I recently read a story by Stephen Yafa on The San Francisco Chronicle website. The story was an interesting interview with four San Francisco-based sommeliers and their opinions on how to order wine in a restaurant. It’s a topic that’s covered all the time – demystifying wine for the average wine lover – and one that can’t be addressed often enough.
The story offered many salient points on etiquette and how to communicate with a sommelier to have a better (and less intimidating) time while ordering a wine in a restaurant. All was well until I hit this paragraph:
“Another poorly hidden secret of sommeliers is that they pay little or no attention to Wine Spectator or Robert M. Parker Jr., or anyone else's wine ratings. The highest of those ratings are usually awarded to massive, stand-alone specimens. Wine, as every sommelier knows, was put on earth by the gods to make sure we clean our plates with glee.”
Normally, when I hear this claim – that at Wine Spectator we only like massive, oak-dominated fruit-bomb wines meant to show well in blind tastings – I simply sigh and go on my way. There is no other wine journal that covers the world the way we do – from Bordeaux to South Africa, we hit every major and emerging region. Cool climate, warm climate. Big wines, little wines. We cover them all and give credit where credit is due (while warning our readers off the poor wines). It has nothing to do with a style preference – if so, how could the wines of Jean-Louis Chave and John Alban both rate so highly? Why do we have both high-scoring Loire Valley Chenin Blancs and California Chardonnays? And so on ...
But stating that this prejudice against high-scoring wines in our magazine is shared by a group of professionals who aim to steer their clients to great wine really caught me. Because I think it might be true.
It’s almost as if there’s a cold war between sommeliers and the press. Sommeliers want to be the experts to their clientele, and ditto for us. But like most conflicts, this is born out of a lack of understanding as to what each side is trying to do.
Isn’t the bottom line the wine itself? We’re telling others about which good wines to put on their table and in their cellar. So is the sommelier. We’re both trying to do the same thing, just from different angles. We do it via scores, reviews and stories. The sommelier does it by pairing the wine with food and providing immediate gratification.
There is only one potential conflict – the sommelier wants and needs to sell what is on the wine list. But that is policed by the fact that sommeliers want to please their customers. A sommelier who pushes the same wine on every diner is likely shooting themselves in the foot quickly – a diner is going to walk away unhappy, sooner or later, and not come back.
Apparently what these sommeliers detest in particular is someone who comes into his or her restaurant blindly asking for a particular wine that got a huge score. But guess what – I'm not a fan of that either. If I review a wine highly and a customer selects it at a restaurant, but it doesn’t happen to go with what they ordered to eat, and thus they wind up having a bad experience, who’s going to look bad? Both myself and the sommelier, not to mention the winemaker’s reputation, which takes a hit too. None of us want that.
Near the end of the article, some of the wines the sommeliers went on to suggest included a Muscadet, an Alsatian Riesling, a Chablis and a small-grower Champagne. I’ve been touting Muscadet and the wines of the Loire for several years now. My colleague Bruce Sanderson has been reviewing wines from a myriad of Alsatian and Champagne producers for years and now also covers Burgundy. Some of the wines the sommeliers suggested were – gasp! – also well rated by us. Go figure.
Not everyone is waging the cold war – a few top sommeliers I respect do read and respect the magazine (and either way it’s their prerogative). Maybe if the sommeliers in Yafa’s piece read our magazine a little more, they’d realize we’re in this together. We want to bring to the public the whole world of wine, and how it relates to food and a great lifestyle. And isn’t that what sommeliers want too? So, how about an olive branch ... ?
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