Checking Lists: A Critical Look at Restaurant Wine by Alan Goldfarb (Somms)


Alan Goldfarb was the wine editor at the St. Helena Star, where it is said that assignment must be akin to covering Catholicism in Vatican City. He was also the senior editor for His work has appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, Wine Enthusiast, and Decanter. He’s the contributor of the chapter “Chewing on Chile” in the Travelers’ Tales book Adventures in Wine. He was also the technical editor for California Wine for Dummies.

He’s a restaurant wine consultant and advises wineries on public relations projects. (For his “Checking Lists” column, he will not promote his clients.) You can listen to his latest appearance on iWine Radio. Have a question or a comment? You can email Alan. He’d love to hear from you.

In Sommeliers Do We Trust?

Trust your sommelier. Even if you don’t exactly know what the word sommelier means, or how one becomes a sommelier, the sommelier has become an integral part of big-city restaurants.

The vast majority of sommeliers are young; and I’m always amazed and oftentimes pleasantly surprised by the knowledge and acumen they bring to their jobs. What’s taken these folks a few years to absorb, it took me at least 15—one is never finished learning in the wine world.

Sommeliers go through tough training to earn their credentials and to acquire the gravitas it takes to be in charge of a restaurant’s wine program. For instance, to be able to apply for the first level of Master Sommelier training, one must undergo two days of intense review of the world’s wine-producing regions, elements of wine service, and several tasting exercises. I may know a lot about wine, but there’s no way I could muster that test; even after studying wine for 30 years and writing about it for 25.

That was made clear to me in a conversation with Amy Currens, the wine and beverage director at Larkspur’s Farmtable, which opened this week. She related an anecdote about just how important sommeliers have become. While working at Prospect in SoMa, a group of diners went through the wine list and called Currens over. One of the women said, “We were told that we really should ask for the sommelier, and I’ve been told to trust you.” Naturally pleased with the woman’s proclamation, Currens told her she’d like to take the group on a journey. To which the woman replied, “We want to go anywhere.” And indeed they did, taken there by their trustworthy sommelier over the course of four bottles. Currens says the group came back a week later.

“I like taking people on an adventure, that’s what we live for,” she says. “It’s enlightening for both the guests and the somm… I’m very humbled by this job.”

Having confidence in a somm—as sommeliers like to call each other—is sort of like how we used to put ourselves in a doctor’s hands. Somms are becoming more prevalent in restaurants, no longer being relegated to four-star establishments. But not all sommeliers (SOMM-el-yays) are created equal. For instance, not all sommeliers are certified by one of the several worldwide accrediting agencies, which put candidates through arduous tests.

There are only 129 professionals who hold the title Master Sommelier in North America. Of those, 111 are men and 18 are women. There are 197 professionals worldwide who have earned the title Master Sommelier. Five of the 20 sommeliers who earned the Advanced Sommelier title last month are from the Bay Area, according to the Court of Master Sommeliers, which oversees the testing and credentialing of that title worldwide.

But Kelli White, at St. Helena’s Press restaurant, isn’t a big believer in any kind of official imprimatur, despite carrying the title of co-sommelier.

“I have mixed feelings on certification,” she says. “I’ve worked for some of the best somms in the world, but I don’t know if they were necessarily certified, because so much of this job is based on apprenticing. It’s the new hot thing [somms in so many restaurants], but I don’t think [official sanction] is necessary.”

To look at White’s copious list, certification might only be a formality. Press’ wine program features a notable cellar of older Napa Valley vintages. (Most people bringing their own wine do have the sense to bring in older wines because most wine lists stick to newer releases.) “Offering older vintages is a largely none reproducible experience,” says White.

But offering aged wines—which are an acquired taste—is not what all diners might cotton to. That’s why the somm must read the table, as Currens thought she did one time: “They [her customers] wanted an aged Napa Cab. They told me they liked Bordeaux; and I had one from Napa that emulated Bordeaux. I took them through exactly what the wine was going to be.”

She presented them with a 1998 Dunn. That producer makes wines from hillside grapes on Howell Mountain that are intense when they’re young, but even out as they age, when they show balanced acidity. The ‘98 was not one of Napa’s best vintages, but the Dunn was one of the better bottlings from that vintage.

“They hated it, hated it,” Currens says with a subdued laugh. They told her, “It smells like elephant toes!” And “the gentleman with them said, ‘I thought you said you liked Bordeaux?’ I should have read it better by probing better. I was too trusting.” Ah, trust—it’s a double-edged sword.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Here are a couple of cabernet sauvignons on Press’ list. They were tasted September 9th, 2000. I gave them my highest ratings and noted that they would age well from 25 to 40 years:
1985 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, Oakville: No browning (meaning it’s aging well); evident tannins for long-aging potential ($205).
1995 Robert Mondavi Reserve, Oakville: Cedar, tarry, opulent, young; big tannins for long-term aging. Right now it’s brooding (9/9/00) but when it comes around, and it will, everything’s in place to be a blockbuster. Start drinking in ‘05 and over the next 25 years ($195).

Please feel free to email Alan with your comments and your experiences with restaurant wine. He’d love to hear from you.