Issue 30

The Sommelier: Your Tour Guide to the World of Wine

The Sommelier: Your Tour Guide to the World of Wine

As a cliché and a rule, men have an aversion to asking for directions. We are willful creatures, near-malicious in our callous disregard for help when it is clearly and most urgently needed. Signs along the road, yes, these objective beacons we can understand, but the actual offer of help from another human being is anathema, best deterred with scorn and dogged self-determination. At least until we run out
of gas.

And so it is with restaurants and wine. In America, we have emerged as a wine-loving public somewhat differently than our forbearers abroad. Wine’s role here is more uncertain; variously it is a cocktail substitution, a symbol of status, an alternative to beer, and—finally—a companion to food. One can certainly argue that more pleasure may be gained by drinking what one likes, rather than trying a more harmonious pairing of less personal interest. Either one looks at wine as a component of the meal, or approaches it as a separate entity to be enjoyed on its
own merits.

For those on the latter half of the equation, wine scores can easily be accessed by cell phone. With the push of a button, one can readily discover which wine exerted the most power, swagger and influence over a roomful of critics flying through about 20-30 wines an hour. The 90+ score will reflect that you can enjoy your super-extracted red with steamed turbot, and your date will be tremendously impressed that you’ve spent the last five minutes tooling around with your Blackberry.

The rest of us, thankfully, can ask for directions. The directions are not the wine list, which can be small and tightly focused or large and varied. Large lists, especially, can be their own form of censorship. For directions, we need someone who bridges the culture of wine with the culture of food: the sommelier. A good sommelier combines a wealth of knowledge with the ability to intuit and translate what a customer really desires from a bottle of wine or other libation. The sommelier’s role in the restaurant is to make good choices, whether selecting wines for the list in advance or tailoring a range of choices to a particular customer’s preferences at the table. In order to make good choices, we have to think about the food. The perfect balance of food and drink? Well, that’s where the magic happens.

The sommelier’s goal at the table is not simply to select a wine, but to ensure that the entire dining experience is well-rounded and thoroughly enjoyable for everyone. We aim to talk effortlessly about the dishes in our restaurants, and speak passionately about even the most trivial aspects of the wines on our lists. We want to remind our guests of the human element behind every meal, the labor, land and love behind every wine or component of any dish. We want our guests to be relaxed and to remind them, almost subconsciously, of the real connection between food, wine and treasured company. When everything at the table works, when the food and wine speak with one another in subtle, round fashion, when our guests are engrossed in their own enjoyment without interruption, when everything moves at just the right pace, then we have done our job well. We make sure that you never have to send back another glass for last night’s lipstick smears. We pour just the right amount of wine to get you all the way through dinner. We fill in the cracks when your waiter is really, really busy. We make sure your beverage, alcoholic or otherwise, is served at the appropriate temperature. And we decant. Without being asked.

In Omaha, the inclusion of a sommelier at fine-dining restaurants is a newer trend, and still not commonplace. The outdated perception of the snobbish, tastevin-wielding sommelier persists, and as the general knowledge of the wine-drinking public has risen dramatically, wine stewards may seem less relevant. So to shed a little light on exactly what a sommelier can offer, some background on a sommelier’s education is in order.

Clearly, there is a copious amount of drinking, buttressed by an equally copious amount of spitting wine. Sommeliers must learn to effectively taste wines blind—not with a blindfold, but without any foreknowledge of the liquid in the glass. Once proficient, one can deduce the varietal or blend of grapes used to make the wine, the region in which the wine was produced, and the vintage. More fun than Parcheesi, and a really fundamental way of objectively judging wine solely by its merits and faults. Blind tasting forces a wine taster to think about the components of wine, how they interact with one another, and ultimately answer that one most difficult question: is this a good wine?

In order to pass the challenging examinations of the Court of Master Sommeliers, one must have a thorough command of the theory behind wines and spirits. As we recognize and value the relationship between earth and glass, the sommelier must also demonstrate sound knowledge of the wine-and spirit-producing regions of the world. The goal of the Master Sommelier in this respect is to be able to confidently and correctly answer any conceivable question on any liquid served in his or her establishment.

A good sommelier combines the disciplines of tasting and theory into service at the aid of the customer, who can be confident that his or her wishes will be respected regardless of budget or conflicting personal tastes. After all, we represent a profession evolved from medieval poison tasters: a modern customers’ dissatisfaction may sting less viscerally, but it stings nonetheless.

Next time you go out for a great meal and a good bottle of wine, leave your cell phone at home, don’t be intimidated, and ask for directions.

We’re very happy to help.

Matt Stamp

Matt Stamp

Matt Stamp is the Wine Director and General Manager of V. Mertz Restaurant. He holds an Advanced Certificate from the Court of Master Sommeliers, and was named a Rudd Scholar in 2008 by the Guild of Sommeliers. Matt is a Certified Wine Specialist through the Society of Wine Educators, and is in general interested in libations and potables of all kinds.

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