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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.

Today’s somms have a different image; at high-end spots they wear suits and ties, at casual ones, jeans, tattoos, biker boots and long hair. They smile, wax enthusiastic about their latest wine discoveries, and there are plenty of women among their ranks, whether in San Francisco, Boston, Austin, or Miami.

The role has changed, too. Johnnes is one of the key figures that helped redefine it. The current US obsession with Burgundy owes much to Johnnes. During his first stint as a sommelier, in 1985, at Montrachet in New York’s Tribeca district, his Burgundy focus on the wine list and lavish wine dinners turned the restaurant into a thriving destination.

AJ Ojeda Pons

He magnified his influence by importing wines, and gained an international reputation with his annual extravaganza La Paulée, which he modelled on Burgundy’s La Paulée de Meursault. He held the first “mini-Paulée’’ in 1992 and the event, which alternates between New York and San Francisco, has become a wine highlight of the year, attended by several dozen producers and the country’s top collectors. As one told me, Johnnes himself is now a brand.

Sommelier competitions put an early spotlight on the job as a profession. San Francisco star Larry Stone gained notoriety when he beat out the French to become the first American to win Best International Sommelier in French wines in Paris, a competition trumpeted in the media. His influence spread as he mentored a new somm generation at restaurants like Charlie Trotter’s and Rubicon, then moved on to create his own wine label, manage Francis Ford Coppola’s winery, and help start Evening Land Vineyards.

Paul Grieco, the goateed Riesling evangelist who revived American interest in the grape, shaped the sommelier-as- hipster image. After working at several New York restaurants in the 1990s, he co- founded Hearth restaurant in 2003 and later the Terroir Wine Bars. His quirky wine lists, part rant, part manifesto, and part erudite educational essays, feature off-the-beaten-path wines that reflect his personal philosophy. A self-described “acid freak,” Grieco inspires the tastes and attitudes of many young somms.

When he announced in 2008 that the only whites he’d pour by the glass during that summer would be Rieslings, he essentially ignited a movement. By 2014, his Summer of Riesling concept had gone nationwide, with several hundred restaurants participating.

As people have become less reliant on critics like Robert Parker, says sommelier Patrick Capiello, co-founder of New York’s Pearl & Ash restaurant, “they transferred some of their trust to sommeliers. That gave us power.’’ French- born Pascaline Lepeltier, the beverage director of New York’s Rouge Tomate, is an influential champion of natural,biodynamic, and organic wines, particularly those from the Loire Valley. Rajat Parr, wine director for Michael Mina Group and one of the founders of In Pursuit of Balance, a group of wineries aiming for lower alcohol and more elegance, ignited a debate when he revealed his policy of not listing wines containing more than 14 percent alcohol in one restaurant.

Rajat Parr
Rajat Parr

But trading classic reference point wines like Bordeaux for the obscure and the trendy has provoked a backlash. In the Aussie press recently, wine critic Huon Hooke charged that too many lists of little-known wines put diners “at the mercy of the sommelier.” Lepeltier sees it differently. “What’s happening now is that regular customers are more curious,” she says. “So they push us to find what’s new and interesting. It’s a soft revolution for the taste and palate.”

Their choices also reflect their restless curiosity. Most U.S. sommeliers tend to be well-educated university grads with an appetite for mastering a subject. That’s prompted many, like Lepeltier, who once planned to be a philosophy professor, to study for a Master Sommelier degree through the Court of Master Sommeliers. The documentary, called SOMM, which follows four candidates struggling to pass the prestigious Master Sommelier exam, was a surprising commercial success last year. The organisation, established in England to improve the standards of drinks knowledge and service, has gone international and helped professionalize the job. Others aren’t so sure. A fascinating article early this year by former sommelier Carson Demmond in the magazine Punch claimed formal academic training will promote the opposite of the relaxed, freestyle wine atmosphere revolutionizing restaurants.

And most eagerly seek out networking opportunities, which encourages the spread of ideas about what wines are trendy and which are not. The danger, of course, is a kind of wine groupthink, overly precious wine lists, and a new kind of snobbery.

Paul Grieco

One place to network is TexSom, a sommelier conference in Dallas, now in its 10th year that draws hundreds of attendees to two days of seminars and tastings. Another is The Guild of Sommeliers, which launched its website in 2009 and has created a cohesive community of 9,000 members. Both give regions and producers a way to reach somms as a group, says Geoff Kruth, the Guild’s COO.

Today’s sommeliers may start by working the restaurant floor, but many are ambitious with a serious entrepreneurial streak, and use their initial job to leverage a bigger career, extending their influence on how people think about wine and what they drink.

Jean Luc Le Du left Restaurant Daniel to open a downtown wine shop; Veritas’s Tim Kopec advises collectors; Paul Roberts, once at The French Laundry, runs cult winery Colgin Cellars; while Aldo Sohm at Le Bernardin, has just opened a no-reservations wine bar, Aldo Sohm Wine Bar, on West 51st Street in New York. He also sells his own glassware line and signature Laguiole corkscrew.

So what’s the future? I predict somms, especially in other countries, will become even more influential and entrepreneurial. The models are out there. Andres Rosberg, president of the sommelier association of Argentina and one of the country’s first professional somms, for example, writes, organizes wine fairs, founded Argentina’s first wine auction house, has won awards for his restaurant lists, and is managing director of a vineyard. There is also huge scope for Chinese somms to influence what people drink, with Beijing-based sommelier Weiley Lu predicting that Sherry will be the next big thing in the People’s Republic.

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