You Call This Service?
By Matt Kramer, columnist
What can we say about sommeliers? Well, for starters, how many of us can even say "sommelier"? (All together now: "som-el-yay.") In the last decade or so, there's been a big hoopla about the rise of the American sommelier. It's the latest symbol of our newfound cultural refinement.
Indeed, we have seen a lot of good old American self-improvement. We've all read the stories about how one or another waiter has studied hard and triumphed by becoming a Master Sommelier. These people have credentials. They wear black. They have gravitas. And increasingly, they're getting full of themselves.
I'll give you an example. Recently, a friend and I went to one of San Francisco's hotsy-totsiest new restaurants, the kind where the name of the restaurant is that of the chef -- a bad sign right there. Both of us were known to the establishment. But -- and this is important -- we paid our own way. We were there for ourselves, not for them.
Anyway, we sat down and started drinking the first wine of the evening, which I had brought. (Bringing one's own wine is a way of life in San Francisco.) Shortly afterward, the sommelier came over to ingratiate herself.
She was affable, but she was so intent on making an impression that I had to interrupt her to point out that our glasses were nearly empty; would she mind refilling them? She hadn't noticed. Finally she departed, only to return shortly after our first course to place her business card next to each of our plates!
This is an egregious example, but it does reveal the ballooning egotism of some of today's sommeliers. They are stars -- or so they think. Even in an era of allocated wines, the best restaurants are considered "showcases," and the gatekeepers -- er, sommeliers -- are wooed accordingly.
In the rush toward professional status, with all the trappings of diplomas and credentials, a growing number of sommeliers appear to be losing sight of just what they're there for -- namely, us.
Now, I like chatting with sommeliers. They are knowledgeable, and the best ones, such as Peter Birmingham of San Francisco's Rose Pistola or Manfred Krankl of Campanile in Los Angeles, know just how to be adventurous without being oppressive or didactic. They create wine lists that are selective and able to be perused in a reasonable amount of time. With price and selection they invite us, à la Star Trek, to explore new worlds and go where we haven't gone before.
But others -- no names, no names! -- are full of themselves. Sacrilegious though it may seem in a publication called Wine Spectator, wine is not the purpose of a meal. It's an enhancement, an additional fillip of flavor and interest. And that, in a nutshell, is what the sommelier is, too.
Are they glorified waiters? That's too derisive. Let's say they are waiters with specialized knowledge. They have administrative and purchasing responsibilities that extend beyond the typical duties of wait staff, but that's not our business. On the restaurant floor they exist for us, pure and simple. Can you imagine your waiter giving you his or her business card? I don't think so.
In the rush to enshrine wine -- and let's be honest, to justify grotesque restaurant markups -- we're seeing sommeliers assume a priestly role. Wine lists have become longer and less patron-friendly. Sommeliers have become creatures apart from the wait staff.
Are there exceptions to this oppressive "professionalism"? Sure there are. Plenty, in fact. But make no mistake: The trend of sommelier self-importance is growing. Even the most affable, modest, self-effacing sommeliers must find themselves under subtle psychological pressure to comport themselves "importantly." After all, they're courted by wineries and distributors; reported about in newspapers and magazines; and customers deal with them more familiarly than with someone who's only bringing you your food.
Presumably, over time, wine in restaurants will become less of an arcane sport. Sommeliers, for their part, will also
normalize. They'll be part of the overall professionalism of a restaurant, not a separate, self-aggrandizing franchise.
Right now, though, you'd think some of them were planning on going public -- or opening restaurants in their names.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. (And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)