It’s time to talk about sommeliers.
Firstly, what is a sommelier?
The almighty Wikipedia describes a sommelier as "a trained and knowledgeable wine professional who specialises in all aspects of wine service and wine and food pairing".
The sommelier is now a pivotal part of any high end restaurant and nowadays many Michelin starred restaurants have at least one, if not a few, sommeliers.
The role of the wine steward has gradually evolved over time, partly because restaurants are now able to stock an increased variety of wines.
Restaurants need educated, well-informed staff who are capable of selling the wines in their menus, so the wine steward went from being someone who was rarely asked to recommend a wine, to taking control of every single drop of wine served to the guests. And not necessarily just wine! Water, coffee, aperitifs and nightcaps now also fall into their remit.
The sommelier has taken gradual steps towards becoming an indispensable role in restaurants and Hotels today. But this didn't happen overnight. I can’t remember seeing or asking for a sommelier in the 90's, even though they have been around since the late 19th - early 20th Century. The role of the sommelier tended to be exclusive but their rise has been recent and fast (possibly aided by the popular TV documentary "Somm"). There are now even superstar sommeliers just as there are superstar DJ's. And there are also some shooting stars.
To me there is a fine line between a professional sommelier who creates an enjoyable dining experience and an arrogant, pedantic sommelier who is more interested in preaching to the guest.
A few years back the sommelier’s suggestions were pretty much decided for you throughout your meal. It felt like a little dictatorship where you were given what the sommelier wanted you to have whether you liked it or not. I remember having a tasting menu with 8 particular dishes, and 4 of these dishes were paired with different types of sherry. There is nothing wrong with sherry itself but what if you detest sherry? Theoretical food and wine pairings are not ideal either because, instead of tasting dishes with different wines beforehand, the sommelier is simply relying on their knowledge and recommendation based on the back label of their favourite wine. It is the sommelier’s job to help put together a great pairing based on the customer’s preferences and based on the food in front of them.
As the sommelier normally develops the wine list, they need to have tasted each wine on their list in order to determine how they will pair with certain dishes.
The art of marrying flavours can be very easily spoilt by as little as one ingredient in your salad or the particular sauce served with your venison. I believe every dish should be tasted and contrasted by both the chef and the sommelier so that they can agree on the best selection of wines. This is when the magic begins and consequently, these have proven to be some of the best pairing meals I’ve tasted.
Some sommeliers have a tendency to be attracted to the most expensive labels on their wine list. It is great to taste a renowned wine, but sometimes the glamour of a certain wine is not what the dish requires. It is up to the sommelier to make the judgement call and choose wines that will pair beautifully with the dish, regardless of its label.
Fortunately, the majority of sommeliers today want to adapt the wine pairing experience so that it not only enhances the food that has been prepared, but also the customer’s experience. This is done by asking the customer specific questions about the kind of wines they enjoy drinking. This requires a very skilled person to understand the needs of each table, whilst fully understanding a huge wine list that covers many different palates. This could potentially mean that the sommelier is dealing with as many wine pairings as there are people eating in the restaurant.
Sommeliers don't have an easy job right now as there are so many eyes on them. If they do well they tend to get very little credit but if they do wrong... well, it could ruin somebody’s meal!
But above all, sommeliers are passionate people who adore their job and are immensely knowledgeable.
Becoming a Master of Wine is one of the hardest exams in the world. Any kind of qualification in this field requires commitment and financial investment.
Next time you are in a restaurant and a sommelier is on duty; do take time to talk to them, even before the meal if possible. I am sure they will advise you and ensure your taste buds get the best experience.