A Consideration of Character

Most professions have their fair share of archetypes, and sommeliers are in no way exempt from this rule. Some of these archetypes might more properly be labeled as phases, but then again some colleagues seem to have gotten permanently stuck in their phase, perpetuating the role of confused novice, wild-eyed apprentice or fanatical devotee throughout their careers.

It is the last type which interests me the most.

Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way suggesting that it is wrong to be passionate about one’s line of work. While we normal gluttons are destined to splash about in icy rains under the surely maternal eyes of Cerberus, a special place in the eighth circle of hell is reserved for sommeliers who have lost their integrity – hawking the most awful slosh at exuberant prices and exhibiting an offensive lack of care and attention for both their guests, their establishments and their profession.

The fanatic devotee on the other hand is quite often both gifted and knowledgeable with a deep insight into the world of wine. These prophets can be found roaming the wine fairs of major cities, gathering into small groups to bicker over the latest allocations, interrogating winemakers on the most minute detail of their vinification and of course barking orders at wine importers like overly excited Wall Street daytraders.

Those of you who know me probably wonder with wry smiles if I truly don’t realize that I’m describing myself. I do actually, but that doesn’t in any way prohibit me from remarking on my own and others aberrant behaviour. For like the sometimes lucid and tragic descriptions of addiction made by the addict the sommelier stands free to comment on her own kind’s incessant and frantic lust for exquisite wine.

Because what makes us fanatical isn’t simply the fact that we love wine. What pushes many of us over the border between ‘quaint’ to ‘questionable’ is instead the tendency to hoard without moderation or afterthought.

The normal law-abiding citizen might be unaware of this, but behind you backs frenzied battles are fought over exclusive bottles of wine, wines that even if we do manage to sequester them for our wine lists will:

  1. Never make the restaurant owners any significant amount of money.
  2. Either bind up capital and storage space for any number of years or be sold and opened within a fortnight, probably a decade or so before it should actually be drunk.
  3. Never be noticed by the vast majority of the restaurants guests.
  4. Probably be made next year as well.

Sometimes this feverish lust gets completely out of hand.  There are the sommeliers who secretly fill their wine cellars up to the point where it’s difficult or even hazardous to retrieve a bottle, not to mention attempt to do an inventory. There are those who refuse to understand why it is a problem for their restaurant that they’ve bound up the equivalent of half a year of sales in wine. There are of course also the sommeliers who throw temper tantrums at their importers for the deadly sin of being overlooked when it comes to an allocation of desirable wines. Last but not least it is not unknown for sommeliers to actually be fired for not heeding their owners orders to stop purchasing expensive wine.

While never actually being fired for overpurchasing I can admit to most of the above crimes. It doesn’t stop there though. The flipside of an evermore feverish and devoted absorbance in wine often brings a decreased regard and attention to the people who will actually end up drinking the stuff.

Many a sommelier has been observed aggressively rattling off advanced technical details at a table of meekly trembling pensioners, or cajoling young couples out on a first date into picking a wine much to expensive and intricate for their wallets and tastes. Neither is it unusual to catch the devotee absentmindedly pausing at a table, eyes starting to wander even before the guest has begun to speak, mind already on the next coveted item to be hunted down for the wine list or what they themselves will be drinking that night, or how they’re going to explain the unceasing rise in inventory value to their managers or what the other venues in town are doing with their Burgundy selections…

Wines are deserving of devotion. They convey much of our gastronomic and cultural heritage and are excellent ways of reconnecting with and understanding our history. In fact – every drop you drink of a good wine should be an interpretation of a specific terroir – a snapshot in time and place if you will.

But when wines are coveted simply for the grandeur and sense of importance they will bring to the wine list and the person behind it then one has truly lost sight of what it means to be a sommelier.

At our best we are curators and cupbearers,  sharing our enthusiasm over our vocation with colleagues, winemakers and guests alike. At our worst we are simple hoarders, so intent on elevating ourselves through our treasure trove of bottles that we forget that wine on its own is simply a liquid, and that it is the joy, appreciation and sense of connection it brings us when imbibed that truly makes it important.

In the end I guess most of us fluctuate between the best and worst versions of ourselves, like some modern day culinary Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I for one have slowly grown to accept that every wine list I manage can’t be the absolute pinnacle of human achievement with regards to selection and size, yet on dark and lonely nights I still dream feverish dreams of being exalted and celebrated for my wisdom, wine-related wit and revolutionary yet discerning approach to cheese pairings. And of about a million bottles that I would love to get my grubby little hands on…

We can’t all be perfect.

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Aiming towards a short yet amusing life.

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