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Too Many Sommeliers, Not Enough Training

High demand for sommeliers leaves diners in the hands of wine enthusiasts, not thoughtful servers.

Source: Zester Daily By Jordan Mackay Monday, 03 January 2011

The rise to prominence of the professional sommelier over the last 10 to 15 years has been a boon to American gastronomy. Sommeliers have made restaurant wine experiences far more dynamic, and today offer a compelling alternative taste in wine to the one peddled by the dominant critics. But there are some potholes in the fast lane that the profession is speeding down.

Wine is serious business. Realizing this, restaurateurs nationwide have been rushing to create and expand wine programs in the last few years. This boom has created many new jobs for people capable of running midsize to large wine programs. But there’s a problem: There aren’t enough such people around. Consequently, inexperienced sommeliers are winding up in jobs that they’re simply not ready for.

One restaurant director I spoke with recently complained: “My sommelier just sold a guy who only wanted Solaia a bottle of nebbiolo from the 1950s. He took the advice, but didn’t like the wine at all, sent it back, we had to absorb the cost and get him the bottle of wine he originally wanted.” That’s a loss for the restaurant on more than a financial level; the sommelier discomfited a valued customer. Young sommeliers tend to be so enraptured with wine that they confuse selling wines to customers with a form of a self-expression. More experienced somms put their own preferences on the back burner and make certain the customer gets what he wants.

I recently was struck by another anecdote: An inexperienced sommelier at a new restaurant was attending to a customer who was known to be the city’s most prominent restaurant critic. The critic asked the sommelier to pair a couple of wines-by-the-glass with his meal and later was astonished and outraged that the sommelier had served the two most expensive glasses of white and red on the list, at $18 and $24 respectively. Of course this showed up in the review. A more experienced sommelier would have presented the guest with a couple of price options. Instead, just as the restaurant was getting going, its wine program got a needless black eye.

In wine circles, such stories abound. Another sommelier, eager to show off, withheld the wine list and just asked the guests to describe the style of wine they wanted; but presenting her choice, she put the guest in the awkward position of having to ask the price. Another young sommelier was so eager about a rare, highly coveted Grand Cru Burgundy that the restaurant had received, that he sold it the night it arrived. The customers, not particularly wine savvy, didn’t fully appreciate the preciousness of the too-young wine. In terms of creating a memorable experience for the diners, he’d essentially wasted the bottle — and the restaurant had gotten only a two-bottle allocation.

These are issues that stem not from a lack of enthusiasm, but a lack of experience. The solution is simple: more time spent as an assistant, learning under the auspices of someone who has spent years on the floor, dealing gracefully with customers of all ilk.

Alas, the number of wizened, experienced wine directors still working on the floor is dwindling. Good sommeliers continuously get sucked up into the ranks of wholesalers, distributors and importers — jobs that provide similar incomes without the long hours and late nights on the restaurant floor. The very vacuum that creates jobs for the fledgling sommeliers also leaves them without proper mentors. Excellent programs such as the Court of Master Sommeliers provide some resources in terms of guidance and mentorship, but can never replace the value of day-to-day, on-the-job training.

Responsible restaurateurs must start to compete with other sectors of the wine industry for top, experienced talent. They need to make wine director positions well-compensated and attractive enough to keep talent in their restaurants for more years. For their part, head somms and wine directors need to devote sufficient time to teaching their charges not just about wine, but about service.

And, diners, for a while, be warned that you may face young somms intent on selling you the wine they like (instead of the one you’re asking for). Or, a young somm who is willfully ignoring cost of the wine. Simply take control of the situation: Describe what you want clearly and insistently and demand to know the prices of the choices suggested. It may not be your job, but you’ll be reminding the next generation of sommeliers of the lessons in service that they must follow to make good on the extreme promise of their profession.