The rise and rise of the somms


This is a version of an article also published by the Financial Times. See also Alder's recent article Is wine ready for its close-up?

I recently spent 10 days in New York and Washington DC launching a book. The event that really impressed OUP’s publicist was not the talk at The Smithsonian, nor the wine tasting on the roof of Eataly at which I signed 225 copies of my new book, but the names on the guest list at an intimate Monday morning gathering of New York’s sommeliers. 

Wine waiters such as Yannick Benjamin of the University Club, Daniel Johnnes of Daniel Boulud’s Dinex group, Pascaline Lepeltier of Rouge Tomate,Juliette Pope of Gramercy Tavern, Jeff Porter of Batali & Bastianich restaurants, Jordan Salcito of the Momofuku group and Aldo Sohm of Le Bernardin are the new stars of New York’s gastronomic firmament. I was told at the somms get-together that nowadays some diners already choose their restaurant on the basis of the sommelier.

And nor is this phenomenon strictly local. Bud Cuchet of London fine-wine brokers Fine + Rare Wines volunteered to me recently that he followed a number of New York somms on Instagram because ‘they’re ahead of the curve’ with their shared images of wine discoveries – sometimes bottles so obscure they are known as unicorn wines.

On Wednesday a new TV series began on NBCUniversal’s Esquire Network. Uncorked is a really grown-up, visually appealing six-part documentary series following six of these exalted creatures in their gruelling quest to qualify as a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers, described in the series publicity as ‘one of the world's most exclusive clubs, where membership can lead to some of the most desirable jobs in the food and wine industry’. (The salaries that Southern, the dominant US wine distributor, offer their eight in-house MSs were mentioned enviously to me several times.)

It seems likely that this TV series, based on an earlier documentary film called SOMM, will only increase public interest in and admiration of those who pour for a living. Could they follow chefs as the new media darlings? (The accomplished female MS in this still from Uncorked is Laura Maniec, proprietor of Corkbuzz restaurant and wine bar in New York and host of a great launch of the new Oxford Companion to Wine to a gathering of prominent wine women around the world last month.)

Daniel Johnnes, arguably best known nowadays for his organisation of Paulées in New York and San Francisco (excuses for wine collectors to pull corks on some of their most prized bottles in like-minded company) is not wholly enthusiastic about the current state of somm-dom.

In 1985 he was one of no more than four people in the whole of New York City who regarded themselves as professional sommeliers (as opposed to the relatively ignorant wine waiters who then proliferated). Today, for example, the seven restaurants in leading restaurateur Danny Meyer’s group employ a total of 39 somms, headed by eight beverage directors, ‘not including many that help with the cellar and are looking to move up’, according to John Ragan, one of two Master Sommeliers in Meyer’s head office, supplemented by two more still working the floor.

It was in New York that I first heard the phrase ‘wine director’, perhaps the liquid equivalent of ‘executive chef’. There is considerable discussion there of the relative merits of working as a sommelier (and therefore, in most establishments, earning quite considerable tips) or joining management as a wine director. According to TV chef Mario Batali, many feel they are likely to earn more on the floor than in an office, although of course a sommelier’s hours can be distinctly antisocial.

With so many highly regarded wine fanatics in one highly-charged city, it is hardly surprising that there is a big after-hours social scene for New York’s somms. But Johnnes complains that ‘some of them care more about what happens after midnight than before’. He is adamant that mugging up on lists of appellations for the MS exam is all very well, ‘but first and foremost you need to know how to be a waiter, how to read a table and deliver what they want’.

His ex-colleague David Gordon, wine director of Drew Nieporent’s Tribeca Grill since 1990, agrees. He told me scornfully of people who apply to him to be a sommelier saying they want to teach rather than serve. Their employers would presumably be even more thrilled by a desire to sell.

Perhaps not surprisingly, wine writers who have been deposed as sole arbiters of wine taste are not overwhelmingly thrilled by the rise and rise of the somm either, and this is only likely to continue as Uncorked gains viewers and more of the somms’ stories are told. It is worth pointing out, incidentally, that a very significant proportion of New York’s sommeliers are glamorous young women, ripe for media coverage.

As a group, they could not be keener on wine and on acquiring wine knowledge, which is great. But there does seem to me to be, perhaps inevitably, a certain herd mentality. With access to more or less the same importers, and attending more or less the same events, they tend to have relatively similar wine lists, opinions and prejudices. I reported back in 2012 in Grüner fights NY faddishness on what seemed to me to be a regrettable bias against the whole of the southern hemisphere, for instance, and it is presumably the mass distaste for Bordeaux among New York’s somms that has inspired leading Bordeaux négociant Duclot, run by Jean Moueix, to convert a SoHo loft into La Vinicole, a setting complete with kitchen and ping-pong table where bordeaux is soft-sold to young somms via tutored tastings.

I witnessed an interesting exchange between Master Sommelier Thomas Burke, recently charged with selling Château Margaux in the US (one of the many good jobs available to those with the letters MS after their name), and Kimberly Prokoshyn, head somm at Rebelle, famous for its (largely French) wine list. Burke expressed his frustration that New Yorkers would happily buy Loire Cabernet Franc, ‘the darling of the somms’ (Rebelle currently has 35 on its wine list) but not red bordeaux, even though the wines can taste so similar. Kimberly, to approving nods from her peers, pointed out that mature Chinon tends to be much better value than mature classified growths from Bordeaux.

As Levi Dalton, an influential ex-sommelier who is now best known for his podcast I’ll Drink To That, puts it, ‘the Bordelais just don’t understand people now want rustic and artisanal, not optical sorters’. Those ‘people’ are the all-important somms.

The reputation of some US sommeliers is such that they have launched their own wine labels.

Greg Harrington – Gramercy, Washington
Raj Parr – Domaine de la Côte and Sandhi, California; Seven Springs, Oregon
Thomas Pastuszak and Jessica Brown – Empire Estate and Terrassen, Finger Lakes
Eric Railsback – Lieu Dit, California
Jordan Salcito – Bellus, various locations
Aldo Sohm – Sohm & Kracher, Austria
Larry Stone – Lingua Franca, Oregon
Bobby Stuckey – Scarpetta, Friuli
Dustin Wilson – Vallin, California

These are some of the current enthusiasms of New York sommeliers.

Natural wines in general
Valle d’Aosta
Alto Piemonte
Finger Lakes
Obscure grape varieties

Still from Uncorked courtesy of Esquire Network.