Monday, January 13, 2014

Somm - Doing for Wine Professionals as Sideways did for Pinot Noir

The word sommelier has been in the English lexicon since at least the early part of the twentieth century, if not prior to that, but the evolution of sommelier into ‘somm’ is a relatively recent development. The sommelier is the stodgy unpronounceable sibling to the hipper, and more relatable, monosyllabic somm. The somm as a figure has been made more prevalent and known outside of the wine wine industry by the recent documentary of the same title.
  As little as two years ago if I told someone I was in the business of wine they would most frequently say either one of two things, “That must be so much fun, you get to drink for work,” or, “oh, are you a summolyear?” And of course the response would either be, “It’s a job that has its perks,” because we don’t get to drink all day and it’s not always that fun, or “No, but I am an enthusiast.” Now I find that while pouring for casual public in-store tastings on a weekend afternoon, I think I’ve had at least one customer a week ask if I’ve seen Somm and whether or not I’m certified as one.
    This of course begs the question about the somm’s status as knowledge wielder and authority within the wine industry. Why does the somm have the popular backing as knowledge repository in the industry? One easy answer is that it offers quantifiability for the public and for those involved in an industry that is often a territorial pissing contest full of one-upsmanship. A small pin, received upon passing each level of testing, with what appears to be the disembodied head of Bacchus immediately allows those in the know to look around a room and rank their contemporaries. Take that with the sometimes mythic ability of blind tasting and you have a very sexy image; encyclopedic knowledge paired with comic book style super senses. So far no one has come up with a pin for someone who has travelled, worked, and tasted in all of the major wine regions in France or a pin for someone who has built a business and customer base on fine wine through thirty plus years of hard work. Despite the important role that passionate retailers and importers play in the wine world, it is often the somm that’s elevated in the newspapers and magazines.
It would seem up until this point that I don’t have a very high opinion of sommeliers, but that is simply not the case. I actually have great respect for sommeliers that take great amounts of personal time to increase knowledge about wine, cultivate a passionate wine list in concord with whomever is crafting the food menu, and make customers feel comfortable and well served. However, there are countless of knowledgeable retailers and importers that work long hard hours to do the same thing: provide for their customers.
It is also worth noting that for as many pompous somms that are out there who, instead of really listening to their customer, would rather give a litany of fruits, vegetables, and flowers that you should be perceiving there are at least twice as many know-nothing retailers who would rather compete in a nuclear arms race for the lowest price on Kendall-Jackson and Yellowtail just to collect a paycheck at the end of the week. These are a low bunch who treat wine as any other commodity, assuming that funny labels, points from wine publications, and rock bottom prices will replace knowledge and good customer service.
 Now why the reference to Sideways at the beginning? When that movie came out merlot sales began to lag and pinot noir sales shot up. Is this because of a fair inherent superiority of one grape over another? That’s probably a bigger debate for another time, but I would still say no. There are many examples of world class and rotgut bottlings of both grapes, but pinot noir had the good fortune of receiving positive press in a movie. Even with positive and negative examples of wine professionals, the recent documentary has continued to add weight to the notion that sommeliers are the leaders of the pack for all your wine needs - whether it’s fully deserving or not.

1 comment: