Meeting New York’s super somms

Commanding the status of celebrity chefs and acting as subjects for popular cinema, sommeliers have shaken off their dour image and are instead being viewed as increasingly influential figures in the industry, writes Elin McCoy.


Patrick Capiello of New York’s Pearl and Ash

WHEN WINEMAKER Ted Lemon of Sonoma’s Littorai winery hosted a retrospective tasting of his brilliant Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays at Per Se restaurant last June, most of the guests were sommeliers. They’re the people, Lemon says, who really helped make his winery a success.

How so? In the late 1990s, when Lemon launched his wonderfully elegant wines, the country’s most powerful critics were heaping praise on super-ripe, oaky, alcoholic ones. So he turned to sommeliers seeking wines with the balance and freshness to show off their restaurants’ food. They bought, poured, and the rest is history.

Lemon’s wine-attention-getting strategy was a harbinger of how important sommeliers would be in the 21st century.

About a decade ago, ‘somms’ (as they’re popularly referred to in the US) started morphing into major wine world influencers with the kind of rock star status once reserved for celebrity chefs. They not only wield the power of the purse, but they’re also key arbiters of what’s good and what’s trendy. Would Sherry, the wines of the Jura, or grower Champagne have become so hot in New York without them? I doubt it.

“An important restaurant’s list is a showcase,” says Donna White of Gregory White PR firm. “Somms are often the first to introduce people to a new name or region, and because of social media, their reach is now huge.” Most are active on Twitter and Instagram; customers happy with what they’ve recommended save photos of favourites on their smartphone to refer to later in a retail shop.

Which is why so many producers, importers, and regional wine organisations are wooing sommeliers. Take the Bordelais. “They’re all seeking the next new thing, and in the past five years the younger ones have disdained Bordeaux,’’ says Philippe Newlin, director of the New York office of negociant Duclot/La Vinicole, which opened last year. “We’re trying to show them how great Bordeaux can be and make it cool for their generation.” He invites them to regular tastings of top bottles in Duclot’s light-filled downtown loft and even took a small group to Bordeaux.

Aldo Sohm

Aldo Sohm

Planet Bordeaux, a trade association of Bordeaux and Bordeaux-Supérieur winemakers, just named Michael Madrigale, the high-profile head sommelier at Boulud Sud, Bar Boulud, and Epicerie Boulud, as its US Brand Ambassador (he has more than 10,000 followers on Twitter). Ironically, like many young somms, his personal tastes run more to Burgundy.

When sales of Australian wine dropped some 26% in the US as drinkers soured on the country’s power-packed, alcoholic reds, the North American office of Wine Australia started a program to convince sommeliers that big-bruiser Shiraz wasn’t the only style of wine Australia produced, showing off top boutique bottles from cool climate regions to 600 somms in 10 major US cities. The payoff, says Angela Slade, the organization’s head, has been slow but reasonable growth, with wines at higher price points landing on wine lists. Every night, she adds, they’re educating drinkers in small five-minute sound bites.

Michael Madrigale

Michael Madrigale

In fact, producers are leaping to link their brands to sommeliers in surprising ways. Penfolds has collaborated with GQ magazine to sponsor a #bestdressedsomm contest, with the winner, AJ Ojeda-Pons, wine director at The Lambs Club in New York, revealed at a glitzy ceremony at Penfolds House in the city last month – evidence that this is a glam profession.

The rise of the sommelier began with the explosion of interest in food culture and vino-centric restaurants as the economy boomed in the 21st century. “There’s oceans of wine out there now, so restaurants have to have someone with basic knowledge and expertise,’’ explains Daniel Johnnes, the wine director for the Dinex Group of Daniel Boulud’s restaurants. “Wine is the second most powerful source of a restaurant’s revenue, usually 30 to 40 percent of the total.’’

Not so long ago only a handful of fancy restaurants employed a sommelier, usually a haughty older man in a sober black tuxedo with a silver tastevin hanging from a chain around his neck. In cartoons, he was the ultimate wine snob, looking down his long nose to humiliate some poor wine-challenged customer.

2 Responses to “Meeting New York’s super somms”

  1. Andrea says:

    What? You couldn’t find one female New York Somm? Andrea Immer Robinson? Laura Maniec? Both Master Somms that deserve to be lauded here.

  2. Brian Schlueter says:

    Elin, Check out Celina Pennisi from Argentina, a true super somm, She has a 14 years experience and education in FOUR Categories, Wine, Olive Oil, Honey, and Mead. Mead is a very new beverage exploding on the beverage market
    I only know of one person in the world like this, that’s Celina.

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