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the role of the Sommelier

by Stuart Walton

Stuart writes on issues close to his heart. His views are not necessarily those of wine-pages, but they touch on topics of interest to all wine-lovers. This essay deals with the thorny issue of the Sommelier - godsend, or wit's end? Stuart's impressions of the worth of the Sommelier are confirmed by a few recent experiences...

Stuart's essay has already created plenty of controversy; to read the responses, use the link at the bottom of this page.

The Wine Essay
June 2004

Who can forget the words of that 1960s hit by the inestimable Edwin Starr?

Sommeliers! Huh! What are they good for?  -  Absolutely nothing!

At least, I think it was sommeliers, wasn't it? Anyway, I have had cause to recall the sentiment a little too often for comfort again recently.

When the first general wine guides for the mass market were published in Britain in the sixties, reviews invariably promised that that the book in question would arm us against that predatory martinet of the restaurant world, the snooty wine waiter. A picture was painted of eating out as a kind of Beirut, in which hapless ignoramuses had their dignity shot down by sneering waiters who only wanted to bilk them out of as much ready money as they legally could. I am far too young to remember such a time of course, but as we like to tell ourselves now, 'Thank goodness that's all changed, eh?'

Er, are you sure?

I ate at a tower on the South Bank of London last month - let's call it the Oxo Tower, since that's its name - and encountered that familiar problem of having to order a half of white and a half of red, as one wine was clearly not to going to serve both diners. The only half-reasonably priced half-bottle of red, a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, was sold out (although nobody had bothered to amend the list), and I was directed to hop over the Frog's Leap Zinfandel that was the next option, and on to a Châteauneuf-du-Pape that was a mere £13.50 extra - on a half-bottle, mind.

Our half of Pouilly-Fumé was rancidly corked, as one sniff confirmed. The resident expert poured himself a slug in another glass, and after much twirling and sniffing, declared sotto voce, 'I don't get it', as though one had just told some wilfully abstruse joke.

At another colossally expensive roadside eatery in Berkshire a couple of weeks previously, the sommelier offered me a glass of dessert wine to go with our tarte Tatin (£37 for two). 'We have a nice Sauternes,' he offered, pointing at a Monbazillac. 'That's a Monbazillac,' I countered, and was met with the kind of patiently indulgent smile that says 'To you, sir, they are probably much the same thing'.

What is the point of these people? Surely not just to get you to spend more than you had intended to? How embarrassingly vulgar is that? Are they there to be consulted for advice on what would make a good match for the food you are going to eat, in which case why do they never ask what you have ordered?

Some years ago, a lunch at Bibendum was spoiled by a sommelier who began the proceedings by asking us, 'Can I get you all a drink? Champagne?' and then went on to reject my first choice of California Chardonnay for one that was 'much better', and turned out to be a mere £12 more than the first. (And this when the Conran empire was ripping everybody for 15% service charge.) If the first wine was not worth ordering, then what in crap's name was it doing on the list?

The hope is presumably that you will be too ashamed to say that you don't want to spend that much, so you gulp and accept the surcharge. But when, to the arrogance of presuming to know your budget, is added the technical incompetence of not being able to spot a corked wine even when it has wavy cartoon pong-lines coming off it, we are entitled to reverse the usual restaurant drill. A restaurant with a sommelier will not allow you to request your wine from the waiter who takes the food order, but insists on sending over the guy with the bunch-of-grapes lapel badge. Perhaps we should try waving him away in future and asking to order from a waiter who won't contradict us.

When all is said and drunk, the best sommeliers are those who simply take the wine order without trying to overrule you, but then, one wonders what distinguishes them from any other waiter, other than a fair amount of expensive training.

 

The question raised by the whole pantomime is whether indeed a restaurant needs a sommelier at all. In modern eateries where the wine list is very often a single sheet of carefully chosen bottles, perhaps amounting to two or three dozen in all, there is no particular reason for the general waiting staff not to be familiar enough with them to be able to advise the customer. And while it is by means a universal phenomenon, wine lists that are grouped by grape variety and style, with concise explanatory notes giving you some indication of what to expect, are quite enough for most people.

In the grand hotels, where they may well be selling ancient bottles that need careful decanting, and where one would appreciate knowing whether the 1978 Calon-Ségur is still drinking well, there may well still be a place for the sommelier. But how many customers does that cover? No more than a tiny percentage of all restaurant patrons on any given day. The rest of us can quite happily manage without being pestered by somebody to spend more, which anyway hardly adds up to the dignified profession we are enjoined to see in their role, but makes them instead more like catering's equivalent of the estate agent.

A few years ago, a respected colleague Aileen Hall ordered some business cards from a printing company. On receipt, she discovered that they had rendered her job description 'Wine Writer' as 'Wine Waiter'. They were quickly despatched back for correction. Wine writers themselves may not enjoy the most trustworthy of reputations among the general public, but who would want to be confused with a wine waiter? You'd have to go about in dark glasses and a hijab for weeks.

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original Sommelier frog illustration © Will Bullas


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