Monday, September 22, 2014

Semi Demi Somm, Part Deux

So after my last post I read a thread which posts the question, "Do you have to work in a restaurant to be a sommelier?"

The answers were all over the place, though in this case they all referred to wine. Many felt the term was strictly restaurant specific. Most seemed to think that the term can refer to anyone who is a wine professional. Some felt that a strong educated interest qualified.

Merriam-Webster is quite specific, "a waiter in a restaurant who is in charge of serving wine: a wine steward." First known use was in 1829. The term derives from the Middle French, "soumelier: official charged with transportation of supplies, from old french, pack animal driver."

Merriam-Webster also asks why the word was referenced. There were 62 responses. Many concerned pronunciation. An equal number wanted to know what the word meant. A good number had children or knew someone who was a sommelier. Most of these were wine sommeliers, most restaurant, a couple were retailers. And most were wine, there were also coffee, water, tea, tomato, fresh raw juice, chocolate and beer sommeliers.

The Court of Master Sommeliers does not help. Though their focus is always on service, they offer their lower two levels of certification to those in the wine trade or to anyone serious enough to pay the money to take the tests. They're not cheap and they're not easy. I know a number of professional 'wine consultants' who have taken the tests and not passed. The Advanced and Master certificates are only open to serious candidates with a minimum of five years in wine service and written recommendations from Master Sommeliers.

Sommelier skills certainly apply to retail wine sales. To work in a large store requires knowledge of all major wine regions, the culture, the food, the wines , the grapes and the producers. Customers expect to find menu consultants, food and wine pairings and wedding and party planning. I've had customers call from Paris, New York, Las Vegas for help making selections from wine lists. One called from his Alaskan cruise ship, he had to put his phone down to take a picture of a calving glacier. On the service side, we are expected to make recommendations on opening and decanting, proper serving temperature and storage.

So, somm or no somm?

I wrote in my previous blog Semi Somm about my sister's reaction to the movie SOMM. She had a similar lengthy reaction to my onesided reporting of her position. She is an ardent believer in greater knowledge about almost everything. She has been to biodynamic farming workshops in Napa, she has been through professional wine education courses. What she's against is elitism and certification for certification's sake. You can read her words in her comments to the previous post.

There is a reaction to the sommsnobbery.Here's a link to a column in the Washington Post which begins with the question, "Are we seeing a backlash against sommeliers?" Yikes!

But the need for educated wine sellers is greater than ever. Wine, like everything else is rapidly fragmenting. Electronic media combined with modern transportation and marketing have made small producers available like never before. But the consequence is that reading a good wine list or walking into an unfamiliar wine shop is more bewildering than ever. And the key to reaping the benefits is a well trained sommelier or wine consultant who is passionate about his or her products.

Or of course you can shop the major brands off a plastic wine list and at a nationally franchised restaurant at your megachain discount grocery store.

You choose.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Semi Somm

Seems like Somm is the new buzz word.

I don't remember much ado about sommeliers until recently. Sommelier was and to some still is, a restaurant term. In the retail world "Wine Geek" was much more common. Whatever rack held white wines that were not Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc or possibly Rieslings held "Geek Whites."

But that's all changed.

Locally the Texas Sommelier Conference TEXSOM in its ten years has grown into a huge event with national attention.

And the documentary SOMM shows what it takes to become a Master Sommelier. And that the world of a somm is an intense geeky place. I mentioned the film to my sister the food critic and she flew off on a twenty minute tirade, the gist of which I gathered was that she didn't like the movie or Somms among other things.

Sort of awkward. It was dinner at my house and I was pouring some pretty nice wines.

I saw the movie with a couple of wine buddies. Colleagues in fact. We had taken and passed the first level of the Court of Sommelier tests together and had received three of the highest scores in our class. But the movie was insider and geeky.I wondered at the time how it would play to an outsider.

In a recent Wine Spectator James Laube wrote a column titled "Dim Somms" in which he railed at Sommeliers who are "misguided know-it-alls who are doing more harm than good." More specifically he is railing against the group 'In Pursuit of Balance" whose mission is "to promote dialogue around the meaning and relevance in California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay."

Well, there you have it. Meaning and Relevance. Is this a graduate seminar?


I am Somm. I have passed first level examinations with both the Court of Master Sommeliers and the Society of Wine Educators. I am an active member of the Dallas Sommelier Society. I attend a Monday Morning Theory Study Group with some young sommeliers intent on pursuing higher certification. Whether higher certification is in my future is uncertain, but I am certainly learning.

I was pondering all these issues as I went to a meeting at 10 pm on a Thursday night in a dark restaurant. We met with David Jeffrey, proprietor and visionary of Colluna Vineyards, a tiny new producer he shared his vision:  MISSION:  To capture the qualities of great Bordeaux--balance, intensity and longevity-- in the context of the Chalk Hill Appellation.
I listened to him talk, I tasted his wine. And everything clicked into place.


Monday, September 1, 2014

Something New: Pairing Craft Beers

Last Saturday was exhausting.

Customers had been doing some serious wine-buying all day then Susan and Travis showed up at the store ready to go out to dinner. I was exhausted and none of our favorite places had any appeal. They all sounded just as tired as I felt. Thoughts were trending Vietnamese when I thought of a place we'd never been.

Mot Hai Ba was started by Jeana Johnson and Colleen O'Hare , the same two women who started Good to Go Tacos which we love. After GTGT had been such a great success, they went on a motorcycle trek through North Vietnam and came back to Dallas and opened a Vietnamese restaurant to great acclaim. Not only did most Dallas reviewers name it one of the top new Dallas restaurants in 2013, the Zagat review put it in their top 25 most significant openings in the country. So we decided to check it out.

It was getting late when we arrived, but a number of tables were still occupied. We were greeted and seated immediately. I scanned the menu, immediately flipped it over and looked for something to drink. All I could see was the beer list. I was too tired to read about cocktails and didn't see any wines. Now I know they have a great looking wine list, all French, how could I have missed that? All I had been doing all day was selling French wine! BUT the beer list was GREAT!

To start, we ordered a Green Papaya Salad and a bottle of Cherry Funk Sour Ale from Prairie Artisan Ales out of Tulsa. What a great beginning! The salad was delicious, light and crisp. The ale was a perfect aperitif. The sour cherry flavor was precise and defined, balanced by the malty funk on the finish and everything was kept light and bright by the acidity and carbonation. Plus there was enough alcohol to do the job, always an important function of the proper aperitif. The salad and the 17 ounce bottle were perfect for 3 people to share.

Next came a second salad, this time a Banana Flower Salad followed by our main dish, a flash-fried whole Branzino and sides of grilled baby bok-choi and vermicelli. The fish was filleted tableside and was delicious. We chose another ale to accompany the fish, Trellis Garden Ale by Odell, out of Colorado, a substantial ale infused with locally grown herbs and spices. The effects of the botanicals was very subtle, but kept the flavors surprisingly light and balanced. At 8.7%, it is a strong ale, but it paired wonderfully with the fish. The 25 oz. bottle let us each have several glasses. We ended the meal by finishing our second salad along with our last glass of ale.

What a great dinner! Delicious food paired with delicious beers, chosen from a wonderfully curated list of beers. Some, especially Asian brands, are beers that would be normally expected. But they also offer a good selection of bottled specialty craft beers, some of which are extremely limited. Mot Hai Ba provides a tremendous opportunity to pair these complex flavors with expertly prepared foods. The larger format bottles are perfect for sharing and several different beers can be served during the meal.

Frankly, wine prices are so jacked up in most restaurants that several large bottles of beer are cheaper than one bottle of wine. I always find it nerve wracking to pay $40-50 for a mediocre bottle of sauvignon blanc, it's one reason we don't go to fine dining restaurants. So it was a great relief to feel free to order anything I wanted and be able to pay for it.

All in all it was a great evening. The restaurant staff was very professional, but also low-key and friendly at the same time. Chef Johnson gave it the personal touch with a nice visit at the end of the meal. She remembered us from the first taco stand. We felt very relaxed and at home at the end of the evening.

Saturday, August 30, 2014


Some days you do get some satisfaction.

A customer came into the store to purchase some of the wines she'd tasted at our 'New Arrivals - French Wine Tasting.' She had several wines already in her basket when I went over to speak with her.

"Which one was the rose with the weird funky salty flavor?" she asked.

A flutter went through my heart, it's beyond a wine guy's wildest dreams (well, maybe not wildest, but out there) to hear a customer speak in those terms.

"Why, did you like it?" I replied.

"Yes, I didn't realize how much I liked it when I tasted it, but I keep thinking about it, I definitely need a couple of bottles."

I launched into my talking point.

"It's right here. 'E Prove Rose by Domaine Maestracci. It's from Corsica, it's just a big lump of granite in the Mediterranean off the coast of Italy. Everything there is swept by the salty sea breezes and the flavors come off the wine skins into the wine. Don't ask the names of the grapes, nobody can pronounce them."
And she bought a few bottles. Satisfaction all around.

A few days later Susan and I went out to dinner at our local BYOB 20 Feet Seafood Joint. They do the best fish and chips, which we both ordered I took a bottle of the Maestracci Rose and it was indeed fabulous with the meal. It received Susans' tre bicchieri award (meaning she drank three glasses of wine)  an award conferred on only the best wines. However, stay away from the malt vinegar, it absolutely ruins the wine!

Very satisfied.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Visiting An Old Friend

One of my oldest wine books is a beat up copy of Frank Schoonmaker's Encylopedia of Wine, the fifth edition, reprinted in 1974. That's when I started getting serious about wine. It was an A-Z compendium of everything one needed to know, from Abbocatto to Zymase with 91 pages of appendices covering everything from breakdown of wine production per appellation to food pairings.

This battered book also houses my tiny label collection. Labels were a pain, especially California bottles. Europeans seemed to use more water based adhesives and were easier to steam off. I only have two California, a Ventana Chenin Blanc, which only brings back a vague sense of unease and disappointment and a 1979 Chalone Chardonnay, which always brings a smile to my face.

1979 was the year our first son was born, but Chalone was our special occasion wine, bought for anniversary and birthday dinners. It always had a great expression of ripe California fruit, but the finish was always long and rich with a wash of mineral keeping the flavors bright. Chalone also always seemed to be just beyond what I wanted to spend. It was always what we took to the cabin we used to rent in Oklahoma's Kiamichi Wilderness. After arriving in the dark we would boil some shrimp and drink a bottle of Chalone.

But that was years ago. The Chalone Wine Group was publicly held, Susan's dad was a stockholder, in Dallas it was only available through Sigel's. In our house it was eventually replaced by lesser expensive brands until I entered the wine business and now the sky is the limit!

AND SO IT WAS that I was invited to a Chalone seminar and tasting a couple of weeks ago. After a discussion of Chalone's history and terroir (it truly is one of the great terroir driven California wines) we tasted three vintages of Chalone, then compared blind to a Premier Cru Chassagne Montrachet. All the wines were terrific. Some felt the 2007 Chalone was getting too old, but I found it round, fat and full of flavor, with its typical mineral driven finish. The younger vintages featured flashier acid profiles, but also came from colder vintages. The Chalone certainly held its own against the Chassagne as both wines tasted true to type, Cali is Cali, Burgundy is Burgundy.

We also tasted Pinot Noir, both from Chalone and from Burgundy. None were as outstanding as the Chardonnays. My old friend has held up well. Chalone is now owned by Diageo, but still seems to retain it's identity. The current winemaker, Robert Cook, is only the fourth winemaker in the modern era of Chalone (that is, since Richard Graff resurrected the property in 1966.) Chalone is still in essence a monopole, as it is the only winery in the Chalone appellation.

However, I find no entry for Chalone in Mr. Schoonmaker's Encyclopedia.

Friday, August 15, 2014

A Dizzying Array of Bins, A Dazzling Array of Wines

Dallas' own DLynn Proctor made his triumphant return to the Dallas Sommelier Society the other night in his guise as the Ambassador from Penfolds, the super-venerable winery from Australia.

Big, jammy Australian shiraz were all the rage a few years ago. Lord knows Sigel's led the charge with a zillion high-end, high-alcohol wines from Dan Philips, Chris Ringland and the Grateful Palate. And then the Australian market collapsed and everyone switched to big, jammy Pinot Noir's from the new California coastal vineyards.

Penfolds was a rock of stable quality through the boom and have maintained through the present  day.What we did learn is that there is absolutely no rhyme or reason to the Bin Numbers. None. Anyone who remarked on the similarity of the 707 to the Boeing jet was absolutely correct. It was named by a former Quantas executive.

However, there is rhyme or reason to the structure of the Ranges and it begins with Max Schubert, who began the dry red wine program after World War II. Schubert learned that some of the greatest pre-war Bordeaux had been Cabernet-Syrah blends, so that was how he made the Grange.

The range is structured like Burgundy. The Grand Cru wines are the very best Grange, 707, RWT, or Bin 169 Cabernet. Bin 407 Cabernet, Bin 389 Cab/Shiraz (baby Grange would be the premier crus and Bin 28 and 128 Shiraz, Bin 9 Cabernet function as the village level. Fruit and barrels are declassified from the top levels down through tiers, keeping style and balance in step throughout the range.

And as you would expect, the top wines were dazzling and the rest were delicious and all were sounds and well-made.

Return from forever

Have I written one of these return posts before?

No doubt.

Will I write one again?

No doubt.

But for now I'm going to see if I can sustain the discipline of posting an entry or two a week. I do enjoy the writing. And I was surprised by some of the older entries I just read. And I hope I can keep the style relaxed and informal enough so that the production of each post becomes a huge research project.

We'll see!