Matt Straus: On Being a Sommelier

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Matt Straus. Photo: Tom Hood.

Matt Straus is a chef, sommelier, writer, and the owner of Heirloom Cafe, which opened in 2010.

On Being a Sommelier

I did not enjoy watching the film Somm, which was released last year and is about four young men and their breathless pursuit of something called a “master sommelier” accreditation. The film follows them through months of preparations, of studying flash cards about some of the more arcane details of wine production and geography, of a countless number of late nights spent tasting unknown wines in order to refine their abilities to identify what was made when or where or by whom, without having anything to go on but the smell and the taste.

The film seems to invite some quick and ready objections with a shrug, as if to say, for instance, who cares that the story is so unrelentingly male? We should perhaps suspend our disbelief as the quaintly peripheral girlfriends and wives watch the guys cultivate their alpha-dog competitiveness and swing their dicks around; true passion for wine is not something for women. It was hard for me not to squirm through all of the “we can do this!” and the goal-orientation, as though wine is something that with a good push can be climbed like a Himalayan peak.

But there are two rough spots in the film that seem more problematic and that are even more central to widely held, ever-creeping misconceptions about wine. The first was broached by a savvy young New York sommelier named Carson Demmond, who cautioned in an article she wrote for the online journal called Punch that we should hope to remember that to be a sommelier of any level or accreditation is first and foremost to have a particular job.

The word sommelier itself actually has quite a lot less to do with expertise than it does with service and stewardship. Nobody with a wine list in her hands at a restaurant or a wine bar wants to be approached by someone who doesn’t know whites from reds, of course. And of course no meal was ever made worse by someone who simply had good information about one Burgundy vintage or another. But good earnest service and simple good taste are foolproof. If you’re nothing but the smartest guy in the room I think I’ll probably come up with a choice on my own thanks.

The restaurant work and guest service that are given little more than the pass of a toreador’s flag in the film are not exactly the same as a summer walk in a vineyard. The hours are long and frequently last late into the night, and serving the public and trying to make everyone in a dining room happy is a grueling challenge that any seasoned professional will describe colorfully without too much of a prod. And while it should be said that some of the 135 earnest souls who have won their master’s lapel pin in North America continue to arrive four or five nights a week for pre-service meetings and be on hand for late-night conversations about whether to drink Vouvray or Saint-Aubin, a vast number of freshly minted masters seem to view passing the exam exactly as a quick ticket OUT of the restaurant business. Wineries and sales companies that rely heavily on branding and status—eager to have their luxury brand associated with an aura of expertise so rare—are more than happy to expedite their move to the private sector.

Then there is the question that seems to me to dwarf all the others, which regards the amount of time that it takes to reach this vinous summit, to become the wine expert who finally remains to set our olfactory pathways aglow and flutter our taste buds. One need not have an abundance of experience with wine to surmise that there are a few things to know about it, or that many of the impressions worth having are incremental sorts of thoughts and capacities, the subtle kinds of things that someone who is interested in craft understands tend to arrive on their own schedule. Mastery of this sort is a matter of years and years, and comes not by way of a 6- or 12- or even 24-month course of study. Not since the Karate Kid waxed on and off for two hours to find his Zen has anyone entertained the possibility of a connection between youth and so much wisdom.

A young sommelier who is paying attention will commit herself to learning the basics, about regions and appellations and winemakers and varietals and vintages. And one lucky day she will for the first time hold a short glass of Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage, and she will know from smelling it that she’s holding something with explosive flavor. She may have some sense that there is something singular about it. The first taste feels like a tidal wave of ripe complexity—she can hardly catch her breath as she wonders whether those were fine tannins she just swallowed.

What she cannot know, through no fault of her own, is how the 2009 Chave she just tasted compares with the 2008 wine from the same address. Nor can she know how the 2009 compares with the 2012, which is still in barrel in France. Nor does she know anything about how a Chave Hermitage from a comparable vintage made 10 years ago seems today, but wow, she would love to taste the 1999. Nor does she know very much about how Jean-Louis’ wines are stylistically different from the wines his father made for 30 years before Jean-Louis assumed the family mantle, or what broader implications for the wine world could be discerned in a generational handover of the winemaking reins.

And here’s the rub, the great and most wonderfully singular thing about wine: there will be no rushing any of it. Mother Nature allows no shortcuts here, no new technology to help in the quest to ascend faster than everyone else. If you know someone very generous and with a deep cellar, of course you could sit and consider five vintages of Chave at once, but it won’t mean much without more context.

It’s terrific that you’re fixated by 2010 white wines from the Jura; save your money and go to France and talk with winemakers in Arbois about sous voile winemaking and vintage variation in the foothills of the Alps. Eat Raclette until your skin smells like it. You’ll still have to wait five years to taste the next five vintages of the wines. There’s just no getting around it. The dial comes around every 12 months, my friend, not too much faster or slower. This is something about which to feel inspired and humbled.

Tasting wine and talking with people who have been tasting and talking about wine for 10 or 20 or 40 more years than I have, whether they have ever heard of carbonic maceration or not, reminds me of everything about wine and tastes and culture that I don’t know. And that is very likely exactly what it is that puts a kick in my step when I’m really enjoying dinner service. You never know what’s under the cork of that old bottle you just pulled from the cellar, or how it’s going to taste with the pizza. I’ve only tasted nebbiolo from the 1970s twice before. Let’s open it.

So I think I won’t ever be interested in the master’s lapel pin, because I’d rather act the part of the guy who doesn’t know everything, because the old adage about realizing that you know less about wine as you start to know more is true. Because when it comes to wine, it pleases me to say, I have so much to learn.

And it’s not because I haven’t studied my flash cards.