Did you know that the term sommelier derives from the French sommier, a word that has been used to describe people and the things they’ve kept over time? Those things have included weapons, animals, food, and wine. The sommelier from hundreds of years ago was essentially a wine servant who did not have the requisite skills to be a chef. Over the years, and particularly in recent years, sommeliers have become celebrated, and often revered, for their seemingly boundless knowledge of growing regions, vintages, and varietals around the world.
Unfortunately, I think not enough people take advantage of the sommelier, and I think one of the most common reasons is intimidation. Okay, so this person can blindly taste a wine and tell you the village it came from and what year the grapes were grown. So? Surely you have a skill that would evoke equal envy from him or her. Foot race anyone?
Another reason is embarrassment that some people feel over not being able to afford the most expensive bottles on the list. You’re sitting with your date in a fancy restaurant, asking the sommelier to point out something special, and he waxes on about the beautiful Domaine Jamet Côte-Rôtie Côte Brune that would perfectly complement the Coq au Vin your date is eyeing. You, however, are eyeing the $350 price tag and wishing you had joined the monastery.
Always remember that the sommelier has an intimate knowledge of the wine list derived from the weeks or months spent putting it together, not to mention the constant upkeep. That knowledge is a tremendous help when you ask for a reasonably-priced recommendation. And don’t be afraid to state your price preference up front. If you want to be a little subtler, point out a selection or two that you know you like (for taste and price), and ask for a recommendation. Any decent sommelier will take the hint and avoid turning your love of Australian Shiraz into a monthly installment plan for a bottle of Penfolds Grange.
I’ve had a couple of recent experiences that validated my belief in the advice I’m giving you today.
- The head sommelier at Bourbon Steak in Washington, DC, Julian Mayor, listened to what Kate and I like and don’t like and settled us into a wonderful 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon by Quixote in Napa Valley’s Stags Leap growing area that was excellent with both the lamb and the filet mignon. After we told him how much we enjoy visiting California’s wine country each year, he printed out the winery’s information, with pictures and directions!
- Adam Pongracic, the sommelier at Olives in Las Vegas’ Bellagio talked with us for a while and recommended the 2007 Paraduxx, a red blend of mostly Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. This pairing was just excellent with the rosemary-infused pizza crust topped with gorgonzola and figs, as well as the roasted chicken.
Oh, and how do you pronounce sommelier? The nuances of French pronunciation get a little mashed up here in the states; I recommend the not-so-difficult So-Mell-Yay.