’s on TV, it must be significant.
Today, there are more sommeliers than ever on these shores and even entry-level somms have been exposed to more wines from more regions than ever before. Those who have chosen a path of pouring wines and consulting with collectors as their careers and lifestyles are as well-versed in the world of wine as any group who have ever come before.
Of course, there is much more to being a sommelier than simply making a suggestion and serving a bottle of wine. Today’s top somms are the CEOs of their restaurants’ wine programs.
They are responsible for making buying decisions for their cellars and wine lists that result in profits, not losses. They need to work with their chefs to ensure that their buying decisions also work with the food. They must train a staff and conduct regular tastings to make sure everyone knows the wines they are recommending.
A wine program is also about maintaining the wines in good condition, so somms have to be cognizant about the condition and temperature of their cellars or storage areas. And the stemware, the various glasses that are part of any reputable wine program, must be cleaned properly and stocked accordingly.
It ain’t easy being a somm in the 2000s.
But it can be profitable. Estimates as to sommelier salaries vary widely, but if you have the qualifications and the experience, and I might add, the personality, six-figure positions are out there. A salary survey conducted by the Guild of Sommeliers in 2015 indicated that the median income for 1,008 respondents was $60,000 a year but that for those 40 who had passed the top Master Sommelier certification, the rate jumped to $147,000 per year. In fairness, that group is the epitome of the profession and much of their income comes from endeavors other than pouring wine.
Even so, the point is this is a new age for Sommeliers and those of us who love wine are the beneficiaries.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab, Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.