The Sommelier

Aloha Chuck,

If you have a moment, this is a pretty good read that I feel translates into our current state here in Hawaii.

The last sommelier standing — where are all S.F.’s wine pros?

Here is an article I received from a friend, which I think you might find interesting. Even if it were only partially true, I would still find it quite unsettling.

I believe we should look to applaud & grow the concept of a TRUE sommelier in mid to upper tier restaurants.

In the old days  we had sommeliers here is the islands at top echelon restaurants such as Bagwell’s 2424, Michel’s, Third Floor, Kahala Hilton, Kapalua Bay Hotel & later the Halekulani just to name a few.  Times have really changed since then. Part of the reason is for many restaurants, food, ambiance & service are the top priorities & wine usually is further down the priority list. The upper echelon of operations, therefore, took the labor dollars (inclusive of commissions) & re-allocated them.

In the late 1980’s, the culinary phenomenon, Roy’s Restaurant, created quite a splash here is Hawaii because of the unique, dynamic & ground breaking cooking genius of visionary chef Roy Yamaguchi & a very thought provoking, well selected wine program spearheaded by Managing Partner Randy Caparoso.  They certainly set a new standard with their highly innovative food & wine program, not only locally, but nationally & internationally as well.

Fortunately, since then, we have seen a resurgence of the sommelier position in bigger mainland cities such as New York, Los Angeles & San Francisco.

The article linked above, however, intimates otherwise in San Francisco.

Although quite controversial to say the least, especially after viewing other blogs & comments from sommelier friends on the merit & credibility of his assessments, his article does bring up some pertinant & valid questions.

Here are some of my thoughts on sommelier-ing, for whatever it’s worth.

How many sommeliers, for instance, truly provide expertise rather than just salesmanship?

As an important as a chef is in providing expertise, so is a sommelier (& a mixologist) today, in addition to providing another viable revenue source for the restaurant.

Expertise is the key word .

Let’s first consider the wine list.

I try to always remember that as a wine buyer for our restaurants, my job isn’t to find & select wines that I like. I can do that for my personal home use.  The goal would be to create a list which offers a smartly selected matrix of wines which can appeal to as wide a spectrum of potential buyers as possible…..another words try to have something for everybody.

The foundation would be selecting good, interesting wines.  In this day & age of how important marketing & branding is, the art of a restaurant or retail store selecting “good” wines is getting lost to the concept of large, totally recognizable brands.  I suggest we as an industry should therefore spend more time understanding and sharing the concept of what a “good” wine is.

From there, I would want to make sure I spend my budgeted dollars wisely & smartly.  That for every dollar that I spend the restaurant is getting as much quality as possible.  This is especially important in the value oriented categories, so that one can offer a better balanced list, in terms of price to quality, as opposed to one which is stacked mostly with high priced wines or the hottest, new labels.

Since we have 8 different restaurants in our group, hopefully we can create a list which fits in with the schtick & targeted clientele of each restaurant AND, at the same time we also include & look to grow the number of wine selections which are better suited for our foods.

I also believe a sommelier should really work to be more effective in training the staff and looking to nurture & grow a following of both staff & potential & existing clientele.

There really is an art to nurturing customers into better understanding & appreciating what is good wine, and/or what goes well with the foods they are eating.

Sommelier-ing is therefore a craft, a skill, just like a plumber or carpenter is & therefore this skill should shine on the job site, which in this case in the restaurant floor.

Part of that skill set is the ability to make a connection with the customer, which includes creating a comfort zone/trust with each guest.  This to me is even more important than being an encyclopedia of knowledge.

Sommeliers are, after all, part of a service industry.  How many sommeliers think of themselves as experts on wine & often act more like professors, rather than servers?

Can you imagine a caddy telling Tiger Woods, “no you shouldn’t use the 9 iron”?  Or a butler telling their host, “no you shouldn’t have coffee after 10pm?”  The caddy’s job is to serve Tiger.  He should know when to talk, when not to; when to walk 5 feet behind or right next to him; when to wipe the ball, etc, so that all Tiger really needs to concentrate on is striking the ball with the right swing & tempo.  That takes experience, astute observation & much preparation.

I am hoping those working in a restaurant understand a similar thought.

The wine list then can be as creative as your food menu is. And, therefore, if a server can sell a highly innovative sushi or fish dish, then they (or a sommelier) should have the ability to make some interesting recommendations so that at least some of those who ordered the dish, will try a wine with it & therefore enjoy a more complete dining experience.

How does serving a brand X Chardonnay, which sells like crazy at Costco or Safeway, work equally with a fish dish done with a tomato sauce, teriyaki sauce or a butter sauce?

I suggest & hope we as a professional community here in the Islands, will look to band together & help nurture wine (& food) to more & more people, just for pure enjoyment, not only the latest hottest wine or the most recognizable label, but more along looking to have a glass with the next meal.

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