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.