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The Culture of Wine Educators: Life after ‘SOMM’

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Written by Lauren Friel

We are living in a post-“SOMM” world. The 2012 documentary following a curiously all-male, at times unabashedly pretentious troupe of Bordeaux-happy Master Sommelier hopefuls was the first film of its kind with a marketing budget to make its way into the iTunes cues of non-industry folks the world over. Suddenly, the “exclusive and secretive world” (to use some of iTunes’ own marketing jargon) of Master Sommeliers was as wide open as a bottle of  ‘09 Côtes du Rhône. Riding the coattails of our culture’s current Top Chef-driven fervor for the reality behind the restaurants, “SOMM” was a perhaps lesser-known but equally glossy foray into the behind-the-dining room world of culinary highlight reels.

Whether the presence of “SOMM” in people’s living rooms was just a drop in the spittoon, here we are, three years later and with a rapidly evolving wine culture. Sommeliers are ditching suits and pins for aprons and Chuck Taylors, Millenials are drinking more wine than their parents and wine lists around the country are shrinking as beverage directors respond to what everyone seems to agree was the thing keeping old-guard Sommeliers at arms’ length: the term “Sommelier” itself, and all of the hard-to-pronounce inaccessibility that seems to accompany it.

So what does all of this mean for current beverage directors? Is everyone enjoying a break in the dry-cleaning bills? Will all wine programs someday end up on single index cards? More importantly, what about that Sommelier certification? The world might be less secret now, but does that make it less valuable?

For some help answering these questions, I hit up some of Boston’s most well-traveled palates: Liz Vilardi of Belly Wine Bar and The Blue Room, Carl York of the Kirkland Tap & Trotter and Craigie on Main and Todd Lipman of Bistro du Midi. All award-winning beverage directors, all beloved Boston faces in the world of wine. They don’t all hold Sommelier certification, but they all had something to say about it.

“Sadly, I think the first two Court of Master Sommelier tests require equivalent knowledge to that of a captain or server in a good restaurant… A Court ‘Certified Sommelier’ pin does not a Sommelier make,” says York. He emailed me from San Francisco, where he was spending the weekend studying for the Master of Wine program’s Level 1 Diploma exam, which he emphasized was not “focused on hospitality or wine service.  Just education.”  He continued, “I think quality wine professionals are better determined by the quality of wine list and quality of service at a restaurant.”

Lipman holds Level 2 Certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers, but he echoed York’s emphasis on service over certification. “A broad understanding of the world of wine despite the focus of your list, earning the respect of your guests through selfless recommendations, hard work, consistency and high standards are each far more important than having a piece of paper with your name and a gold seal on it.”

And what does a non-paper/pin/certificate-holding beverage director think? “Know your shit,” says Vilardi. “That doesn’t mean you need an MW or a class to tell you that you know what you’re doing.”

But how do current beverage directors let people know that they do indeed know what they’re doing, pin or no? A Chef can cook without a culinary degree (many do), a GM can run the floor without a hospitality degree (many do), but a Sommelier can’t be a certified Sommelier without that piece of paper.  Have guests seen “SOMM?” and do they feel like they need to see that pin, too?

“I despise the word Sommelier. We’ve abandoned French service. We are a new culture, a new generation,” says Vilardi.

How does the new generation at Belly or the Blue Room finesse the request to speak to a Sommelier? “We offer our help and guidance and remind the guest that our servers are enthusiastic and they can help, too.  We do not address ourselves as Sommeliers, and if pressed to identify ourselves we would say Managers – well-informed by the Wine Director. I eventually say I’m the ‘Wine Directory.’ I do use air quotes.  I then take responsibility for the heaven or hell they find themselves in.”

York and Lipman both stress the importance of empowering front-line servers to guide guests in the wine realm. “For better or worse, we do have three ‘Certified Sommeliers’ on staff,” says York. “We don’t run for someone else if a guest asks.  We try to work toward specific questions, and if the server isn’t comfortable they get someone else.”

“Based on the fact my Assistant Sommelier and I are merely two people responsible for every table in the 140-seat restaurant, I have our servers suggest that a ‘member of the Sommelier team’ will be happy to drop by the table,” says Lipman, though he does feel it’s important that guests feel their requests are being handled by someone in charge.  “I do try to follow up with as many tables as possible, even if I had nothing to do with the sale or opening of the wine personally,” he says.  “It’s vital to the success of a restaurant that there is a clear leader for guests and staff alike and to help develop trust and pique general interest for both.”

If the identity of the Sommelier is fluid even within the community of certified Sommeliers and beverage directors, what does it mean to be the guy (or gal, ahem) behind the bottles? The general equation seems pretty straightforward: Love what you do and care about how you do it.

“People arrive to restaurants overwhelmed or intimidated. Be kind, be decisive and then be a good match maker,” says Vilardi.

Lipman follows Vilardi’s thread of kindness. “It’s very important to make wine fun and accessible.  The egocentric Sommelier is never respected.”

For York, it’s simple and obvious. “We provide top level hospitality,” he says. “We write menus. We put boxes away. We respect the artisans, farmers and craftsmen who make the things we sell.  We try to challenge guests and our staff to think or have a new experience or one that exceeds their expectations. That’s about it.”

Pins, Chuck Taylors and egos aside, as our ever-growing curiosity about all things food fuels documentaries, TV series’ and memoirs alike, the world of wine is poised to enjoy the same renaissance of exposure we’ve recently seen in the cocktail and craft beer domains. With growth comes change, but as far as these wine folks are concerned, it seems like that might be a good thing.

About the author

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Lauren Friel

Lauren Friel is a wine writer and educator living in Somerville. You can find her at vindrop.com, or blowing her rent money at the Wine Bottega.